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?
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” 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.
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 CharacteristicsWhat are the GENERAL characteristic differences between Old and New World wines?
|New World (Everywhere Else)||Why does it matter?|
|Acidity||Higher||Lower||Higher acidity in wine may be best enjoyed with food.|
|Flavor||Less Fruit Forward||More Fruit Forward||More fruit forward makes it easier to drink the wine without food.|
|Alcohol Content||Lower||Higher||Depends 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 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.
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!