The difference between wines grown in Europe and the rest of the world
After my article last week about syrahs from northern Rhone, I had a friend ask me a question that I’ve fielded numerous times about that region and many, many others: “If Syrah and Shiraz are the same,” he asked, “why don’t they taste the same?”
It is the question that has haunted sommeliers since the 1970s: Old World vs. New World. No phrase is as bandied about as those five words in the world of wine. Is it really a “vs.” situation? Is one better than the other? And what is the difference—if there is, indeed, a difference at all?
The concept of Old World/New World didn’t really exist in the early 1970s. Respectable wine came from France, straw-bottle chianti came from Italy and Gallo came from California. Then the revolution happened. Innovators like Robert Mondavi and landmark events like the Paris Tasting of 1976 changed the landscape forever.
The new world of wine emerged, and for the next several decades, wines began to fall squarely into two camps: Old World and New World.
The first thing that distinguishes whether a wine is Old World or New World is where it is made. Areas of the world that have been important in winemaking for hundreds of years tend to fall into the Old World category—Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and the Loire Valley regions of France; the Piemonte, Tre Venezie and several other smaller regional spots of Italy; Germany; much of Spain; and Portugal are all considered Old World. The United States, Australia, South America, New Zealand and South Africa are considered New World.
There are confusing areas, however, like the Languedoc-Roussillon area of southern France and the Rioja area of Spain, which make wines that can be considered, taste-wise, both Old and New World.
Which brings us to the second category that distinguishes the two types of wine: taste. Generally speaking, New World wines are what wine snobs call “fruit forward.” What that really means is that when you take a sip of one of these wines, the first thing you taste is bold fruit flavor. Old World wines may have a fruitiness to them, but it may not be the main event, so to speak. There are many other earthier, spice-driven, herbal flavors that are hallmarks of the Old World-style wines.
Also, while New World wines are simpler, easier to drink on their own and, by some accounts, more immediately accessible, Old World wines are more complex and are oftentimes better to pair with food.
Another very important part of what differentiates Old World wines from New World wines are climate and soil. Old World areas tend to have soils that are less fertile and are sometimes downright rocky. This may sound terrible for growing grapes, but the struggle the grapes go through to grow in these areas produces a lower yield and, therefore, more intense grapes with a stronger flavor. Very often, these regions also have cooler climates, which also prolongs the growing season, adding to the complexity.
In many New World areas, the soil is fertile and the climate is warmer. This produces a higher yield of grapes that ripen quicker, making a wine that is, very often, simpler, fruitier and higher in alcohol.
The final component of what differentiates New World from Old World is winemaking technique and philosophy. This is part of the reason New World-style wines can be made in Spain and the south of France. With New World wines, new American oak is often used, which imparts a stronger flavor and smell than French oak. With Old World wines, the emphasis is often put on making wines that are complex and layered. Oftentimes, wines are made that aren’t meant to be opened until many years after they’ve been released.
To get a good idea of how Old World and New World wines compare, get two wines made from the same grape but from different areas, like the Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir (New World) and the Chateau de la Maltroye Bourgogne Rouge (Old World). Both are pinot noir, but the difference will astonish you and your palate will be illuminated.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshperilo.
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