How’d we get to the New World?
There is a great stylistic divide in the world of wine between the Old World and the New World. The distinction is drawn between places, but not necessarily bound by place. The difference is between styles of wine, and between understandings of wine’s place in the various cultures. Old World wines tend to be less sweet, more subtle, more prone to ageing, and better suited to classic cuisine. Old World wines are meant to be taken with food, and some are even meant to age for 15 years before they are enjoyable. Wine from the old world occupies an important cultural place, where the old ways are respected, and wine tradition is bigger than any individual label or winemaker. It is a tradition to be respected and maintained at all costs. Continental Europe, Greece, Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary are all considered places where Old World wines rule. Some winemakers in Old World countries make “New World-style” wines, but the local tradition is usually what takes precedence.
The New World is everywhere else. Most notably, the USA, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand. Chile, South Africa, and even China make wine, but are not as big or as well-known as the others yet. New World wines are innovative, nontraditional, and focused on the tasting experience. Old World producers and the traditions they uphold demand respect from their drinkers. New World winemakers work to delight the folks who are tasting their wine. Wines are called by their grape varietal, rather than the place and technique they come from. They are usually more fruit-focused, bolder, and easier to drink. While the New World style is not place-specific, it definitely reflects a different understanding of wine’s place in culture.
With such a long tradition and serious focus in Europe, it’s curious to think about how our understanding of wine changed with its spread to new places abroad. I’d like to share at least a few histories of how wine crossed over into the New World, starting with South America.
Wine in South America (New World) was first cultivated by the conquering Spanish (Old World). The first records of wine in Central and South America date back to 1522. Under Cortes’ orders, newly-subjugated Mexican, Chilean, and Argentinian farmers vinis vinfera plants brought over from Spain. Part of the reason wine spread so rapidly was the need for wine at the Catholic Mass (another import from Spain). Every new mission and town required a steady supply of wine for weekly (often daily) ceremonies. By 1557, wine was being grown, fermented, and enjoyed in Mexico, Chile, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina. South America countries weren’t recognized as producers of quality until the 1970s, when the rest of the world began to take notice. To think… 450+ years of wine making, and these wines are still considered “New World.” Wine has been around for a long time!
Australian wine is even further removed. Settlers in South Africa had been cultivating wine for some time before they took cuttings of their grapes to Australia around 1788. Wine was available for domestic sale by the 1820s. Interestingly, Australian wine at the time was considered medicinal and often made or mixed into brandy for its “therapeutic” qualities. It took the courage of a few brave souls to try and make wine of quality in a new and unfamiliar climate. Despite many difficulties, Australian wine was on the world stage by 1889. Their links to Europe are still alive today, though somewhat undercover. French Syrah is the genetic ancestor of what Aussies call Shiraz. The use of oak barriques (also French) gives Australian reds their signature punch.
Finally, we get to the USA. French Huguenot settlers discovered a plethora of wild vines in what is now the United States as early as 1562. Their efforts at producing wine sparked interest back home, and as settlers came to the would-be Colonies, they brought vitis vinifera with them. After varied success, wine made its way to California in 1769, thanks to the Fransiscan missionary Junipero Serra. The next two major hurdles to American wine were phylloxera and Prohibition. Phylloxera wiped out most of the wine in France, Italy, and the United States in the late 19th century. It was devastating. It was thanks to Californian winemakers who pioneered a new planting technique that American wine survived the epidemic. Prohibition threatened wine in America, but reports of homebrewing sparked up right around that time. Homebrewing combined with certain exemptions for sacramental wine production saved American wine from sputtering out.
Today, we are lucky to have access to such a wide variety of wine at our local shop, and even in one restaurant. We are burdened with choices, and our best option is to explore them! I’m hoping to shine a little light on the “New World” style with our wine tastings this month. Stop by when you have a little time on Thursday night.