Fintan Kerr: A plea to retain the Old World-New World distinction in wine

By , 14 March 2024



There are many different rabbit holes you might fall down in life, but few as gloriously inviting and complex as the world of wine. To start with, there’s the sheer scale of it; over 1,300 different grape varieties are produced commercially throughout the world, on almost every continent and climate, in almost every imaginable style. The further you drill down, you find there are differences at every level that impact the style of wine produced.

My conclusion is that it’s really the differences at a producer level that are decisive, although everything else provides important context and background for the final wine. And learning about these differences takes time, tasting one producer next to their fellows to contrast and compare being a crucial part of the process. In Bordeaux alone, there are over 6,000 registered producers of wine; a lifetime of work in itself to try and understand a single region, in a single country!

Unsurprisingly, there are some generally accepted broad strokes that help to funnel all of this information into something more digestible. There are exceptions to everything, of course, but it’s generally true to say that Cabernet Sauvignon is used to produce full bodied, tannic red wines; that heavy rainfall at harvest time is not great news; that Riesling is an aromatic grape variety.

Recently,  the CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers)  announced that they were going to stop using the broadest stroke of them all; the terms Old World and New World, used to differentiate wine in Europe and the rest of the world. The largest educational body in the world of wine, the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust), quickly followed.

Reading the media releases from both organisations, it’s clear that there’s been some pressure on them to do this for a while, with prominent producers outside of Europe unhappy that the term “New World” is often seen as inferior in fine wine circles compared to “Old World”, or as the CMS puts it, “cultural bias”. I can sympathise because I think that’s almost definitely true, but there’s an obvious problem in trying to suddenly remove these terms from the world of wine, and it’s simple; there are some genuine differences between the two that is very helpful to refer to.

For example, I have yet to meet an advanced student of wine who doesn’t use some sort of basic funneling technique when blind tasting; it’s important to understand some basic truths about the wine before honing in on the finer details. One of the first questions most ask is “Is this a wine from the Old World or the New World?”. Now, whilst it’s not impossible that this is a subtle, long-winded operation to infuriate the virtue signallers of the wine world, it’s more likely done because it’s a practically useful question to ask. New World wines are, on the whole, different to the wines of the Old World.

This is partly due to differences of climate. The regions of the New World are, mostly, slightly warmer than those of the Old World, leading to bolder, richer flavours and textures. Global Warming is often cited as erasing these differences to a greater or lesser extent, but that seems to work on the premise that the rising temperatures of our world only affects Europe. I once asked a very pragmatic MW during a tasting practice how to differentiate between Gimblett Gravels Syrah and Cornas; “fruit sweetness”, she responded, “many New World wines will always have a touch of sweetness from the riper fruit and clonal differences, even if they’re making the wine in a more restrained style”. My own success rate at identifying a wines origin has improved dramatically since I took this to heart. 

Far more than that, though, is that the wines are inherently different due to circumstance and intention. To take a visible example: Jean-Louis Chave, the most famous producer of Hermitage, is currently championed by their 16th generation since their family began viticulture in the Northern Rhone in 1481. Land, equipment, reputations, connections and expectations are all handed down from one generation to another and whilst changes in direction and style may occur, wine is produced because it’s a family business and the alternative is selling up and starting over in a completely different industry.

By comparison, producers in New World countries usually have an idea of their target market long before a vine is even planted or a fermentation tank purchased, mostly because it had to be detailed in a business plan before investors would get onboard. Many are 1st generation producers currently facing the daunting reality that their children do not want a career in wine. The size of their estates are larger and less fragmented; in Australia, for example, over 80% of the wine is produced by the 10 largest wineries, vs the 12% or so in Europe. Do you think that the styles of wine are likely to be similar? The huge, almost immediate success of New World wines was largely based on the fact they were very intentionally producing bold wines that they knew people wanted to drink. There isn’t magic sunshine in Marlborough that makes Sauvignon Blanc jump out of the glass and drag you back in with it, but there’s some very savvy viticultural techniques, specific clonal choices, cultured yeasts and precise winemaking.  

This extends to regulations and labelling, which has long been part of the Cat O’Nine Tails we use to self-flagellate ourselves with in the wine industry. Most of the regions of the Old World are geographically defined and come with a set of rules and regulations that must be adhered to in order to use the appellation as a form of identity on the label. You can grow Viura in Chablis if you really wish, but you’ll have to sell it as a Vin de France.

By comparison, you can make a Californian…anything! Pinotage? Go for it. Furmint? Why not? The fact that most of these New World regions tend to be dominated by one or two plantings is the continued success of Mother Nature over the ambition of man; just try the wines of John Malkovich to see the results of challenging this. Most appellations in Europe have been practicing a form of protectionism for decades, by denying the grape variety to appear on the label, making for a trickier sale in the short term, for a more valuable reputation in the long run.

France, Italy and Spain are the three largest producing countries in terms of volume by some distance, and almost half of their wine is produced by co-operatives. This is the result of increasingly fragmented land holdings as land and estates were split into smaller pieces to hand to the next generation. Go to any winemaking town in Europe and I can almost guarantee at least one co-operative will be making large quantities of very variable wine, usually at very affordable prices and sold almost entirely locally; co-operatives of the calibre of Produttori del Barbaresco and Celler de Capçanes are few and far between.

By comparison, land in the New World is not only grouped together in larger estates but it is almost entirely privately owned by business interests. In Argentina, whose wine industry was famously pioneered by immigrants from Europe, you’re far more likely to find private estates that sell small parcels land and rent wine making equipment to wealthy individuals on holiday, than you are to find a co-operative. I don’t suppose I have to explain how this impacts the cultural appreciation of wine between New World and Old World countries.

What is fair to say is that an increasing number of producers in the New World are making more restrained, elegant wines; long may it continue! I’m personally of the opinion that South Africa is leading the way in this, which is interesting for a country that was ostracised from the international market until the 1990s, though much is made of the long, wine making history here. Influences in wine shine through in producers in the same way they do in music, and drinking the Syrah of the Swartland, I can tell that a good few bottles of Jamet have been drank in the Cape over the years. Whilst many of the more visible producers elsewhere in the New World seem to be content chasing a spot on Steakhouse wine lists, South Africa seems to be playing it’s own long game, and one that is increasingly celebrated in international wine circles. Why this is the case deserves an article entirely of its own!

Wine is an industry that likes to make a lot of noise about being progressive, which is usually a clear sign that we’re not doing a great job of it. However, of all the battles to pick, I would perhaps recommend one that actually has a grounding in the truth. In a world increasingly homogenised by globalisation and technology, I find comfort in the unique differences between us. After all, if not, why would we drink wine from anywhere further than the nearest wine region to us? In the meantime, let’s find a way to celebrate the best producers from wherever they hail in the world, and let’s not stick our heads in the sand over things that make us uncomfortable.

  • Fintan Kerr, DipWSET, lives in Barcelona and is a wine writer, educator and founder of Wine Cuentista (Cuentista is Spanish for “storyteller”.) Follow him on Twitter: @Wine_Cuentista


3 comment(s)

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    Lidija Biro | 4 April 2024

    While I agree with your premise of funnelling to synthesize information, you’ve also shown some of the old bias regarding “new world” wine by lumping together many countries and assuming the production of wine to be similar (e.g., operated by big companies and producing large volumes). The New World is not that homogeneous. In Canada, we may have a handful of big companies but the vast majority of wineries are small operations and many family owned. We are cool climate growing regions so the idea of “sweeter fruit” does not apply – perhaps climate warming will change that. Although we have fewer rules as to which grape varieties we grow where, please give credit to viticulturalists and winemakers of the “new world” for understanding their terroir to know which varieties are best suited to produce quality wine.

      Fintan Kerr | 4 April 2024

      You can´t have it both, unfortunately, in articles with a word count limit. I already go substantially above the requested amount and I unfortunately don´t have enough left to put disclaimers on every point. There are absolutely exceptions to every rule but if I had to draw the differences between New World and Old World production, these would be them!

    Simon | 14 March 2024

    This is a fascinating and illuminating piece, especially to those of us who are merely eager consumers rather than advanced students of wine. It’s also persuasively makes the case that the old-new world distinction is true, at least in a functional or pragmatic sense.

    But we still might want to ask what other functions and effects particular terms of art may have. Grand chateaux may be locked into a given style – for better or worse – for the reasons outlined above, but that also means they have a strong interest in perpetuating a mythology about the timeless mystique of inimitable Old World terroir and heritage. This is a mystique that those of us in the Global South – to use another divisive but pragmatic term – can choose to buy into or call out as more or less bullshit. For self-aware wine drinkers, it may be a bit of both, if invariably leaning towards the former.

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