Wine Speak: New World vs Old World

Happy 2017! Wow, another year has come and gone, so I hope you’ve been taking note of some good wine finds. What new and interesting bottles did you drink over the holidays? My favorite thing to do is to ask my family and friends to each bring an obscure bottle they’ve discovered to talk about and to celebrate the holidays. Seems there’s never a shortage of funky, interesting grapes and styles of wine.

Same grape, different region

On the flipside, it’s also fun to initiate a discussion of old world vs new world wines. Super easy to remember: “Old World” encompasses all European and Middle Eastern wines and “New World” is literally everything else. One of the more eye-opening themes for this type of evening is to compare an everyday grape like Chardonnay from France — Burgundy, to be specific — and a Chardonnay from California. You may think you know this varietal, but won’t believe how different wines from these two regions taste until you try.


When you smell and taste a Chardonnay from France, there’s this fantastic minerality as if you’re licking a rock, which — I don’t know about you — but licking rocks sounds like fun to me! Texturally, the wine from France is less heavy, has lots of lip-smacking acidity, is usually less oaky and tends to have a nutty quality to it. Chardonnays from the U.S., Australia, or Chile are all nice too, but very different. This minerality is certainly not solely a characteristic of Burgundy and is evident in many wines from lots of regions — this feature just tends to be more prominent in wines from Europe. Multiple factors that account for this, and in the wine world they are known as terroir. Terroir — a much-used and all-encompassing term — means everything from the soil, the climate, how the sun hits the vineyard, etc.

Winemaking Style

Stylistically and very generally speaking, the wines from Europe tend to be a little less ripe than New World wines, that is, winemakers don't leave the grapes on the vine for as long as we do here in the U.S. Since ripeness of the grapes is determined by sugar, and sugar converts to alcohol, that means that Old World wines tend to have less alcohol, too.

When you taste a Cabernet from California or Australia vs a Left Bank Bordeaux from France — which is Cabernet-heavy — the fruit in the wine from France will often be a little less obvious. What does less obvious mean? It means you might taste the earthy qualities before you taste the fruit, whereas with New World Cabernet, the wine will be weightier and the fruit tends to jump out of the glass.

Now, back to those obscure bottles — the sky is literally the limit when it comes to different, out-of-the-box, grapes and wine regions. Resist the temptation to always buy the same types of wines. You’ll learn so much more in the process. And don’t take “out-of-the-box” wines too, literally — I still prefer my glass bottles!