The term “Old World Wine” is probably a phrase you have heard mentioned by your wine aficionado friends at some point during your journey through the world of wine. While it may seem to be a simple distinction, it is essential to understand the style and flavor profile behind a wine described as Old World.
This will go a long way in helping you know what style you prefer and give you a confidence boost when describing what you want to a sommelier or picking out a bottle of wine for yourself at the wine shop!
The Origin of Wine
A lot of people ask, "Who invented wine?" but a more appropriate question would be "Who discovered wine?". And to that end, there are multiple theories and myths.
Fables aside, one thing is sure: wine has been around for thousands of years. A few years ago, scientists discovered 8,000-year-old pottery fragments in Tbilisi, Georgia.
These excavated pottery vessels are now considered to be the earliest evidence of grape wine-making. Skip a few thousand years later to the Egyptian Pharaohs' era, grape growing and wine-making had become more refined.
All the time, the wine was made exclusively for royalty, and it was common for them to be buried with wine in their burial crypts for consumption in the afterlife.
The Greeks followed suit, keeping the wine-making fire burning bright. Alexander the Great, a lover of wine, popularised the fermented drink in all the territories he conquered all the way to Asia. Folklore has it that on his deathbed, he still refused to drink water and stuck to wine.
The Romans followed the Greeks into the wine-making business around 1000BC and made significant contributions to the industry. Examples of their achievements included the classification of new varieties of grapes and the wooden wine barrels.
These are still used to date, though most are made with oak, unlike the European Silver Fir the Romans used.
As the Romans conquered most of Western Europe, they established wine industries in these territories. However, the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD, plunging Western Europe into the Dark Ages.
The Muslim Turks came into the picture as they conquered some of the wine regions previously under the Roman Empire. Unlike the Romans, they weren't as supportive of viticulture and heavily taxed wine farmers, causing most of them to go out of business.
In fact, wine-making was only kept alive by the Roman Catholic Church and Greek Monks during the Middle Ages.
Centuries later, the Spanish exploration of the New World brought wine-making to the Americas, while other Europeans took it to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa giving birth to New World Wine.
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Old World Wine
Wine-making originated in the Old World, where traditions and regulations around production were firmly established. As our track through history shows, these regions (Europe, the Mediterranean, and parts of Asia) have a much longer history of viticulture than other parts of the world, not to mention they’ve been producing wine for thousands of years.
The wine-making culture has been passed from one generation to another, one ruling empire to another, giving rise to the term Old World Wine.
Grape Varieties in Old World Wine Regions
One of the main influences on Old World grapes is terroir—the unique characteristics and geography of a region. While wines in the New World are often labeled based on the grape varietal (such as Chardonnay), wines in the Old World are generally labeled based on the region or place that they come from.
This is because Old World winemakers believe characteristics such as soil, climate and topography often play a more distinct role in shaping the resulting wine than the grape variety itself. As a result, many Old World wine regions have developed and adapted techniques that best suit a particular grape-growing area.
For example, the Nebbiolo grape variety is known for producing powerful, full-bodied red wines such as the world-renowned Barolo and Barbaresco.
Despite being an essential part of two of Italy’s premier wines, this grape variety is only grown in the famed Piedmont wine region. This is because Nebbiolo, which is difficult to produce (flowers early yet ripens late), seems to only thrive well in clay- and silt-based soils at the foot of the Western Alps.
Another example is the Mosel valley in Germany, known for crisper style white wines, lower in alcohol and higher in acidity. This wine region is well-known for its Riesling grape variety, which occupies over half of the vineyards in the area.
Did you know that the steepest vineyard in the world-the Calmont Vineyard? It is in Mosel. Technically considered a region too cold to produce wine, Mosel's vineyards are planted on super steep terraces, allowing each Riesling plant to maximize every scrap of sunlight it gets.
The region also has three distinct slate deposits (red, blue & grey) that contribute largely to the unique minerality profile of its wines.
Human vs. Machine Harvesting
Nowadays, most of the harvest is done with grape harvesting machines. It's estimated that a machine can pick a hectare of vineyard in no more than five hours, while hand labor could take between 2-10 days to harvest the same area. They also come with the added advantage of allowing harvesting to occur at any time of day or night.
That being said, this method has several disadvantages. First of all, the machines cannot selectively choose the grapes to harvest. That means moldy, rotten, dried-out, or unripe bunches, foliage, insects...etc are often picked along with healthy mature ones. With the average grape harvesting machine going for up to 200,000 dollars, many small vineyard owners can not afford them.
Hand-picking involves grapes pickers who have been trained to select only the healthy, ripe bunches. During the wine harvest season, thousands of pickers are hired to harvest grapes according to the kind of wine that will be made.
For example, sparkling wines (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) require grapes with low sugar content, so those are harvested first. Red wine grapes take longer to reach maturity, so they tend to be harvested during the middle to end of the season. Ever heard the phrase “the riper the berry, the sweeter the juice”?
As grapes ripen further, the sugar levels increase while the acid levels decrease. Dessert wine grapes that have high sugar content are harvested last.
There are cases where it’s not possible to harvest with machines, so harvesting has to be done by hand.
- The delicate grapes like Pinot Noir are prone to break and thus cannot be machine harvested.
- The steep slopes of the Mosel Valley make machine harvesting outright impossible.
- Winemakers who want to keep fuel costs and a winery’s carbon footprint at a minimum.
- Some wine appellations, such as Champagne, France, prohibit the use of machine harvesting. The requirement for whole, undamaged grapes is the same today as it was centuries ago.
- Old vineyards tend to have their rows too close together for a machine to be able to harvest.
Old World Wine Appellations
Given the long history of wine-making in Old World regions, it should come as no surprise that each territory has a detailed set of rules by which winemakers must abide.
France was the first to implement such a system in 1919 to ensure the quality, taste, and structure of its wine is reflective of its long-standing heritage and cultural importance. Other Old Wine countries like Italy and Spain too followed with their own set of quality laws.
One of the hardest parts of distinguishing between the Old World and the New World is when you go to buy a bottle of wine. This is because many bottles of Old World wine are covered in symbols and terminology that most wine lovers don’t understand.
These terms are part of a wine appellation labeling system that tells the consumer about the wine before they drink it.
Wine appellations are legally determined and protected wine regions. These territories are thought to produce the best quality wine in the world.
Winemakers must follow strict rules throughout the process to earn an appellation stamp on their wine labels. These rules can dictate anything from the grape varieties used, the level of alcohol in each bottle, how long the wine is aged for, and even how the vines are planted.
The main wine appellations include:
- European Union Wine Appellation
- France Wine Appellation
- Italy Wine Appellation
- Spain Wine Appellation
Out of all alcoholic drinks, none has had such an impact on society. With wine becoming ever increasingly popular, many people are acquainting themselves with different wines, flavors, bodies, and even how to grow grapes!
What new thing about old-world wine have you learned today? Let us know in the comment section.