Wine: reading the label
Old World vs New World wines
When we talk about ‘Old World’ wines, this refers to countries considered the 'origins' of wine, essentially Europe and some of the Middle East, including: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Greece, Lebanon, Israel, Croatia, Georgia, Romania, Hungary and Switzerland… wines tend to be lighter-bodied, more restrained, can be less fruity with higher acidity and lower in alcohol, though this is very much a generalization. A notable distinction is that wine bottle labels from these places emphasise the source or origin as opposed to specifying grape cultivars; not just any grapes can be grown in all producing regions.
‘New World’ wines refer to countries or regions where winemaking grapes were brought in from countries that used to be 'the colonies', including: the US, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. With the warmer climates, these wines tend to be more full-bodied with ripe fruit flavour and can have higher alcohol. These countries and regions may note the origin on the bottle label and will most often specify the grape variety or cultivar.
Origins and classification
The main reason that wines from the Old World note the origin on the label is that their winemaking viticulture and vinification methods are heavily restricted, with strict guidelines all wineries must follow. They've been producing wine a certain way for hundreds of years and continue to uphold these practices, traditions and standards. There is a great deal of heritage behind this, and an integral part of provenance, which can often contribute to the rationale behind higher pricing.
It was the French who began the system of ‘named regions’ by way of certification – appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) meaning ‘controlled designation of origin’ – but the same principles extended to other parts of Europe. The system is based around certain countries categorizing their wines into specific grape-growing geographical regions. This 'appellation' names the region where particular grapes are grown as they are best suited to that place, as well as indicates the wine will be made according to the laws and regulations for that particular wine.
As an example, in France, there are regions, villages, communes and then vineyards where only specific grapes can be grown – and thus, the more specific the areas of a named zone, the better or higher quality the wine. As no intervention such as irrigation is permitted, the influence of natural factors such as the soil of the region and the weather patterns of the climate impart specific characteristics to a particular vintage. As only specific varieties can be grown in these best suited sites, the origin name gives the consumer an idea of what is in the wine, e.g. Bordeaux is nearly always comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. In the Rhone Valley, Shiraz is the main grape to be found and in Burgundy, for example, it is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
However, as permission to put an AOC on a label comes with such strict regulations, there is also a term ‘vin de France’ meaning generic ‘table wine’, which can be made anywhere within France. In the New World sites, there are far fewer restrictions applied, and wines are labelled generally with the grape variety or cultivar, and there may be a mention of region; e.g. in the Cape it will say Wine of Origin (WO) Western Cape.
Other terms to note on a label include: ‘brut’, meaning dry and ‘doux’ meaning sweet; ‘cuvée’ can be used to mean the first press of the wine juice from harvest, or a selection from special barrels; Premier and Grand Cru are a special French classification, with Grand Cru followed by Premier Cru, above the basic village appellations. The label will also give the ABV or alcohol percentage by volume.