Between the old world and the new – where does South African wine fit?

The phrase ‘Old World wine’ is used to refer to wine made in Europe as opposed to anywhere in the rest of the world where ‘New World wine’ is produced such as in the United States, Australia and South America. The rationale is that New World countries only started producing wine in the fifteenth, sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, following European exploration or colonization, whereas wine has been made in Europe since the Roman Empire and before.

Old World Wine

‘Old World wine’ doesn’t infer a homogeneous style – obviously regions like France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain produce very many different styles of wine.  But the terms are used to describe general differences in viticulture and wine-making philosophies. Old World regions tend to have a strong tradition of the role of terroir and are thought to be more structure driven, whereas in the New World the emphasis is much more likely to be on  science and the role of the winemaker to produce wines that are considered to be more ‘fruity’ and more varietal driven. Old World wines tend to need more ageing before they’re ready to enjoy, whereas New World wines can be drunk without much ageing.New World v Old World

In terms of regulation, there’s also a big difference between Old and New World wines. In the New World there are few restrictions leaving the winemakers free to plant whatever grape varieties they wish and make the wine however they deem appropriate. Not so in Old World wine regions (e.g. any French AOC, Italian DOC or DOCG, Spanish DO, etc.) which must to adhere to a detailed set of rules governing what can be planted, and how densely, training and pruning methods, minimum ripeness at harvest, maximum yields, wine-making techniques and the use of oak.

New World and Old World Wine Map

Conventional wisdom classifies South Africa as part of the New World based on geography but is that the whole story?

South Africa has been producing wine for more than 350 years. The first grapes were pressed for wine at the Cape in 1659 under the command of Jan van Riebeeck. In fact, the first de Wet in South Africa, Jacobus de Wet, arrived in South Africa in 1693 from Amsterdam and was appointed cellar master for the Dutch East India Company in 1697 thus starting the de Wet family’s long association with oenology. Jacques and Peter de Wet are the fifth generation to farm at Excelsior. That’s longer than many Old World vineyards and much longer than anything you might find in the US. So ‘new’ might be pushing it, even if it’s not entirely ‘old’.

On the other hand, because of the isolation caused by Apartheid and the control of KWV, South Africa’s modern wine history is less than 20 years old. It was only after Apartheid that the wine industry in South Africa was able to reconnect with the global wine industry. And in the same decade as South African wine reappeared on the global scene, so too did significant quantities of wine from other ‘new world’ countries like Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

Clearly though the ‘new’ wine industry in South Africa didn’t magically appear from thin air, it evolved from the older wine industry like a phoenix rising from the ashes, newer and brighter to adapt the new external environment.

Stylistically, South African wines have been said to occupy the middle ground between Old World and New. Structured for elegance and food compatibility, they nevertheless express prominent varietal flavours.

Maybe wines from South African should be renamed ‘really old new world wine’!

Old World meets New World


Sources and further reading:

Wine Folly – New World vs Old World Wine

Wine Economist

Wikipedia – Old World Wine

WOSA – Press Release

The Kitchn – Old World Wines and New World

BBC – In Cape Town Really Old New World Wine

Money Instructor – New World Wine



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