Old World VS New World – And a Few Shades of Grey

Monday, August 5th, 2013

It’s no secret that people define wines by which side of the tracks they came from. Not always rightfully so, but this dividing line between wines of the Old World and wines of the New World has been an everlasting regularity for decades upon decades. This juxtapose of styles has influenced many people’s opinions to the point where wines might as well be from two different planets. So what is it that spells out Old World versus New World? Grown and produced throughout Europe, Old World wines tend to bear characteristics of fresh fruit, acidity, minerality, oak spices, and maintain a more modest austerity and alcohol level. On the other hand, New World wines typically express riper fruit, vanilla and coconut flavors, lower acidity, somewhat astringent tannin, higher viscosity, and ultimately higher levels of alcohol. Sounds easily definable right? Well, unfortunately there is often a lot of crossover which makes for many shades of grey. Food and Wine Magazine Guide to Wine author Mary Burnham recently popped into the SF Wine Center to help puzzled students put some of the pieces in the right places. Blindly tasting several sets of wines, students were put to the test to see if they could figure out which wines were Old World and New Old. Here’s a taste of what we figured out…

Let’s start with a quick comparison of two of the wines we tasted. Wine #1 was a lemon-colored and light bodied wine with zesty acidity and hints of green apple, lime juice, and flinty minerality. Wine #2 was slightly golden in color and had more weight in the mouth, a creamier texture, and notes of ripe peach, melon, and vanilla oil. So which is which? You guessed it. Wine #1 is a Jean-Marc Brocard Chablis Vieilles Vignes 2010 exemplifying the Old World while wine #2 is a 2009 Mayacamas Chardonnay from the Napa Valley. And now that we know that, what is it that creates this often inarguable diversity between OW and NW? Climate is a rather crucial aspect as some OW regions struggle to have enough sunshine and heat to reach full ripeness while most New World regions have too much of a good thing and often end up overripe because of it. What happens in the vineyard can also affect the wine styles as many OW producers practice manual harvesting and most NW producers take advantage of mechanization. Legal matters in the vineyard can also influence the wines; an example being that irrigation is not permitted in many OW countries so the vineyards are left to fend for themselves in the pursuit of water. And certainly not least is the impact of aging methods. OW producers aging their wines in French oak barrels will impart hints of oak spices, smokiness, and leather. Many NW producers using American oak barrels will grant their wines more buttery notes alongside vanilla and coconut. So all in all, it would seem that easy to tell the difference, right? Mother Nature has other plans and is presenting them by way of global climate change which is affecting European wine regions as we speak. And as if that wasn’t adding enough confusion to the pile, more and more California producers are switching to French oak while some Tuscan producers have recently started to experiment with American oak. So what it comes down to is that all of these grey areas start to raise the question of the century– is NW and OW simply black and white or is there currently a changing of the tides?

-Julie Albin

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