Old vs. New: Is there a difference?

landing_columbus Pamela at Enobytes graciously invited me to moderate a discussion on their Enobytes Forum on New World vs. Old World Wines: is there really a difference. To help fuel the discussion, I posted this comment:

In my experience there is a significant difference between European (Old World) and New World wines. I do not believe the reason for this is a superior terroir, but a way of thinking. Europeans cannot separate wine and food. I have never met a serious European winemaker whose vision of their wine is tied not only to the table, but to their local cuisine. They also describe the wine in those terms. If you use America as an example of the New World philosophy I think you will see our wines are conceived very differently and and consumed differently and these differences cause them to be made differently.

Let's look at consumption first as consumers fuel the fire so to speak. European consumers do not drink still wines as cocktails, before dinner they enjoy a whole range of aperitifs (including a lot of sparkling wine), but they don't sit around and gulp pinot grigio or merlot. One quick look at an upscale American bar and you'll see a very different picture as a majority of the customers are drinking wine as a cocktail, not as a companion to food. Oddly enough in recent years this includes red wines and a more unlikely cocktail I cannot imagine! This means that European winemakers can make their wines knowing they will be enjoyed with food, but that American winemakers must take into account that their wines will be served with conversation instead of cuisine. The very thing that makes European wines so wonderful with food: acidity, dryness and structure makes them difficult cocktails.

So New World winemakers are met with more than one dilemma. First they must make wine that can work as a cocktail. Secondly, it is more important to their commercial success that their wines taste great when compared to other wines instead of how well they work with food. Success is tied to top ratings by critics using the 100 point scale who taste wines against each other in a context more like an endurance sport. I can't think of something more radically the opposite of what wine enjoyment should be than tasting dozens (hundreds for some tasters) of wines blind in rapid fire succession and then ranking them.

I think it is this combination of the pressure to get points and to please consumers that drink wine without food that causes the major differences you see in New World wines and Old World wines. If you go back to California wines of three decades ago they were not so different from Old World wines. Over the years the demands of the market have forced producers from those more elegant styles of years past and replaced with with the fruit bombs that seem that seem so over-the-top to those who prefer more balanced wines crafted for the table instead of those formulated for competitions.  Certainly there have been many Old World wines guilty of these excesses too as they courted the American market, but fortunately that attack is clearly in retreat.

There is no doubt that some European producers, notably in Spain and southern Italy have gone down this "International Style" of winemaking route. Considering the amount of wine they need to sell, their making what seemed like the best commercial decision at the time is understandable. One commenter noted that he was finding it hard to distinguish between a zinfandel and primitivo and I think that points out why what seems to be a good commercial decision is a bad one. If primitivo tastes more or less like zinfandel, why bother to import it? It seems to me that primitivo would be better off if it tried to have a distinct style. Sicily, a place with wonderfully distinct wines has tried to turn itself into another Australia (often using Australian trained winemakers) and has destroyed its market in the USA. Why drink a nero d' avola from Sicily when a shiraz from Australia tastes just like it for several dollars less a bottle?  Some European producers have achieved short term success using this strategy, but I think in the long term as they become just another big, fruity red wine they will lose their markets to cheaper competitors.

There are many American producers that make wines that would be difficult to identify as being New World in blind tastings, but the majority have chosen a more commercially viable direction and are making the wines that the market and the press like. There is nothing wrong with this as a winery is an agricultural business that has to make a profit. Only when consumer preferences change, either here or in Europe, will it become harder and harder to tell the difference between Old and New World wines.

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