new world, old world - same difference?

last week at a dinner, a friend of mine asked me to explain the differences between wines from the old world and those from the new. 

of course, he knew that wines from south america, australia, usa, new zealand, and even south africa are generally described as being from the new world while those from spain, france, italy, and the rest of europe are said to be from the old world.  but, other than the "obvious" reasons, why are they called in this way and what makes them difference from each other.

as we are using 2 contrasting concepts, "old" vs "new", to label those wines, perhaps we can also use contrasting concepts to describe the differences.  to me, the 2 most important differences are certainly "terroir" vs "variety" and next are the concepts of "tradition" vs "technology".

"terroir" is the quintessential french term that very much represents the philosophy of french wine making and to a large extent, the philosophy of wine making in the old world as a whole.  unfortunately, there is no direct translation and "terroir" can only be explained loosely as "a sense of place".  terroir is how the french explain the particularity of their vineyard, its climate, its exposure to the sun, its soil, its quirks, and its bugs.  it also includes the action of man, not only in the vineyard but also in the cellars.  in the old world, wine makers strive to make wines that represents in the best possible way where it comes from.  the french and the italians want you to taste the "terroir" in each and every glass.  they wants you to form a picture of it's origin and it's traditions.  this is why, the wines of the old world will be complex to describe, there will be fruits, yes, but minerals will also play an important part.  the wine making will also be in evidence but it will be integrated into the wine so that the final style will be much more like a rich fabric woven with care and love so that the end result is, hopefully, complicated and worthy of talking about it in all directions.

in the new world, most wines are labelled as per the variety and so, the wine maker will strive to produce a wine that faithfully represents the varietal fruit.  they will strive for purity of fruit and all that they will do, whether it be in the vineyard or in the cellar, will be to reach that purity.  the resulting style of wine will be much more fruit driven and the australians and the new zealanders will want you to taste that fruit and recognise it for what it is.  their wine making techniques will be used to emphasise the variety, whether to make it smoother or to enhance it with "condiments" so that you can enjoy it even more.  the wines will usually be more straightforward and soft, but will still be worthy of talking about at length.

terroir and varietals drive the second sets of contrasting concepts that explain the differences between the old and the new worlds: "tradition" vs "technology". 

indeed, the old world will be tradition focused mainly because they have a very very long history of wine making, often going back to roman times and also because most of the wine making regions of the old world are located in marginal climates where growing grapes can be a serious challenge in most vintages.  and so, in order to codify quality standards, old world regions have created a series of regional appellations which generally controls how the grapes will be grown, how the wines will be made and aged and when they will be released for consumption.  these rules of appellations will have been established after years and years of experimentation and after much trials and error so that the wines, in theory at least, from one region will consistently taste the same year after year and the appellation stated on the label will be a statement of guarantee that a certain level of quality has been achieved so that consumers will hopefully know what to expect bottle after bottle.

because climate can be a challenge for old world wine makers, their wines will often be characterised by the blends of grapes they are allowed to grow in their region.  most of the time, this blend is a kind of insurance policy against the climate so that in years that a certain variety does not ripen fully, the proportion of another will be adjusted accordingly into the blend so that the resulting wine continues to represent terroir and where the wine comes from. 

this is mainly why old world wine emphasise the region of origin on their labels and mainly why the percentage of varietals in the bottle varies from one year to the next.

in the new world, variety will drive technology.  in order to reach that purity of fruit, wine makers of the new world will be much more reliant on the latest wine making techniques both on the vineyard and in the cellar.  as a general rule, you will see these amazingly tidy rows or vines super carefully trimmed in order to maximise sun exposure and bunch aeration.  their cellars will have state-of-the-art equipment with the latest stainless-steel and temperature control technology so that they can reach levels of hygiene and purity very often unknown in old world wineries.  the new world wine makers will also blend their wines but for them the blends will have the goal of fruit purity and typicity rather than blending from place and tradition.

even though we can explain the old and the new worlds with fairly straight-forward contrasting concepts as above, the differences are less and less obvious.  in fact, there is indeed a convergence of philosophy whereas the new world now understands better the concept of terroir and embraces its particularity with a certain fervour that is so typical of the way they have embraced technology and modern wine making methods.  in the old world, as they are realising that modern wine drinkers are looking more and more for fresh, soft ready to drink wines, they also value certain aspects of the new world philosophies and are themselves adopting many of the technology and wine making techniques that gives us better and better quality wines that are pure and ready to drink off the shelves instead of years and years of softening later.

as we move forward, it is my opinion that the differences of old vs new worlds will be less and less evident and that the concept of "terroir" or the sense of place will be the single most important factor that will characterise the wine we drink.