Old World vs New World

A few days before my Masterclass at Leiths I will be chairing an Intelligence Squared debate between Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke. The argument is – ‘Old World vs New World’. When I started in the industry these definitions seemed to carry more significance. Ten years later in the trade – with today’s changing climate, varying consumer base and technological and viticulture advances – is it really possible for us to perceive and ACTUALLY taste wine in this way?

I was pretty much weaned on wine by my European father. His work enabled him to travel all around continent the where he would delight in finding vinous gems that he could share with us over the family Sunday lunch. I was appreciating Portuguese, Spanish, Austrian wine way before it became commonplace in the UK and we took great delight in opening a couple of bottles from different countries and seeing what we thought. It wasn’t a ‘bottle off’ so to speak but more of an adventure and a way to connect to other places.

Similarly, every summer we would visit my mother’s family in Southern California where we could enjoy incredible local Cabernet and Chardonnay for a fifth of the price of what they would be in the UK.  Again, family meal times were enhanced by eating local and drinking local.  I didn’t realise it at the time but this open-minded engagement was the most important aspect of my wine education.

For me, there are well-made wines which you enjoy, badly made wines which you discard and well-made wines which you wait for someone else to pay for. The subject of place is of course important to the story and context of that wine – but I was never brought up to see one part of the world as being superior to the other. They were just different – like instruments in an orchestra. Altogether they create a richer symphony of wine out there to enjoy.

This is my own crude personal association with this topic but I think objectively it is getting harder and harder to make these distinctions.  A big factor is climate change. All it takes is an increase in one degree Celsius and a whole region and its produce can change. England is the perfect example of this. Champagne is now getting so hot that the Champenois are having to invest in Sussex and Kent vineyards. Will this English Brut be considered Old World? Or the new NewWorld?

Similarly, cosmopolitan wine trends such as orange wine in the New World are creating popularity for wine from Armenia and Georgia. Both countries are not your ‘conventional’ wine school exam ‘Old World’ candidates and yet they are both some of the oldest winemaking cultures in the world.

What labels do really matter to consumers now? If you look at what is being marketed in wine bars as well as on the high street it would be fair to say that wine drinkers are more concerned about health, sustainability and provenance. People are thinking more about what they are putting into their body in regards to food. The increasing amount of ‘organic’ wine on the supermarket shelves and normalisation of ‘natural wine bars’ indicate that people who have disposable income are adapting the same mind set to wine.

I attended the ‘Raw Wine fair’ in LA last week and it was incredible to see just how much that event has grown in terms of the number of producers associated with the movement as well as the number of international destinations which that fair moves between. Old and New World wines were all represented there in equal proportions but that was not what got the hordes of consumers excited or engaged. It was the emphasis on transparency of the wine’s make up, buying into something which will help save our planet and also telling themselves that if they are going to be imbibing alcohol, this could be a healthier way to do so.

It might seem Pollyanna of me to be so blasé about these ‘old’ and ‘new’ wine categories but even in the past these labels were not so clear cut. In the late 19th century we saw the New World saving the Old World, with vignerons in France, Italy and Spain grafting their vines onto American rootstock to fight against the phylloxera bug.  It is possible to say that now we are seeing the reverse happening in the 21st century, with drought-resistant Italian, Iberian and Greek varieties being planted in California, Australia and South Africa in the fight against climate change.

Similarly, New World winemakers apply Old World techniques in areas such as Santa Barbara in California, Swartland in South Africa and Adelaide Hills in Australia to bring refinement to their wines; whilst Old World winemakers use New World techniques in places like the Languedoc in the South of France to create more popular styles. In the vast and ever-changing world of wine; collaboration, innovation and education has always been freely disseminated and adopted. Can wine therefore ever be that segregated?

To conclude, in today’s world I think it is more important than ever to not be entrenched by one dogma or orthodoxy.I wouldn’t buy a wine just because it’s ‘Old World’ any more than I would shun one because it’s not.I would choose based on my mood, food, situation or occasion. At the upcoming Masterclass with Leiths I look forward to doing a blind wine tasting and mixing up a range of wine with the different courses. Blind tasting is the most honest way to taste wine and the best way to really work out and understand why you like something. After all, as William James said, “The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.”