Old World Wines
When speaking of Old World wines, one is actually talking about wines that originate
in Europe and non-European Mediterranean nations such as those of North Africa and
the Near East. Old World wines are different from New World wine
which comes from New Zealand, the Americas, Australia, and South Africa.
The term, Old World wines, has more to do with styles of grape cultivation and wine
preparation, or viniculture and winemaking, than it does with geography. Traditions
of grape cultivation and wine preparation have more to do with a concept called
terroir, loosely translated as the land's influence, than with the role of the winemaker
or of science. These latter two factors are credited with being the most important
influences in New World wines.
In modern times, we have seen the advent of flying winemakers who advise on the
growing of grapes and the preparation of wine to hundreds of vineyards by travelling
the globe. This effect has somewhat blurred the distinctions between Old World wines
and New World wines. Today, it is possible to find either style anywhere that wines
Influences on Old World wines
The strongest influences on Old World wines by far are those known as the tradition
and terroir factors. The first term is about the historical influences on a wine
making region, which have tended to shape a culture. The second term is about geographical
influences. Together, they speak of an old, patient approach to making wine. Lessons
learned generations ago guide activities today, and a project may take decades to
reach fruition. They also imply a deep knowledge of the particular conditions that
prevail in a place. Therefore, the cultivation of grapes and preparation of Old
World wines are idealized for the possibilities in that location. The choices are
many, including varieties of grapes, maximum achievable yields, specific techniques
for making wines, and methods of using trellises to guide and control growing grape
Such information becomes local lore and is quite important in the making of Old
World wines. In France, they have the rulebook known as Appellation d'origine contrôlee
or AOC; while the Spanish developed over the centuries the Denominación de
Origen or DO; on the other hand, the Italians have their codes called the Denominazione
di origine controllata or DOC; and, last of all, the Portuguese recorded an epistle
known as the Denominação de Origem Controlada or DOC.
The distinctive term known as terroir has been often used to explain those facets
of a wine region that the winemaker cannot influence. These include: soil, topographical
considerations, and of course climate. These factors will make a Reisling from a
particular region of Germany taste and smell different than a Reisling made elsewhere.
This is true not just for some locations but almost everywhere that identical techniques
are used to make Old World wines.
Another difference between New World wines and Old World wines is that the former
are usually labeled according to the varietal grape used in the wine's preparation,
while the Old World wines tend to be labeled based on the terroir of their region
where they were produced. Producers of Old World wines are convinced that it is
the terroir-driven qualities associated with the origins of a wine that matter far
more than a simple choice of grape variety.
Vine Cultivation for Old World wines
The science of winemaking is known as viticulture. The history of this science is
thousands of years old, with prominent discoveries of successful practices in the
Old World wines regions of the Greeks, the Romans, and others having made notable
contributions. Also contributing were other cultures such as the Phoenicians.
All of these Old World wines localities, through techniques of trial and error,
discovered viticulture techniques that are suited to their special climates and
geographies. They were considered so important over the centuries that they have
been codified into local winemaking regulations. In many places, you can only make
a wine according to specific practices.
If there were a single thing that clearly differentiates the making of Old World
wines from New World wine-making, it would be the spacing of the vines. Most producing
vineyards in the countries that make Old World wines date back centuries, to eras
long before mechanization of grape harvests. On the other hand, New World Wines tend to have been cultivated
in the industrial era. This has made all of the difference.
Vineyards for making Old World wines have the vines closely spaced, because this
made easier harvesting for humans. On the other hand, the advent of mechanical agriculture
tools and systems coupled with the vast tracts of land available for cultivation
in the New World, have combined to assure that New World wines are made with vines
spaced far enough apart to accommodate the necessary machinery. This has, of course,
also driven down the prices of New World wines and caused considerable fluctuations
in the world wine market's prices.
Vines in locales for Old World wines tend to be planted one meter apart, with rows
separated by the same distance. On the other hand, in the New World, plantings tend
to be 12 feet apart with 8 feet separating the rows of vines.
The Importance of Vintners to Old World Wines
While it will surprise many to learn this fact, in the process of making Old World
wines, the human factor - that of the winemaker - is far less important than in
the New World process for making wines.
The almost mystical concept of terroir focused the attention of wine aficionados
on the question of whether the particular wine successfully expresses its own location
of origin. Consider if you will a Riesling wine that comes from the Mosel area.
Vintners creating Old World wines from Mosel generally consider it their duty to
articulate the special traits of Mosel wine country. Given the land's distinctive
high-slate soil composition, the Old World wines created will brag about their high
mineral levels in the particular ratio that's appropriate for Mosel vintages.
On the other hand, wine makers in the New World get a lot of credit for their distinctive
styles and approaches. Further, there is a lot of emphasis on techniques to draw
out fruity flavors in a particular wine, also known as "fruit driven" vintnering.
Because of this emphasis on the winemaker, those in the New World are often more
experimental in their approaches than vintners who are creating Old World wines.
For example, a recent New World wine innovation was the addition of enzymes to break
down compounds in the wine to create unique new flavors. Old World wines want to
most perfectly capture the traditional flavors for their varietals and regions,
not create new flavors.
The Making of Old World Wines
The vintners who make Old World wines focus more often on the use of special, proprietary
yeasts for the fermentation process. This is closer in some ways to the making of
beer than the to the New World approaches to wine-making where yeast is not generally
so carefully considered. Yeast strains are both bred and continuously harvested
from discovery in the wild.
Making Old World wines has taken the art of using special proprietary fermentation
techniques to considerable lengths. Vintners have discovered how to ferment at high
temperatures, and also how to stretch out the post-fermentation process of maceration,
which brings higher amounts of phenolics into the wine from the grape skins or must.
This, in turn, tends to lead Old World wines that are more sophisticated and complex
than many of their New World competitors, but also require additional years to age
In the New World, most producers use a combination of oak barrel storage and lactic
fermentation processes that accelerate maturation of product, but often at the cost
of sophistication. To sum this up, New World wine-makers are poised to win the battle
of volume production and have achieved increasing levels of quality. However, producers
of Old World wines have a well-established advantage with the more rarified higher-quality
wine offerings, the ones that command astronomical prices as they age well.
Buying Old World wines
You can buy a good bottle of wine, whether Old World wines or New, in most places
in the world for $10 or even less. For this we can thank the innovations of the
New World winemakers. But, for true excellence to satisfy the connoisseur's palate
one will have to wait for well-aged wines that usually come from Europe and will
cost upwards of $100 per bottle. Whether you can afford such a wine or not, you
can certainly have a great time either in the New World wine-tasting countries or
tasting Old World wines by taking a leisurely drive through the countryside where
they are grown, stopping and sampling the local wines, and getting interesting information
from the proprietors. You'll probably find a few unique and delightful bottles to
take home with you as well.
The future of winemaking is clearly in the direction of more automation, as well
as toward ever more small, unique, specialty wine growers. Europeans will continue
to emphasize their mastery of fermentation processes and ability to develop extraordinary
wines that age well and cost a small fortune. The makers of Old World wines will
thereby continue to prosper, though there may well be fewer of them as increasing
numbers of people seek pastoral lifestyles and bid up the prices of good wine-growing
real estate for conversion to homes.