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Ask a Somm: What's the Difference Between New and Old World Wine?

It’s all about terroir and tradition.

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Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

After 23 years, San Francisco stalwart One Market is still going strong, plating a seasonally-bent, New American California-style menu. What was originally chef Bradley Ogden's domaine has been under the watch of (hot) chef Mark Dommen for some time now. Meanwhile, sommelier Tonya Pitts takes control of wine, having built a stable of bottles highlighting old vintages from the New World. But what exactly are New World wines? Pitts explains, below.

Q: I often hear people refer to New World and Old World wines. What is the difference, and how do you define each?

Pitts: New World wines are wines which are produced in wine-growing regions other than Europe. Europe is considered the Old World. The process of turning grapes into wine was created in the Old World Europe. The New World locations for wine making are growing quickly. Some of these locations include the United States, Australia, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand. These are all regions that were colonized. Some places have only been growing grapes for a hundred years.

New World wines are wines which are produced in wine-growing regions other than Europe.

The difference between Old World and New World is the climate, terroir (sense of place), soil types, and the winemaking process. The Old World is about tradition. Winemakers pride themselves on being authentic even though there is newer technology available. The New World is more about pushing the envelope and experimenting. There is a school of thought in the New World which has embraced the Old World-style of winemaking. I would even say that New World wines were originally made in the image or likeness of Old World wines. But this can sometimes be challenging because of the climate. For example, South Africa, Australia, and California have a much warmer climate than, let’s say, France. I will use the grape varietal Syrah as an example, which, by the way, is one of my favorite. Syrah grown in France tends to be spicier, less fruit-forward, earthier, and more tannic. Syrah grown in California tends to be bigger, bolder, jammier, with less spice. Here are some of my favorites from both worlds.

  • 2013 Herman Story, John Sebastiano Vineyard Syrah, Santa Barbara County, CA ($45): Proprietor and winemaker Russell P. From began his project in 2001 with seven barrels. He now sources from 30 vineyards throughout Santa Barbara and Paso Robles. His focus is Rhône varitials and Pinot Noir. The John Sebastiano Syrah has nuisances of voluptuous blackberry, malt chocolate, freshly cooked bacon, vanilla bean, and pink peppercorns.
  • 2010 Spring Valley Vineyard, Nina Lee Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, WA ($37): Spring Valley Vineyard was started by the late Devin Derby and his wife Mary Tuuri Derby when they moved from San Francisco back to Devin’s hometown of Walla Walla. Serge Laville joined him in 2002 and stayed on after Devin’s untimely death in 2004 to maintain the style of the house. The winerynamed after Derby’s grandmother who was a vaudeville performerhas always been known for Bordeaux blends, but the hidden gem is the Syrah. Look for aromas of violet, boysenberry, cedar, bittersweet chocolate, and cumin.
  • 2013 Domaine Auguste Clape Cornas, Rhône, France ($99): Domaine Clape has been producing wine in the northern Rhône since the early 1900s. This is my go-to for old-style northern Rhône. It is imported by Kermit Lynch a retailer out of Berkeley who fell in love with France and Italy many years ago. Much of the smaller production French wines were originally bought into the United States by Kermit. This wine has deep dark garnet fruit, layers of licorice, chicory, exotic flowers, and smooth tannins.
  • 2011 Alpha Box & Dice, Apostle Shiraz/Durif, McLaren Vale, Australia ($42): AB & D for short is Justin Lane’s project out of McLaren Vale, in South Australia. It is a warmer climate with moderate temperature variations, which gets a cooling influence from the ocean. Lane started as an apprentice learning to make wine in Hunter Valley, Australia. The project for AB & D began to form after he took a job as a "flying winemaker" with a UK importer to produce wine in France, Italy and Moldova. The lightbulb went off. Per Lane, "The wines we make are a culmination of our experiences in the past. It’s winemaking with a reduced toolbox ... Sometimes even just the toolbox and no tools." He produces 20 different varietals under his label, inclusive of Apostle, which has aromas of juicy plum, boysenberry, blueberry, Moroccan spices, violet, licorice, and chocolate.
  • 2012 Favia Quarzo Syrah, Amador, CA ($86): This is the eighth offering from winemakers Annie Favia and Andy Erickson. Their philosophy is to create soulful expressions of a true sense of place (terroir). The fruit for this selection is from Anne Kramer’s legendary Shake Ridge Ranchwhich is on a hilly landscape with volcanic soils and crystal quartz throughoutand it's one of my favorite wines from them. The juice is completely opaque, and channels aromas of huckleberry, red berries, sarsaparilla, fresh thyme, bay leaf, and graphite.
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