People often come into our shop and, after explaining they are looking for a nice bottle, immediately offer up the caveat “But I don’t really know anything about wine!” These are some of my very favorite people to help. The vast and endlessly complex world of wine is as yet unknown to them, yet the possibilities are still endless.
“I just want something I like,” they tell me. Here, here.
This can of course be a tricky thing to determine for someone else, and even for yourself. Where to begin? How to describe and define those elusive elements of enjoyment that you get from a bottle of wine that you like? Palate and structure analysis and even common flavor descriptors may not be helpful in this situation without a baseline reference, but hey, we’ve got to start somewhere.
I often like to begin with one of my favorite elemental distinctions: Old World vs. New World. While this concept is rudimentary for anyone in the industry, its meaning is not self-explanatory. It is a relatively unknown concept to many general consumers, even some that have a decent amount of basic knowledge.
Living in California is both a blessing and a curse; we have a plethora of world class winemakers in our backyard. Yet for many California residents, this is all they know. However, this simple distinction between Old World and New World helps to define in a very broad sense two particular styles of wine.
This is where it becomes exciting - at least for a geek like me. I'll use this distinction to help my customer find a unique and exciting bottle of wine they will enjoy at any price point.
Geographically, the Old World refers to Europe and the Mediterranean basin. The New World refers to everywhere else they make wine. Stylistically, Old World wines tend to have higher acidity, lower relative alcohol, and - most significantly - more minerality and earthy components on the nose and palate.
New World wines tend to have more generous fruit, slightly acidity and generally more alcohol. My straightforward explanation is: stick your nose in the glass. If you smell fruit first it’s probably New World. If you smell dirt or rocks or other funk, it’s probably Old World.
Of course, these days, with so much progress in both the technological and philosophical sectors of wine making, we are starting to see more crossover in these two styles from a geographical standpoint. Yet the styles themselves still maintain their original distinction.
So, what makes Old World wines old world? A lot of it has to do with the climate. European wine-growing regions often have a cooler climate and a slightly shorter growing season. This means grapes grown in these regions will naturally retain more acidity and produce less sugar – which also leads to lower alcohol levels – than grapes grown in warmer regions.
The old world also has history. Grapevines have been cultivated for the purpose of making wine since the Roman era, on the oldest soils of our planet. This ‘terroir’ is something that is unique to the Old World and cannot be replicated or faked. And, of course, with all that history comes an awful lot of regulation. Old world countries have some of the strictest laws out there regarding how a producer can make his or her wine. These laws help to identify and regulate quality and expectations, and also create a huge headache for the consumer who doesn’t know how to interpret them.
Overall, if you like to taste in your wines a bit of tartness, leafy forest floor or wet rock minerality, then Old World wines are probably right up your alley.
Given all that, the New World seems like a pretty big place…and it is! So-named for the fact that all these areas were initially colonized by the Europeans, and thus christened as nouveau. This is also an important fact to consider because the species of vine we make wine from is indigenous to Europe, meaning that these colonizers had to transport the vines to their new outposts in order to continue their vinous enjoyment.
So, New World winemakers got a later start to the game. Specifically in where they chose to plant their vines, discovering the best areas that produce the highest quality grapes, and attempting to use European techniques that maybe didn’t work as well with their new environment.
The New World has indeed evolved into an entrepreneur’s paradise! Free of the traditions of Old World winemaking, producers can explore, experiment and define their own style of wine with their entirely unique geographical situation. Much of the New World tends to have a warmer climate, resulting in naturally riper grapes that yield higher levels of sugar, and therefore higher potential alcohol as well.
One often defining through-line of New World wines is an identifiable purity of, and focus on, fruit. Pure fruit on the nose and pure fruit on the palate. It is a point of pride to many New World winemakers to protect this expression of fruit quality in their wines. New Zealand is an excellent example of a New World country as a whole that often seeks the purest expression possible of their fruit.
There are also a lot of New World wines that experiment in other ways through enhancements available on the market, such as additives, shortcuts and fancy gadgets – options not available in most of those regulated Old World areas. This, combined with the fact that these such “experiments” are usually not required to be disclosed to the consumer, can lead to extreme variation of quality from any given New World region.
However, if you tend to enjoy fruit forward, easy drinking wines that are lush on the palate, then New World is likely your style.
Does that mean one style is better than the other? Absolutely not! When it comes down to the nitty gritty, drinking what makes you happy is the right thing to drink. Yet, it’s always great to branch out and try something new every once in a while. You will likely be surprised. This is an easy assignment for newbies to wine, but an even better challenge for consummate wine professionals stuck in their ways.
If you are a die-hard white Burgundy fan, grab a bottle of Margaret River Chardonnay one night just to test it out. Big, bold Napa Cab drinker all the way? Head over to Rioja and check out a Gran Reserva. Or look around for the grape you have never heard of from the country you didn’t know made wine and have that bottle with dinner tonight. Even ask your local wine shop attendant, they’ll likely be chomping at the bit to offer you several new options.
The world of wine is vast and fabulous; our job is to enjoy as much of it as possible while we can.