New Ways and Old Ways

Brecht QuoteFor nearly as long as we have been in the wine business, there has been an ongoing debate about whether New World or Old World wine holds the aesthetic high ground of winemaking achievement.

Generally, when we refer to Old World wines we are talking about wines from Europe. These wines tend to imply the use of production techniques that are determined by a regulatory structure and practices that are considered traditional. New World wines refer to wines from everywhere else – including the southern hemisphere, the USA and Canada. New World producers tend to use more technology in winemaking and are perhaps more experimental and pragmatic.

Nowadays, it is hard to rely on this simplistic classification. In reality, when we compare New World wines with Old World wines, we are actually comparing the wine styles and the wine making processes more than the wines’ place of origin – but the terms are a handy shortcut.

For many years, we have felt that, overall, we like Old World wines. We prefer the more traditional, higher acid, minerally, place driven, nuanced wines of Europe over the fruit driven, higher alcohol, cocktail wines of the New World.

To be fair, we can list many Old World wines that we dislike and we can list a good many wines from the New World that we love to drink – think: Steve Edmund at Edmunds St John. But we feel the Old World continues to be the most exciting place to be searching out interesting wines. We fully expect our current perceptions to change in the future as the world’s climate changes and wine pecking orders are overturned. We don’t know what those changes will be – but we are sure that things will be different.

This difference in approach to winemaking between Old World and New World producers was brought home to me a few weeks ago at a meeting I had with one of my favorite Italian producers. After we finished tasting through his wines, talk turned to a discussion about the difference in perspective between our Italian friend and a New World winemaker with whom he had worked.

He had spent about six weeks working and exchanging information at a New World winery. On the last night that he was there, he sat down to dinner with his New World counterpart and opened some of his wines that he had brought from Italy. The other winemaker tasted them, and when asked to comment, he told our friend that although his wines were good, there was too much variation from year to year and that the “problem” could probably be solved by using specific yeasts rather than relying on those that naturally occur in the vineyard or winery. (Yeast is a subject unto itself. A winemaker can dramatically affect the flavor and aroma of wine with the use of dedicated yeasts. Depending on your perspective this is either a good thing or it is an abomination from hell.)

So our Italian friend just laughed as he told us this story. “Here is the difference between those wines and my wine: for six weeks for lunch and dinner, all I was served was lamb – roast lamb, lamb curry, lamb chops, lamb shank – lamb in one form or another. And for breakfast it was either a sugar laden pastry or some kind of cheese stuffed muffin. Meal after meal, it was always the same.” He said, “If you come to my winery, you could stay there for six months and you would never eat the same thing twice! It’s the same with the wines – they want their wines to taste the same every time. But I want to be able to make a wine that can be relied upon but where you can taste the difference from vintage to vintage. Being able to taste that difference every year is what makes wine great.”

And that really sums up one of the differences in thinking between Old and New World wine. Do you want the flavors and structure to be the same as much as possible every vintage? Then the wine will tend to be an expression of the winemaker’s intervention. Or do you want to celebrate the differences in vintages and nuances in the wine from year to year? Then the wine will be more of an expression of place.

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