Michael Bray

Wine Columnist Michael Bray

Within the world of wine, there is “Old World” and there is “New World.” The latter is where most wine-drinking Americans find comfort. After all, it’s where we’re from. Moreover, it is the place where we refer to wine as varietal: cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling, to name a few of the most popular. New World wine countries include: the U.S., New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Australia and South Africa.

On the other hand, “Old World” refers to European wine-producing countries such as: France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Germany. It is here, in the Old World, where it is customary to refer to a wine by region — Sancerre, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja — and not by the grape varietal. You’ve probably heard someone say, “I’ll have the Chianti,” haven’t you? Well, as it turns out, Chianti actually refers to the region in Italy and not the grape.

From my 10 years in wine retail, the No. 1 reason why more people don’t drink Old World is because of their lack of knowledge when it comes to interpreting the regions. My goal is not to argue that Old World is better than New World, but rather, provide you with the essential facts of the Old World that will allow you to comfortably experience the more comprehensive world of wine.

Old World 101:

• Burgundy refers to a region in France. Red Burgundy = pinot noir; white Burgundy = chardonnay

• Chablis is a region in France. Chablis = chardonnay

• Sancerre refers to a region in France. Sancerre = sauvignon blanc

• Bordeaux is a region in France, where they allow up to five permissible red grape varieties and three white grape varieties. Red Bordeaux = cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec; white Bordeaux = sauvignon blanc, muscadelle, semillon

• Chianti refers to a region in Italy. Chianti = sangiovese

• Rioja is a region in Spain. Rioja = tempranillo

• Barolo is a region in Piedmont, Italy. Barolo = nebbiolo

• Brunello di Montalcino refers to a region in Tuscany, Italy. Brunello = sangiovese

Once we understand that we can say, “I’ll have a red Burgundy,” when we’re in the mood for a pinot noir — the game changes. Same goes for Sancerre when we’re in the mood for a sauvignon blanc, and so on. My promise is that if you commit to memorizing all or even a few of the facts above, your experience and appreciation will increase tenfold.

Now, there is one more important distinction when comparing Old World versus New World, and that is style. For example, chardonnay grown in California will taste different than chardonnay grown in Burgundy, France. Simply put, wine offers a sense of place. It’s what the French call “terroir” and it speaks to geography, weather, climate, soil and anything remaining that may differentiate one piece of land and ultimately one wine from another. Generally speaking, Old World wines will be more earthy, mineral, lighter bodied and lower in alcohol. Whereas the higher temperatures of the New World will cause a wine to be fuller bodied, higher in alcohol and have bigger fruit flavors.

My challenge to you: drink outside your comfort zone. Go to a retailer or restaurant and ask for your favorite varietal, but from a different region. If you normally drink cabernet or merlot from the New World, ask if they have a red Bordeaux; if you drink Chianti, ask if they have sangiovese from a region outside of Italy; if you drink California chardonnay, ask for a white Burgundy. You get the point.

My favorite restaurants to try this: Steve & Cookies in Margate and Knife & Fork Inn in Atlantic City. As for retailers, you can try Canals on Fire Road or Passion Vines in Somers Point.

Lastly, please provide some feedback on your adventure. I would love to hear your likes, dislikes and impressions. Remember, that’s the fun part about wine — there’s a lot to discuss and sometimes debate!


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