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The Changing World View

"One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them," Aldous Huxley Brave New World

The American branch of the Court of Master Sommeliers rocked the planet, or at the least the wine-studying part of the planet, recently with its announcement that it is doing away with "Old World" and "New World" terminology in its courses and examinations.

Good for them! These term are completely eurocentric and arose from the Age of Exploration and an era of colonialism. The "new" worlds of the Americas, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand are just as old geologically as the "old" world and, more importantly, were teeming with indigenous peoples when European explorers "discovered" them. The New World is "new" in much the same way flip phones, Kate Bush, and the show Friends is new to Gen Z.

While I like to think of myself as woke (or at least trying to be), the "New World"/ "Old World" insensitivity was admittedly a blindspot for me. With my European genes and my western education, these are terms that were just natural for me, and I have used them for decades without thinking about their literal meaning. The moment I thought about it, though, I was suddenly struck with overwhelming guilt over my language use throughout my life. I can't count the number of "Old World vs. New World" wine tastings I've led or how many reviews I've written with "has an old world style" type of wording. Yikes!

It is nice to see the Court leading the way on a progressive issue rather than making news by being at the center of controversy over their tired, old ways. The Court has made many encouraging changes recently, such as appointing Julie Cohen Theobald as Executive Director and Emily Wines as Chair of the Board. These and other moves have shown a push away from being an "old boys club," both in perception and in action.

So... well done! Be gone distasteful terms, and good riddance! The question remains, though: do the classifications themselves need to go, too? The Court says they do. Are they throwing out the baby with the bath water? Can't we just come up with new terms, like "European" and "Non-European" when we are analyzing and discussing wine? It's not an an easy answer.

There is no doubt that a Eurocentric view of the world is wrong. The world must be viewed from a global standpoint rather than through the lens of a Western eye as a matter of course. However, this is wine. Europe is and has been, at least for the last few hundred years, the measuring stick by which all wines are compared, whether those wines come from the Americas or from the China. Everywhere outside of Europe is trying to emulate it or at least compare its wines to European wines. Maybe categorizing wines in a way that we previously named "Old World" would a useful practice if done with more enlightened terminology.

From a winemaking standpoint, Europe is unique and distinctive. There are real differences between a typical European wine and a typical non-European wine. These differences, like in the condition of fruit flavors, the amount of acids and alcohol as structural components, the ripeness and texture of the tannins, are all aspects we as wine students are taught early-on to pick up, make note of, and draw conclusions from. One of the first questions we've been trained to ask ourselves when we blind a wine: is this Old World or New World? There are, of course, exceptions to the typicity, but these exceptions prove the rule. We are struck by the exception, and they often make a wine noteworthy. Without some sort of classification, there is nothing to note. I believe the distinction is an important one, albeit in need of new, less empirical wording. As Juliet says, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

The Court tells us the lines are blurring, that there is not just a cultural issue, but that the classifications are disappearing, too. Yes, I agree. It is becoming difficult to tell the difference between European and non-European wines. With global warming cooking grapes across the planet and in the absence of labeling requirements in most non-European regions, there is a homogenization of styles and a masking of identities. That doesn't mean we should do away with the classification characteristics associated with the inappropriate old terms, though, even if only from an historic viewpoint. The Old World style, as we used to call it, is a thing, even if it is a thing that the climate is making hard to achieve. Similarly, the New World style, as we used to call it, is a thing, even if winemakers are using all sorts of manipulative techniques to avoid not be that thing.

The Court also tells us that the old classification structure is not important, that it is an unnecessary step, and that we can simply use countries and regions to make the distinctions. While somewhat true, I find this sometimes inadequate and wanting. It works fine when comparing a Napa wine with a Bordeaux wine, sure, but what if you have a Margaret River Cab and a Super Tuscan? Those don't have the categorical connotations of Napa and Bordeaux, but a skilled taster can instantly detect them as New World and Old World, er non-European and European, in style.

Without the old classification structure, there are implications in both examinations and in writing. Now, in an examination, we students won't get any points for recognizing the Margaret River Cab as being in a different classification than the Tuscan wine. We would have to distinguish the Margaret River wine from a Napa wine or from a Chilean wine to get grading points. To be honest, that is a test I will fail as many times as I pass with my less-than-super-tasting capabilities. I'm also not sure its an important distinction to be able to make other than for purely acedemic or parlor-trick reasons.

I don't get too hung up on examination scoring issues, so that doesn't bother me much. However, I do care a great deal about writing. Wine has its own language, it's own terms and meanings, and it is beautiful. Winemaking is an artform, and writing about it should be one, too.

It is going to be a challenge to keep this change in vernacular from taking us further down a very sterile and clinical path of wine writing. I mean, we are already getting there in so many ways. The WSET-ification of wine writing is already hard to take. I read so many descriptions that are nothing more than a written-out form of the WSET tasting grid, it drives me crazy. I don't blame the WSET tasting grid for this, by the way. I think the grid is an excellent way to examine a student's wine tasting abilities. I blame WSET for not explaining to students that the purpose of the grid is examination and analysis, not as an outline for describing a wine in an instagram post. It follows, then, that it is just a matter of time before I start reading about "cold climate" and "warm climate" styles of wine. God help us.

It won't be easy, but great writers will figure it out. "This Pouily-Fuissé has New World richness" will have to be replaced with something other than "... has non-European richness" or else it will read like it was written by an artificial intelligence chat bot. During this awkward transition, we will probably have to endure the over use of terms like Burgundian, Bordeauxesque, and Piemontese in our lexicon. These are necessary growing pains.

Rethinking and reformulating language is always a good thing. It is the tried and true that gets us into trouble and makes us use terms without consciousness, like I far too often do. I look forward to this challenge in the new brave new world.


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