The real differences between Old world and New world

“Old world or New world?”: what does this really mean for wine? When we do blind tastings at 1275, this is often the starting point of our guesses – does the wine taste “Old world”, or “New world”. How one tells the difference is based on factors that are becoming harder to distinguish (ripeness, alcohol level, acidity, style). In the last 50 years, unprecedented advances have been made in viticulture and winemaking technology, such that the omnipotent concept of terroir is under threat. As newer wine regions have emerged and begun the long road to proving themselves worthy of a place among global wine icons, the question “Old world or New” becomes ever harder to answer.

Old world and its legacy

The phrase “Old world” is synonymous with tradition – winemaking history stretching back millennia, a heritage that has shaped the way grapes are grown, harvested, and transformed. This is linked inextricably with the importance of terroir; vines and people have adapted to a specific soil for long enough to give such vineyards a unique fingerprint, resulting in wines that stand out and reflect their precise place of origin. A bottle of Lafite Rothschild is recognisable by a pencil-lead aroma, Romanée-Conti by the presence of intense floral notes – violets and lilac: these distinctive qualities have taken centuries to develop, and are impossible to replicate elsewhere.

New world and new horizons

In contrast, New world wines possess a much shorter winemaking history, and tend to be the product of inspiration from the Old world, wherein estates borrow grape varieties, wine styles, and even winemakers. Such areas – South America, Australia, New Zealand – focus more on the potential of human intervention and modern winemaking techniques to make wines, than on the somewhat intangible concept of terroir. After all, these vine-growing areas often come with fewer restrictions on what can be planted, how vines should be grown – a freedom that can lead to the production of technically excellent wines.

Blurred lines

As straightforward as it may seem, the dichotomy between Old and New worlds may be losing relevance. Just as bottles of wine mature and reach their peak, so their areas of origin go through the same ageing process, albeit on a much wider timescale. Wines from regions once considered “New” are growing up: California wines or Super Tuscans now have a half-century track record under their belts. They adhere neither to Old world traditions due to their use of international grape varieties in recently-planted areas, nor are they entirely new after so many years of experience.

Rather than separating wines into Old and New camps, perhaps it is more relevant today to position them on a scale. Hard though it may be to accept, the profound impact of climate change may tip some Old world regions off the scale in years to come, as they adapt to rising temperatures and volatile weather conditions. These adaptations – planting new grape varieties, introducing different winemaking techniques – will ensure high-quality winemaking remains possible, but will change Old world wines as we know them today beyond recognition. And so the journey from New to Old will begin again.