In 1983, in the first issue of a consumer wine magazine I edited in the UK, we thought it worth introducing our readers to ‘varietal’ and ‘New World’ wines. Bottles of Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon had been around for a few years and buyers of cheap wine were familiar with cheap Paul Masson carafes of red and white, but looking for particular grape varieties or Californian or Australian or Chilean wine was a still a novelty.
Steven Spurrier’s Judgment of Paris had taken place just seven years earlier and, outside the ranks of a small number of wine enthusiasts, had passed almost unnoticed. Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay, the wine that kick-started the Chardonnay and Australia wine booms in the UK, was launched at almost precisely the same time as our magazine.
I offer this background because of the minor fuss the US Court of Master Sommeliers has created by deciding not to use the terms ‘New’ and ‘Old’ World in order to “uphold historical accuracy, eliminate cultural bias, and acknowledge the growing challenge of distinguishing between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wines.”
The well-respected US writer, Tom Wark, believes “these terms are geographic, historical, and regulatory markers” and questions how dumping them will “accomplish” the Court’s “stated goals”.
Where did these terms come from?
This New/Old World question is interesting. To consider Wark’s assertion, the terms were certainly ‘geographic’, but which countries did they refer to? Specifically, the New World referred to the former British, Spanish and Dutch colonies of North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The Old World has always been seen as Europe — specifically the parts of the Roman Empire where wine was produced and continued to be enjoyed in the royal courts.
But what about Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Armenia, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Jordan and Israel? Should they be ‘Ancient World’? Or China and India. What to do about them? None of these questions occurred to us or anyone else in the days when we began to divide the world into New and Old. If England was barely on our radar, the idea of Poland making decent Riesling or Jancis Robinson recommending a Danish Pinot Noir would have been unimaginable.
‘Historical’ is another questionable term. Constantia in South Africa has been making wine for far longer than Bolgheri, which was a malaria-infested swamp until Mussolini drained it. To be historically coherent, I suppose we could rename the New World countries we were thinking about in the 1980s, ‘Formerly Colonised World’, but I’m not sure it would catch on.
Ironically, looking back to those days, the people who objected to the term ‘New World’ were Californians who thought it demeaning. Some of the producers of those days were quite strict when it came to language. Early on in my radio interview with the legendary Napa pioneer, Joe Heitz, he corrected me: “It’s Ca-Li-For-Nee-Ya Wine” he said, “Not Ca-Li-For-Nee-YAN”. He then rebuked me for referring to one of his wines as a ‘Zin’. “It’s Zin-Fan-Del,” he pointed out. My response that I’d stop using the short version when Californians stopped labelling their wine as Chablis didn’t go down well. I’d forgotten that this was one of his winery’s more popular whites in the US, if not Europe.
Where are the differences?
Wark refers to a ‘regulatory’ difference, between the Old and New Worlds, but I struggle to see many gaps between the rules in parts of Eastern Europe and the Americas.
Looking back, I concede that the two Worlds often diverged philosophically. In the 1980s, there were still Californians who stated that ‘soil is dirt’ and that wine was effectively made in the winery. These were the days when sophisticated education, clones, commercial yeasts, enzymes and carefully selected barrels were all associated with the southern hemisphere and the US. For Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac, all non-European wine was ‘industrial’.
But that was then, and this is now. Today, if you put their words through a translation app, I’d defy you to identify whether a wild-yeast-loving, passionate terroirist was from the Médoc, Mendocino or Margaret River. Today, climate change has, ironically, given parts of Europe warmer, more ‘Californian’ growing conditions while introducing Californians and other New World regions to the kind of vintage variations that were once associated with France. Though admittedly, the devastating fires and floods the New World-ers now face are of a very different order.
Should we regulate languages (better)?
Excepting derogatory terms that are deemed legally offensive, language, as has often been said, is a living thing whose birth and survival are not in the remit of any authority, whether it’s the Académie française trying to outlaw ‘le weekend’ or the Master Somms.
I am one of many who objected to ‘natural’ and ‘clean’ as terms to describe wines that are supposedly healthier than everything that doesn’t conform to their blurred rules. One of these has passed into the vinous vocabulary; the other hasn’t.
The Champenois and their lawyers have done everything in their power to restrict the use of ‘Champagne’ to wine bearing that appellation. But they haven’t stopped countless hosts and waiters from casually applying the word to a wide range of sparkling wine that has nothing to do with that part of France. Indeed, despite lengthy negotiations between the French and US governments over a term the former believe to be ‘geographic, historical, and regulatory’, they haven’t even been able to stop wineries like Korbel from legally producing huge quantities of ‘California Champagne’.
People will go on using ‘New World’ and ‘Old World’ when talking about wine for as long as they find it useful but, as the Court of Master Somms’ decision acknowledges, we are probably heading towards a time when ‘New World wine’ will be as quaint an expression as ‘fax machine’ and ‘wireless’. And as meaningless to many people as it was to the readers of our wine magazine back in 1983.