David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the column which ran on 10/14/2015:
Wine style: New world vs. Old world
Wine is notoriously difficult to make consistent. This is because grapes are fruit that produce juice based on what the weather and the land give them each year. In a good growing year the wine could be fabulous and in a bad year, mediocre. To help the wine drinker understand the difference, a year is placed on the bottle and this is referred to as vintage.
There are other clues that can help the consumer determine what’s in the bottle. One of the most helpful is understanding the style. Understanding how a wine is styled is as important as understanding the grape variety in the bottle. Established wine producing regions have a distinctive character and almost follow a recipe for producing a reliably consistent product. This formula is sometimes referred to as old world wine but I like to think of it as style.
Broadly speaking, wines from Europe follow a historical style and wines not from Europe, called new world wines, either follow the Europeans or make their own way and come up with something entirely new.
This system of styling a product to a historical standard is pretty easy to understand because once you become familiar with the style you can more easily predict how wine might taste. The only problem with this is when winemakers move away from the standard, then the predictive qualities of the wine come into question.
Since the French make so much wine and their native grape varieties form the backbone of the international wine market, understanding their style is a great place to start. This is because new world producers either copy French style or they are influenced to make a new style of wine.
This concept of styling shouldn’t be confused with the concept of a noble grape. A noble grape is a grape variety that can express where it’s grown differently. As an example, let’s look at three different sauvignon blancs. One of the best sauvignon blanc styles is from the small hilltop town of Sancerre in France. They make a light, crisp, slightly herbal, dry white wine. It is made in a stainless steel tank and bottled in a bottle with low sloping shoulders (known as a Burgundian bottle) and is made without the influence of an oak barrel. This is the historical standard. Think of this as the baseline.
New Zealand makes most of its sauvignon blanc the same way and bottles it in a similarly shaped vessel. But the wines from New Zealand can have the aromas of lime, lemon and grapefruit. This is the same grape, made the same way, bottled the same way, but it tastes different. This is because the grape expresses the land in France different from the land in New Zealand and this is why sauvignon blanc is called a noble variety. This would be considered a new world wine made in a French style.
But if we look at a California Fumé Blanc we see something similar but different. In the 1960s, Hibbing, MN native, Robert Mondavi, was experimenting with new ways to make sauvignon blanc. He decided to age his wine in oak barrels to add a deeper gold color and a bit of richness to his wine. The result was that a new style was born. Oaked sauvingon blanc is a purely American innovation. This would be an example of a new world wine not following the style.
Luckily for us Mr. Mondavi was not only a talented winemaker but also a master at marketing. For his new wine he made up a completely new name. He called it Fumé Blanc and we are lucky because if we like oak in our sauvignon blanc we can easily find a Fumé Blanc on the shelf as many other wineries in California have copied this technique.
The difference between old world and new world wine might seem slight and sometimes it is just the addition of an oak barrel or planting the grape in a different place but that small difference can make a big change in how a wine will taste and feel.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He writes wine articles for the Duluth News Tribune, teaches wine education classes, and leads wine adventures in France. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.