The Rebels vs. the Traditionalists: Consumers win in the battle of Old vs. New World wines

These days, the wine world finds two competing factions in the ring. In one corner, wearing plaid pants and a staid necktie is the Old World (France, Spain, Germany, Italy); in the opposite corner, wearing DKNY and body jewelry in an unspeakable place is the New World (U.S., Australia, South America, South Africa). The old timers, usually the grave know-it-alls, sit back and do things the traditional way, while the trash-talking teenagers are out having wine orgies and pissing off the establishment.

Round one: The advertising begins. If you haven’t noticed, lately there has been an influx of wine consumer advertising. Unusual wine marketing avenues such as billboards and radio have been spotted as some savvy New World producers try to reach into your pockets. Haven’t seen many German Riesling ads, though.

Round two: labeling. I’ve harped on France’s complicated French labeling, and the New World wineries have captured the hearts of many a wine drinker simply by telling us the grape name and slapping a clever moniker on the bottle. Some great whimsical ones I’ve seen lately: Porcupine Ridge’s Goats do Roam from South Africa; California’s Toad Hollow Eye of the Toad; and Australia’s Madfish Winery.

I recently attended a press conference where the French wine industry unveiled a pumped-up marketing scheme for the U.S., centering on how to make their wine more user-friendly and approachable. They’ll be implementing a program with easier- to-understand varietal labeling (meaning: with the grape name on it), but this won’t extend to the venerable and confusing French “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (AOC) wines (the wines labeled by region). So, this means some wines in the “lesser quality” regions of Burgundy will be labeled Pinot Noir, and then others down the road such as Gevry Chambertin or Nuits St. George will remain a mystery for the average wine buyer. Thanks, France, for clearing it up for us.

But the main difference between the Old and New World are the wines themselves. In the Old World, governments heavily regulate the winemaking processes. They even standardize the number of grapes harvested per acre and how long the wine must age. In other words, the winemakers’ opportunities for innovation are limited, and the old traditions are so ingrained that change is frowned on. Thus, the wines remain somewhat alike, possessing high quality and character but reflect very little of the winemaker’s personality.

South America, specifically Argentina and Chile, are leaning toward the Old World style, simply because the French got their claws in early. Currently, there are several successful French/Argentinean ventures, such as the Catena Winery that works with the wildly profitable Rothschild company out of Bordeaux. Working with the grape-friendly soil and Southern climates, the French have influenced the South Americans with their traditional techniques and full-bodied, tannic styles.

New Worlders — Americans and Australians — in their usual cocky and arrogant way, prefer to thumb their nose at tradition. Generally speaking, they make comfortable, fruity wines, for people who aren’t collectors or looking to elevate wine to a cult-like status. Their products reflect a desire to create wines for the masses; wines for everyday consumption; wines made for the modern palate. With less regulation, New World winemakers can run free and create more innovative drink.

So it might seem that the fight is a stalemate, with the consumer winning. Never before have wine drinkers had so much choice. I’m just glad the new guys arrived on the world scene.


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