You may have heard the terms “Old World” and “New World” when reading about wine and felt clueless.
First, let’s start with a brief history lesson. Wait, stay with me!
Wine is one of the world’s oldest agricultural products dating back to 5,000 B.C.
Egyptian statues have been found in tombs showing servants holding a wine jar or amphorae. This association of wine and worship to “gods” spread to Greece, Asia and Rome. Subsequent wars, conquests, religion and wealth brought the culture of vines to France, Germany and Spain. Here it was used for trade between merchants for spices and cloth.
Wine’s evolution is long and fascinating but I don’t want to lose you.
The difference between these styles is mainly due to laws and terroir. “What’s that?” you might say. Wikipedia states that terroir’s elements can include: soil, geology, altitude, vineyard management and wine making practices.
The modern European governments have heavily regulated the winemaking process. They have standardized the amount of grapes harvested per acre, chosen the varieties of grapes that can be grown in a particular region, determined how long the wine must age and how it is labeled. Thus, the winemakers' opportunities for innovation are limited.
New World producers like those from the United States, Australia, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, South Africa, etc., are much freer to be creative in their wine making.
Whereas wines from Old World producers are labeled with the name of the region/city/village (otherwise known as an "appellation") from which they originate: i.e. Bordeaux, Chianti, Burgundy, Rioja, Sauternes, Barolo, Champagne, etc. In the “New World”, most wine is identified by the main type of grape from which it is made: Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, etc.
However, I think the primary difference between the two styles is the acid-sugar balance. Here, climate plays the major role. Most northern European wine growing regions have a shorter growing season so they have less time for the grapes to ripen with high sugar content or Brix. Thus, the resulting juice retains higher acid levels. Because each two degrees of Brix equals one percent alcohol, these Old World wines usually have lower alcohol contents. They may require more bottle aging to soften the acids and other chemicals such as tannins, as well as to develop their usually more delicate fruit, mineral or earthy flavors.
In particularly cool years, many wine makers in Europe (where the law allows) will add a touch of sugar to their grape juice. This is called chaptalization or sugaring and it helps to achieve a more balanced product. Many producers are limited to the amount of irrigation and fertilization in their vineyards, forcing the vines to venture deeper into the soil for water and nutrients. These flavors are then transferred into the finished wines. Examples of words more often found on Old World labels would be subtle and complex, with mineral, berry and tar aromas, full-bodied, with firm yet silky tannins
New World wine makers, on the other hand, generally grow their grapes in warmer climates where riper fruits can frequently have an excess of sugar but too little acid resulting in a higer percentage of alcohol. The wine maker may add acid ("acidification") to keep their wines from being flabby and unbalanced. Because the grapes are grown in drier regions, irrigation is more often used and the vines are more shallow rooted and retain a fruitier flavor.
Most descriptions of New World wines focus on this fruit-forward style. You may see labels with words like juicy black cherry, plum, wild berry and cherry, finishing with a spicy edge and firm tannins. These more intense and sometimes sweeter flavors make them more approachable at an earlier age after bottling.
Take these clues and "explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, boldly go where no man has gone before."