New World vs Old World: What’s new in the old wine world?

Many of us have certainly came across the terms ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wines while exploring the world of wine, either by participating in wine tastings, reading that interesting review by our favourite wine critic or eventually from that wine nerd friend who only drinks New World wines.

The truth is that the two terms are not always completely understood and often used in a confusing way even within the wine industry. On top of that, the modernisation of the wine world and the ‘flying winemakers’ movement worldwide led to the production of New World wines by style in Old World countries by tradition and vice versa. If I say that Portugal is an Old World country that can produce New World wines would you be surprised? Probably yes, so let’s break it down.

Geography

The first and most basic distinction between both styles is geographic. The Old World countries are mainly located in Europe and Middle East, which includes Portugal, Spain, France, Greece, Germany, Austria, Italy, Georgia, Iraq or Romania among few others. It is generally believed that that domestication of the Vitis vinifera (grapevine used for winemaking) started in this region and that’s where the winemaking roots go deeper.
On the other hand, there’s a group of countries with a more recent wine history where Vitis vinifera was introduced by the explorers and are referred as New World. In this group we have Australia, New Zealand, United States, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, China or Uruguay. To put it in a simple way, if it is not an Old World it will be a New World territory.

Wine styles and the influence of tradition and winemaking philosophy

The geographic location and characteristics of a certain region (such as weather or soil, well known as terroir) have a direct input on the wines’ styles and this could be differentiated by tasting. As a general rule, not always true, the Old World wines come from cooler climate regions and their profile can be described as lighter-bodied, more tannic and acidic, lower alcohol content, savoury, leaner, rustic and earthier.

In the regions of the Old World the tradition and centuries of history take place and the winegrower and winemaker input is heavily regulated by laws, emphasizing the place from where it comes and limiting the human intervention and creativity. Each region is regulated by standards and systems or ‘protected designation of origin’ to which winemakers and wineries must comply. In Portugal these regulations are under the Denominação de Origem Controlada or DOC (similar to the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – AOC) and start right in the vineyards, establishing permitted varieties, crop yields and vine conduction systems and finishing on the final product, regulating alcohol content or ageing times and methods.

When we jump to a New World region the change in the winemaking philosophy and wine styles can be immediately noticed. The wine is not seem as much as a legacy and culture heritage, but more like a product of science, where technology and modernisation take place and winemaking is opened for experimentation and evolution.

Every step of winemaking tends to be controlled in an extended way and a more analytical approach is taken. The ‘optimum ripeness’ of the fruit is measured to decide the harvest date, the must is inoculated with isolated yeast to offer a predictable wine profile, stainless steel tanks are used and have an integrated temperature control system that allows a precise control of the fermentation temperature within an accuracy of 0.1°C or less, the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Dissolved Oxygen (DO) concentrations are taken as critical during the life time of a wine, the wines are bottled under screw cap instead of cork (the greatness of the screw cap in the wine world will be reviewed in one of my next posts), just to name a few.

Another important characteristic of the New World regions is that they are often located in warmer climates (once again, not always true), which associated with the heavily winemaking input tend to produce riper, bolder, full-bodied, fruit-forward, higher in alcohol, richer, oak-influenced, more polished and cleaner wines.

The influence of oak, brought by prolonged contact with the cask, is normally more prominent in New World style wines.

Labelling

The last big difference between Old and New World wines is the labelling and it all comes down to the tradition and history of the regions mentioned before. The Old World wines are generally labelled only with region, appellation or vineyard and this information is so important that we can deduce grape varieties and eventually the quality of the wine. The classy red Burgundy is a Pinot Noir, the famous Italian Barolo is just a Nebbiolo and if it is a great Portuguese white from Monção e Melgaço we can expect a 100% Alvarinho.

In the New World everything is slightly different once again. Stating the variety and winery in a clear way is the most important thing and almost mandatory. The not so strict regional laws allow the winegrower/winemaker to grow any grape variety anywhere they want to, there’s more chance for experimentation and the consumers in these countries are mainly focused on the variety and less from where it comes.

I started this article stating that ‘Portugal is an Old World country that can produce New World wines’ and if you got this far you probably now understand what I mean. As a Portuguese winemaker working in Australia I feel that the line between Old World and New World is being blurred, the wine world is evolving fast and there’s more crossover between the two worlds than ever in the past. Should we put a savoury and structured Baga from Bairrada in the same bucket as a bold, jammy, strongly American oak-influenced Syrah from Alentejo in the same bucket just because they are both made in Portugal? No. If I ever use these terms to describe a wine it would be purely based on the style.

Author: Joel Santos

Expert in winemaking and wine biotechnology. Winemaker and technical manager at Tim Adams Wines (Clare Valley, Australia). The only Portuguese winemaker selected for the 2nd Ningxia Winemakers Challenge (Ningxia, China), working at Xin Hui Bin winery. Joel has done multiple vintages in several continents and regions. Experience as a wine researcher, focusing on the production of sparkling wine.

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