Let’s agree to discuss three types of viticulture and the wine styles they produced: Ancient World, Old World and New World. Ancient World will refer to wines grown and created from the Paleolithic Era through the life of Louis Pasteur (19th Century/ Industrial Revolution). Old World wines will refer to wines grown on the European Continent from Pasteur’s lifetime to the modern day, and New World Wines are wines grown in places where grapevines were brought to colonies by European settlers.
In the broadest sense we can characterize each this way:
- Ancient Wines: Rustic to the extreme. From Paleolithic wines that appeared ‘magically’ at the bottom of a well-used grape basin in a cave, to the B.C.E. ‘cult wines’ of the Greek Islands that fetched a team of oxen per jug, wine growing and production techniques took millennia to improve to the point where wine became a heavily traded ancient commodity. Ancient Wines were often thin, harsh and highly acidic due to growing conditions and poor trellising. They were very useful for drinking or mixing with water, as the alcohol served to kill bacteria.
- Old World Wines: The classic, food-friendly style inherent in the great wines of Europe that elevated wine from a simple fermented beverage to an integral part of the ritual of dining. I use Louis Pasteur and the Industrial Revolution as the distinction between Ancient and Old World for obvious reasons: Pasteur discovered the secrets of wine’s organic chemistry and Industry made it possible to produce the first metal trellising and high-tensile wire for grapevine vineyards. From jugs on a peasant’s table to the vaunted Grand Crus and First Growths of Burgundy or Bordeaux, winegrowing and winemaking became a celebrated (almost alchemical) craft. In today’s wine market, Old World refers to the traditional European style of decades and centuries past: wines focused more on classic balance and ‘place’ than the ripeness and richness often associated with New World Wines.
- New World Wines: Wines made in a style more focused on ripeness and big flavor, and less on representing place, classical structure and food friendliness. The driving force behind the popularity of New World Wines is complex and has many causes: the easy-to-like fruit-forward ripeness in New World wines are easy to understand for consumers that were raised on Welch’s grape juice, Coca Cola, milkshakes and rich, sweet beverages and highly flavored snack foods; also kingmaker critics that enjoy the ‘bigger is better’ style give highly ripe wines elevated numerical scores which serve as a crutch of sorts for an American wine culture unable or unwilling to trust their own intuition in choosing wines. In a less cynical summation, New World wines are fruity and delicious and easy to understand, and as such, they have usurped the old European monopoly on wine production. New World wines and wineries have made wine affordable and easily accessible for all Americans and much of the civilized world.
New World Winegrowing:
- …places a premium on producing bright, rich, delicious wines that are ready to be consumed at release.
- …focuses on varietal over appellation. Because the normal American mindset determines what we want to drink by varietal, that is the focus of the New World industry. The normal New World diner may want a glass of Chardonnay before dinner and then some Merlot with her meal. Chardonnay is what enters her mind instead of regional characterisitics, and Merlot is what she thinks of when ordering pasta with a meat ragu, not necessarily the style of wine…but the flavors she associates with Merlot. So ‘varietal’ has become synonymous with ‘brand’ to many Americans. The average-joe wine consumer expects a certain flavor profile to accompany the varietal ‘branding’. Chardonnay should be rich, oaky, buttery with green apple flavors and a bit of acid. Merlot should be soft and plumy and rich. Wines are grown and crafted to fit what Americans expect of them, which is exactly opposite of the Old World idea of growing what the soil wants to produce, which means wines of vastly different flavor profiles and complexities. The French culture, which takes elementary school children to wineries and vineyards, involves the youth in flavor education. When a young French person is ready to start going to cafes with their friends, they intuitively know the difference between Beaujolais and Chablis, Sancerre and Chinon. They order the style of wine as is dictated by a favored appellation or menu choice, while Americans tweak the farming to make the place produce the desired flavors. Of course I am simplifying the matter, as there are ‘New World’ wines made in France and ‘Old World’ styles made in America. I see this problem all the time when potential vineyard clients argue that they want to plant Cabernet in the wrong climate because it’s ‘what we like to drink’. New or Old World, vineyards suffer fools only until the money runs out.
- …often equates concentration with quality. When a wine is awarded a 95-100 point score from Robert Parker, there are certain descriptors that appear constantly: “dense, sweet, lush, opulent, colossal, opaque, superripe, liqueur-like, extraordinarily concentrated.” Those sound like commendable traits for wines to stand out in a cattle-call of a hundred bottles, but none of those descriptors sound attractive for a wine meant to fit into a deftly prepared meal. New World wines often scream to be noticed, as they need to in order to score well, and I have found that these ‘super wines’ are clunky and overly-alcoholic at table. Confucius said that ‘He who ignores a shout will often bend his ear to a whisper.” Wines of balance and finesse are, in this context, an Old World whisper we should all be happy to hear while eating.
- …have changed the ‘Old World’ wine world for the better and the worse. New World sanitation techniques have moved across the Atlantic (or north and west from Australia) and revolutionized quality in many European regions. Wineries that once produced bacteria-laden plonk have reorganized in order to compete with the clean varietal wines being produced in the New World. Stainless steel and ozone machines have led the charge, and new lab techniques, assays and tests have also brought European winemaking into the 21st century. Some wine writers believe the New World has overstepped their bounds of polite influence in Europe: many Old World winemakers have abandoned their culture and history by attempting to make a more ripe, concentrated style to appeal to American critics. As someone who uses bottled wine to ‘travel’ the world as a ‘flavor tourist’, I can only hope that wine styles do not become globally homogenized.
- …also has its champions that balance New World vineyards with Old World philosophies. Many ‘New World’ winemakers (I think of Paul Draper at Ridge, Josh Jensen at Calera, Wells Guthrie at Copain, Joe Davis at Arcadian) have decided to ignore the popular modern style of superripe and concentrated ‘monster’ wines, and have gone back to trying to craft increasingly Old World styles of wine with New World vineyard sources. These wines can be confused between style and geography, or (more often) they can turn out wonderfully balanced and complex. Many of these craft wines require 3-5 years of cellar time before they ‘become’, which is more time than the average American likes to spend before popping a cork.
- …provides wine to an American wine market that consumes 85% of wine purchases within 48 hours. From that perspective it’s perfectly understandable that producers are going to attempt to release wines that are easily drinkable at release. Americans, at least at this point in our culinary culture, want wine to be easy. In reality, wine is a complicated and fascinating subject that requires years of study (i.e. drinking) to understand in any meaningful way. The question remains: do we revert to simplicity (‘Drink what You Like!’), or do we try to continue educating Americans about the classical underpinnings of Old World wine culture (‘Every meal has a perfect wine match!’)? Tough question!
New World Wines at Table and in Production
Wine recently surpassed beer in the United States as the most popular mealtime alcoholic beverage. I’m still stunned, to be honest. With new health benefits being discovered every month, fun and interactive wine bars popping up all over the country and wine being grown in commercial vineyards and backyards in every state—we are firmly within the Golden Age of American Wine. But we still have a long way to go. The look of terror persists on young men who are handed a wine list on a date. I see worried faces each time I walk down the wine isle at the supermarket. (Yes, I tend to stop and help.) The good news and the bad news is that Americans are teaching themselves about wine. The good news is that they are drinking wine, the bad news is that they aren’t getting much meaningful help outside of advertisements. New World wines are fun to drink and often match nicely with food, as long as they aren’t overly alcoholic and overly concentrated. One fantastic thing about the ‘New World’ philosophy is the fresh attitude about food and wine pairing and coming up with novel and exciting new matches that wouldn’t be as accepted in the ‘Old World’.