Over the years, we have often heard a wine described as having an "Old World" style. We had a vague idea what that meant, but until recently we never gave the comparison much thought. As winemakers travel between wine growing regions to learn new and better techniques, one would think that the line between the two worlds has blurred and that any such association today is fraught with generalization.
Not entirely. A recent tasting we put together for a group of wine enthusiasts showed that there are still contrasting styles. At the risk of over-generalizing, we offer an explanation of what is meant by these terms. Understanding the differences can help you determine the style of wines you like and thus make your shopping experience much easier.
Old World wines – principally those from European countries – tend to be subtle, less alcoholic, higher in acid and more restrained. This is largely a result of cooler climates that don't allow grapes to ripen as well. But, the wines are also a product of tradition. Generations of Old World producers have for centuries made wines exclusively for their villages and to accompany the local cuisine. Unlike New World producers who emphasize the name of the producer and the grape variety on the label, Old World winemakers proudly focus on the name of the village. This speaks volumes about the terroir focus of European producers.
New World producers – Australia, New Zealand, North and South America, etc. – have embraced new technology and science to produce consistent wines in much warmer climates. Whereas Old World producers are more likely to be satisfied with whatever Mother Nature hands them, New World producers are willing to manipulate the juice to achieve certain results. It's what New World entrepreneurs often do.
The differences between the two worlds can be found in the glass, as our tasting vividly revealed. A sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley was clean, simple, medium bodied while a New Zealand sauvignon blanc was bold, stylish, and grassy.
The red wines were just as different. We liked the contrast between a Spanish monastrell and a California mourvedre (same grape). The Rioja monastrell was rustic with earthy, barnyard aromas, medium body and subtle spice and oak flavors. The Cline Mourvedre -- a perennial favorite of ours -- was fruit-forward with ripe cherry flavors and more oak influences, such as spice, vanilla and even a dash of chocolate. The first would do better with food than the ripe and jammy Cline.
Two new world cabernet sauvignon blends – Unanime from Argentina and Columbia Crest H3 from Washington state -- were classic contrasts to a simple Bordeaux blend from Chateau Fonseche. The Bordeaux, made in a cooler climate, revealed blackberry and currants while the other two had more black cherry flavors that come from a warmer climate.
The other pairing was a syrah blend from Cotes du Rhone and two shirazes from Australia. The Rhone has a funky, earthy nose while the Australian components had bright, jammy fruit flavors.
Not to be underestimated is the desire of New World producers to finally back off its fruit-forward, highly extracted and alcoholic style and bring their wines more in line with the European model. Alas, American consumers tend to favor ripe, bold wines with a dash of residual sugar, but these are not food-friendly.
At the end of our tasting, one attendee said the comparisons allowed her to better define the kinds of wine she likes. The next time she goes blindly into a wine shop or restaurant she will tell a merchant that she's looking for an Old World wine that is subtle and less ripe. That was music to our ears. It's not that she won't enjoy a New World wine, but she knows what her palate likes and she can intelligently describe it.
Such comparisons are invaluable in understanding that geography and technology between continents have great influence in taste.
Carmel Road Unoaked Chardonnay Monterey 2014 ($22). A very nice example of what cool climate and unoaked chardonnay is all about. Beautiful, pure pear and apple fruit with some citrus notes, and a whiff of minerality.
Vinas Del Vero Secastilla Garnacha Somontano 2010 ($47). This grenache is a wonderful mélange of intense black cherry, licorice, and chocolate. Grapes are from 100-year-old vines in Spain's Secastilla Valley. The readily apparent oak notes come from 10 months of aging in French oak. This is for lovers of big oaky wines.
MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir 2015 ($38). Using grapes from the Russian River Valley, the winemaker has crafted a reasonably priced yet hearty pinot noir. Soft on the palate, it has cherry flavors with hints of vanilla and toast.
Sonoma-Loeb Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir 2015 ($40). Wow, this a mouthful of fruit. Using grapes from one of the prized vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Sonoma-Loeb has a winner here – and in pinot noir terms, a bargain. Black cherry notes with hints of allspice and vanilla.
Catalina Sounds Sauvignon Blanc 2016 ($16). Bold in style, this New Zealand sauvignon blanc has herbal aromas and grapefruit, citrus and peach flavors.
Nanny Goat Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016 ($24). From New Zealand, this wine as bright and juicy dark berry flavors and a dash of cocoa.
Cobb Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($75). Ross Cobb is making the western Sonoma Coast a platform for world-class pinot noir. Although many will argue the relatively new region doesn't have the optimal climate for pinot noir, the Cobb wines prove differently. Not over-extracted, they show balance and finesse. We liked this aromatic single-vineyard pinot noir with its layered fruit character. Lots of cherries, cranberries, fine tannins and textured mushroom notes to give it a burgundian feel. We also enjoyed the 2014 Coastlands Vineyard 1906 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir ($80) for its concentration.