Old World wines & New World wines

We've all heard these terms but what do Old World and New World wine mean and are they still valid terms in the wine world? Old World and New World have been used for many years as descriptors and categories for wine. I have even hosted several wine tastings on the subject in the past. Although I hear the terms used less frequently these days I do still see 'Old World Wine' and 'New World Wine' used on wine lists and on wine websites. But are they still relevant ways of describing wine?

How the terms Old World & New World evolved

The first use of the terms was for geographical distinction - and apologies in advance for the generalisations I am about to make. Very loosely, Old World was used to describe those countries of the world where the wine had been produced in ancient times so effectively Europe and the countries around the Mediterranean.

New World was therefore supposed to encompass everywhere else, effectively where wine has 'only' been produced from about the 15th century, generally after the Europeans had been along and introduced the vine. The term therefore loosely encompassed Australia, New Zealand, the USA, South Africa, Argentina, Chile etc.

Old World & New World Wine Production

The two terms came only relatively recently to describe different production methods. Old World was considered more traditional in its approach using old vines, hand picking the grapes and even sometimes treading the grapes to extract the juice whereas the New World was quicker and more open to adopting new practices such as clonal selection of vines to achieve better yields or to try to eliminate certain diseases and new technologies such as mechanical harvesting and pruning.

Part of the reason for the different approaches in production is that Old World wine-making regions tend to be governed by regulations about how and where wine can be produced. Hence also why they label their wines after the region using the quality designations such as DOC, DOCG, AOC etc where appropriate.

Countries in the so-called New World usually had much more freedom in what could be planted where and in how wine was produced. They have tended to label their wines after the varietal or wine grape e.g. Shiraz.

Old World & New World Wine Styles

Partly as a result of these different approaches to production the terms even came to mean different styles of wine. Again very generally Old World wines came to mean lighter wines, lower in alcohol, generally more representative of their terroir so not just with fruit flavours but also savouriness, minerality etc depending on the terroir; typically they were made to age before drinking. New World wines were generally 'bigger' and ready to drink now - more full-bodied, higher in alcohol being made from riper, sweeter grapes and of a fruitier style.

Old World & New World Wine Snobbery

Whichever "definition" you look at (and I suspect the term was first created by the Old World to try to distinguish itself from the new kids on the block), New World has at times been used as an almost derogatory term suggesting wines that are more commercial in style than the arguably more under-stated, more elegant Old World wines. However again this is a huge generalisation since both regions produce great wines (though sadly far too many poorer quality wines too).

In any case traditionally Old World countries such as France have become much more open to innovation (and, particularly at the quality end of the range, now look to combine tradition and newer methods). They have had to adapt after losing market share to countries like Australia and New Zealand which gained hugely in popularity in the 80s and 90s in the UK. Read more about Australian wines in my blog post. In addition so-called New World countries have become more savvy about climatic differences and terroir. 

Aided by the mobility of younger winemakers, each region is looking to the other for influences and so it is becoming harder to distinguish between Old World and New World wines. We can see this in the Wines With Attitude portfolio with examples like The Chocolate Block, a Shiraz blend with a dash of white grape, Viognier, made in the style of Côte-Rôtie in the Rhône Valley, and De Stefani's Prosecco-like Rosé (no longer in stock) produced by an innovative method of vinification whereby temperatures are kept at zero degrees as much as possible after the grapes are picked and when the grape juice or must is being fermented in order to preserve the fruit flavours.

Old World & New World Wines: which are better?

Whereas 20 to 30 years ago there was a noticeable split between fans in the UK market of Old and New World, I don't think that that polarisation exists any more. People are more open to trying wines from either camp and we now have so much more choice of better made wines from both areas. It would be a great shame however if we ended with too much homogeneity at the quality end of the market. 

And with countries such as China and India now producing wines, there are perhaps new New World areas these days. Maybe cool climate vs warm climate should be the categories to focus on - the subject of a future blog post.


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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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