As climate change ravages ecosystems and upends viticulture, a curious narrative has emerged in select corners of the wine world. Some say that traditional distinctions between Old World and New World wines will soon be obsolete.
“Wines have long been categorized as belonging to one of two worlds: Old or New,” wrote Wall Street Journal columnist Lettie Teague earlier this year. “But I wonder how useful or, for that matter, accurate divvying up wines this way is today?”
It’s a logical question. Although the climate crisis is catastrophic, it’s not the only factor that’s redrawing the wine map. Technology continues to advance, winemakers develop and exchange techniques and, crucially, global tastes and trade relationships evolve.
For some wine consumers, “New World” is shorthand for wines that are fruitier and higher in alcohol. They are labeled typically by grape variety. Old World wine, by contrast, is more concerned with place than grape. They are generally lighter and less fruit-driven.
“I think the Old World still has that freshness and balance,” said Christophe Rebut, of French Flair Food & Wine, which imports French wine into Australia. “But I’ve definitely seen a change. In the New World, they’re certainly making more balanced wines now. But I wonder if it’s because the winemakers are getting better as well.”
Skill certainly plays a part. Additionally, stylistic divisions between New and Old Worlds have historically resulted from tradition, consumer preferences and, of course, growing conditions. As these factors shift, so does what’s possible in different wine regions.
“We are the big winners from climate change,” Dirk Würtz, a German vintner and wine journalist, told The New York Times last year about a record 2018 harvest in Mosel. “I know it’s disgusting to say, but it’s the truth.”
Climate change has wrought extreme heat, drought, wildfires, flooding and devastating spring frosts. And yet, there’s also the uncomfortable truth that wine-growing conditions in certain regions have benefited in a sense from the effects of climate change.
The lifespans of these so-called benefits remain to be seen. In the meantime, however, Germany produces ripened grapes and dry wine that past generations never imagined. A world-class sparkling wine industry has sprouted in England. Even prestige regions like Champagne or Barolo have more consistent, warmer vintages than ever before.
In 2018, Klaus Peter and Julia Keller produced wine in Norway in a region better known for snow sports than winemaking. “This harvest is beautiful and frightening at the same time,” Keller said at the time.
Stylistic divisions between New and Old Worlds have historically resulted from tradition, consumer preferences and, of course, growing conditions.
The effects of climate change are evident in the Loire Valley, especially in regions like Anjou and Touraine that are famous for Chenin Blanc. Growers once struggled for ripeness with Chenin. In the 1980s, the harvest in places like Vouvray, Montlouis-sur-Loire or Savennières happened in mid-October. By the late 1990s, Chenin was harvested in early October. Now, picking happens in mid-September.
This has led to stylistic changes in the wines. While these areas can still produce a variety of expressions, characteristics of the final wines may be different from traditional bottlings. For example, fermenting a completely dry Chenin Blanc now results in high alcohol levels. Some prestige Chenin Blanc from Savennières is now bottled regularly at more than 15% alcohol by volume (abv). These have become big, full-bodied wines, much like their erstwhile New World counterparts.
“Fifteen years ago, people wanted more ripeness,” says Jacky Blot, famed winemaker of Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups in Montlouis-sur-Loire. “Because of climate change and global warming, ripe is easy now. Now people want something else.”
Some U.S. wine professionals aren’t quite buying the breakdown of distinctions between Old and New.
“While styles and climate has changed in both the New World and Old, driving the distinction between the two closer, the distinction itself will never be irrelevant,” says David Foss, managing partner at LaLou in Brooklyn, New York. “There will always be traditional Burgundy, Barolo and Bordeaux. Even though climate change has knocked ripeness and alcohol content up, those wines still have a sense of place that, at times, is unmistakable.”
Victoria James, author of Wine Girl and beverage director at Cote in New York City, has a list with an array of Old and New World wines, including an extensive Champagne collection.
“I believe that the distinction between Old World and New World wines is still quite clear,” says James. “Especially in regards to geography, vine age, soil types, centuries of tradition and local resources.”
Vincent Carême, a winemaker in Vouvray, has worked with Chenin Blanc in both Loire and South Africa.
“The difference between Old and New World will certainly be less than before,” he says. Still, “the climate changes quickly. But habits don’t change very quickly.”