There’s been much debate about Old World vs. New World wines - which wines are better, the role of tradition, the opportunity for scientific advancements – Gothamist could go on forever, but we will not. To us it’s not a choice and either style can be fabulous based on what we are looking for at any moment in time. What interests us is the back story, the untold story of how the two worlds came together to save wine as we know it today (insert overture to “West Side Story” here).
Before we embark on this tale of disease, devastation and survival – a quick background on what it means to be an “Old World” or “New World” wine…
The difference between Old World and New World wines is more then just geography, Old World being from Europe and New World being from everywhere else (North and South America, Australia, South Africa, etc). The fundamental difference comes down to style. Old World wines tend to be more subtle and refined where as New World wines tend to be bolder and fruit forward. This is mainly due to differences in grape-growing and wine-making techniques.
Now, to our story . . .
Our tale begins in the middle of the 19th century at Arles in Provence. Here was the first reported case of Phylloxera Vastatrix (the devastator), an insect whose larvae feed on the roots of the grape vine causing the plant to die. One by one the vineyards were dying, with the plague spreading throughout France and the rest of Europe. By 1920 almost all vine-growing countries had been affected. Wine production in the Old World virtually came to a halt. Dun…dun…dunnnn!
The wine industry was devastated. A commission was set up to find a cure for this disease – with France leading the charge offering 300,000 French Francs (today about $1.5 million) to solve the problem. An extensive test center was set up at Montpellier University in France under Professor Planchon. Researchers discovered that this pest originated in North America and was most likely transported to Europe on vine clippings used for testing (much like stone-washed jeans, McDonald’s and other bad American exports). This just brought forth more questions, if the pest was from North America, why weren’t the American vines affected by this devastating disease? This exploration eventually led to the solution for Phylloxera. Over time, the American vines had built up a tolerance to Phylloxera by forming calluses over the wound to prevent bleeding of the sap. Researchers discovered that, by grafting the American rootstock to the European vine, they were able to create a resistant vine for Europe.
Vineyards worldwide had to be replanted with this grafted species of Old World and New World vines and going forward virtually all wine producing grape plants consisted of this combination.
For those wondering (oh you know you are), the 300,000 Franc prize was never awarded. The Government maintained that grafting prevented the attacks from Phylloxera, rather than curing it. That’s le crap!
There’s the story of how the two worlds came together to save the most noble of drinks, wine. So, the next time someone tries to convince you that Old World or New World wine is better, you’ll know it’s neither - because we all share common roots.