All wine is fermented grape juice, but the part of the world where the grapes were grown has a profound effect on how the wine tastes. Understanding the difference between Old World and New World wines is one of those life-changing pieces of wine knowledge that will come in handy whether you’re casually bottle shopping or selecting the perfect red wine to pair with your sirloin steak.
Old World wines generally come from Europe and other lands where wine culture stretches back a surprisingly long time, says Chris Gaither, an Advanced Sommelier who runs the wine-focused restaurant Ungrafted in San Francisco. “Old World wines come from areas that have a wine-drinking and winemaking history that extends over 1,000 years.”
Historians believe that winemaking techniques pioneered in Eastern Europe spread to the Middle East, Egypt and Greece by 2000 B.C.E. before moving into the Mediterranean.
When people refer to New World wines, on the other hand, they are typically talking about bottles made in the Americas, East Asia and Southern Africa. While there are communities in those regions with ancient beverage cultures, this is how the modern wine industry delineates itself.
Old World vs New World Wine
With Old World wines, the most prominent name on the label is a place, or appellation, instead of a grape. For example, in France, Chablis, Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault are used in place of Chardonnay on the label. These names tell drinkers where the grapes were cultivated and hint at the wine style.
In New World regions like North America, Australia, South America and South Africa, where wine culture dates back a few hundred years, wines are typically labeled with the primary grape variety or varieties used.
If you’re tasting blind and can’t see the label, focusing on the flavor differences can help determine what’s in your glass.
“Old World [wines], in terms of flavor profile, they generally have less emphasis on overt fruitiness, and they’re also less likely to be overtly oak influenced,” says Gaither. The opposite is also true, he says: New World wines often have prominent fruit and barrel flavors. The latter can present as vanilla, coconut or coffee.
Of course, there are exceptions, since winemakers worldwide can experiment with unexpected grape combos or techniques.