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Old World, New World…

by David on May 9, 2008

Question from Lisa: Hi Nancy, I’m trying to understand the philosophical differences in wine making between old world and new world wines. Thank you for your time.

Reply: Hi, Lisa! Thanks for writing! Complicated question, so bear with me…

The lines between new world and old-world styles have begun to blur a bit but, classically, new-world wines are bigger, more fruit forward, softer of acid and higher in alcohol than old world wines. New-world wines may be more likely to display conspicuous oak but, with the powerful wine writers rewarding big, fruit-forward wines that have noticeable oak, some of the winemakers in Europe have adjusted their approach.

With the ease of communication and travel, there are fewer and fewer differences in winemaking. It’s extremely common for aspiring European winemakers to do internships at new-world wineries and vice versa. If I cite a general difference, old-world winemakers are more likely to rely on tradition and what they learned from Dad and Grandad in their approach. Most new-world wine regions don’t have the kind of history they do in Europe, so they tend to be more analytical about what they do, and why, and rely on research more than tradition. You’ll probably find a higher percentage of wineries with “high-tech” equipment, using cutting-edge techniques in the new world than you might in the old world. These are gross generalizations because you can find very traditional wineries right next door to cutting-edge ones in any wine region.

If you’re asking because you taste differences, the best explanation is weather. Many new-world regions, certainly most in California, are relatively warm climates. Most of the famous European regions would be called relatively cool. This absolutely makes a difference in the degree of ripeness of the fruit at harvest. What this means is that a cool year is a good year in most of California and a warm year is a good year in most of Europe. Climate change is having some interesting effects. Germany has had some of their best vintages, ever, in recent years because the weather’s been relatively warm. And they’re beginning to plant more wine grapes in southern England, an area that has been considered too cold in the past.As far as the difference in the wines, warmer climates mean grapes that are often harvested at relatively high sugars, with ripe flavors and relatively soft acidity. That translates to very fruity wines (which some Europeans characterize as sweet) with relatively high alcohol and a soft finish. These wines are usually very approachable and go down easy, even when they’re young.

Cool-climate grapes may be harvested at lower sugars, higher acids and the flavors will probably not be as ripe. The wines are usually leaner, lower in alcohol, show more earthy and herbaceous character, in addition to fruit, and are often a bit tarter. Sometimes these wines are harder to enjoy in their youth, depending upon the level of acidity and tannin, but those components can also prolong the wine’s life.

The style we prefer is usually the one that we’re accustomed to.

I hope that helps! Please let me know if you have more questions. Cheers! Nancy

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