Old World vs. New World Wines

Have you ever meandered into a wine shop or wine bar and overheard some wine snoobery about how “I much prefer the complexity of old world wines [blah blah blah]”? [I intended to write “snobbery” but “snoobery” was such a fun typo that I’m sticking with it.] So what does that mean and why does it matter?

Winemaking Location

Old World

The “old world” generally refers to wine made in Europe where the origin of winemaking practices started. This also reaches into the Middle East a bit and northern Africa. So this includes France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Cyprus, Macedonia, amongst the many other winemaking countries. [Here in the U.S., we don’t often see much Middle Eastern or northern African wines. If you do see some, pls let us know!]

New World

“New world” refers to wine made everywhere else. Yes – everywhere else. This includes North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, China (yes! China), etc.

Characteristics

Location differences are pretty simple, but there are some key differences in the wine characteristics between the old and new world wines. This primarily has to do with the acidity of the wine, the general flavor profile, and the alcohol content. To put it simply:

Old World vs. New World Wine Characteristics

What are the GENERAL characteristic differences between Old and New World wines?
 Old World
(Europe)
New World (Everywhere Else)Why does it matter?
AcidityHigherLowerHigher acidity in wine may be best enjoyed with food.
FlavorLess Fruit ForwardMore Fruit ForwardMore fruit forward makes it easier to drink the wine without food.
Alcohol ContentLowerHigherDepends on how you want to feel after a enjoying a few glasses.

These are most certainly vast generalizations! OF COURSE, you can find European wine with high alcohol content. And OF COURSE, you can find California wine with high acidity. But GENERALLY speaking, these are the types of characteristics you’ll find if you sample through a collection of old world and new world wines.

Why Do Old & New World Wines Generally Have Different Characteristics?

This is primarily due to two big differences: climate and winemaking practices.

Climate

Climate differences are a major reason for typical flavors/characteristics in wine. The European climate is generally cooler, cloudier, and rainier than other parts of the world. (Again, a big generalization, but think France).  But that leads to less sun to ripen the grapes. And less ripe grapes mean grapes with less sugar. And less sugar means less alcohol content once fermented and higher acidity.

On the opposite side, a sunnier climate (think California and Australia) will ripen the grapes more, creating more juicy, sugary characteristics. And with all that sugary goodness, once fermented the grapes will have higher alcohol content and lower acidity.

sun-sugar-alcohol

Winemaking Practices

And then there’s that good ol’ human factor. Farmers and winemakers are certainly a major influencer on the way a wine tastes. While they can’t control the weather, they can control irrigation and where the vines are planted. And once the fruit is picked and winemaking begins, they get to decide how much time the juice sits in tanks or barrels or bottles, among many other steps!

Throughout most of the old world, there are very specific legal restrictions around wine making practices. In order to legally sell a bottle of wine labeled from a specific region (think Tuscany), it must use certain types of grapes, be grown in a designated region/location, and follow specific/minimum requirements with regard to winemaking and aging.

Throughout most of the new world, it is more like the wild, wild west. Winemakers get to decide for themselves what grapes to use, where they choose to grow them, and don’t have to follow many specifics with regard to winemaking and aging.

The combination of climate and winemaking practices/law generally leads old world wines to taste like they come from THAT region. There are strong similarities across Tuscan wines or Bordeaux wines or Champagne wines, for example. And in the new world, the styles of wine will reflect the climate of the grape-growing region but also reflect the unique choices of the winemaker.

Go out and pick up a bottle of a California Pinot Noir and a French Pinot Noir and see if you can taste these differences for yourelf!

Thoroughly Wine Know Thursday: Alcohol Content in Wine

We Winos all know the feeling of the perfect wine buzz.  It’s a happy place… it’s usually when we feel a little more relaxed and at ease, the stories are funnier, and “just one more glass” sounds like the perfect amount.  (I’m pretty sure we all know the impact of “just one more glass” as well, but we’ll not worry about that today.)

So why do some wines have a higher alcohol content than others? And does one type of wine consistently have more alcohol content than another?  These are things about which I have wondered, but my lovely Cousin, let’s call her the Fresh Girl, had posed these questions that perhaps W2WK could answer.

Turning to one of my trusty resources, The Wine Bible, the author initiates the discussion regarding alcohol and wine with a fine comment that I thought you’d all enjoy:

“Alcohol is a critical constituent in wine not because of the genial mood it can evoke (although that’s surely part of its charm), but rather because of the complex role it plays in the wine’s ultimate quality.”

Oh the many charms of wine!

In general, a wine has a higher alcohol content when it is made from ripe (or more ripe) grapes than wines made with less ripe grapes.  The riper the grape, the more sugar there is in the grape, resulting in higher alcohol content.

The alcohol content impacts the body and texture of the wine.  Wines with high alcohol are “full, round, and supple; sometimes they can even seem almost thick and chewy”, like red Zinfandels. Whereas wines with low alcohol content are much lighter – like Rieslings. (The Wine Bible) If you were to compare two wines side by side, the wine with the higher alcohol content will likely be considered the better one.  But this is mostly due to the fact that the grapes used to make the wine were more mature (which means riper, and more sugar, and therefore more alcohol).

The amount of alcohol in wine also impacts is flavor and aroma.  The flavor of alcohol is somewhat sweet, which allows a wine to also have a high level of acidity but still maintain a balance in the taste.  Higher alcohol content wines will be able to handle higher acidity levels because the increased sweetness (due to the higher alcohol) will balance the acidity.  (And acidity is a topic of a future post on Thoroughly Wine Know Thursday).  Generally, if the alcohol and acidity don’t maintain a good balance, it’s the same satisfaction of a cup of weak coffee. And no one wants a weak cup of coffee.

The following are ranges/averages of alcohol content in various wines as provided on alcohol content.com.

Type of Wine, % Alcohol by Volume

Sparkling Grape Juice, < 0.1%

Wine Coolers, 4–7%

Table Wine, 8-14%

Shiraz, 10-14%

Rose, 10.5%

White, 10.7%

White, 11.0%

Red, medium, 11.5

Sparkling White, 12.0%

White, 12.4%

Cabernet, Pinot Noir, 11–14%

Dessert Wine, 14-20%

Zinfandels, 17-22%

Vermouth, 17-22%

Syrahs, 17-23%

Port Wine, 20%

Hopefully you now have a little more Wine Know about why certain wines have a higher alcohol content than other wines.  Any more specific questions out there that I could research for you!?

(Sources: The source for all Wine Know in this post is The Wine Bible, unless otherwise stated!)