• Janie Chiu

'A Whole New World' of Wine

Written for ANTB64 Anthropology of Food, University of Toronto

When talking about and deciding between good wines, many people only consider wines by price points and origins. Majority of wine buyers associate "best/good wines" with countries from Europe and the Middle East, but never consider new and upcoming countries outside of these countries such as North and South America and Asia. The examples will refer to China's wine industry.

The focus of this research will be on terroir and geographic indications in wine, exploring the cultural gaps between sites of wine production and consumption of New World wine compared to Old World wine. Moreover, the research aims to define the complexity of the culture and globalization that plays a role in Old and New world wines - places where people are working to raise wines, contend with and grapple with translating this terroir and adapting their wine varieties to the tastes of international consumers.

Old World Versus New World

Taste and Cultural Distinctions

For many years, wine drinkers, writers and academics have referred to the New World and Old World wine dichotomy, making all wine drinkers and buyers to feel a strong binary distinction between the two worlds.

When people use the term Old World, they are referring to wines made in countries that are considered the birthplaces of wine, which is Europe and the Middle East and these countries include: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Israel, Romania, Hungary, and Switzerland. Old World wines tend to be lighter-bodied, more restrained and lower in alcohol. A main characteristic that Old World wine countries have in common is that their wine production has standard guidelines that have been followed and passed down to for many decades. In contrast, New World wines originate from colony nations, such as the United States, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Australia and South Africa. These countries have colder temperatures, allowing wines from the to be fuller with a bolder fruit taste, and generally higher in alcohol (Li et al., 2018).

To many average wine drinkers, wine is considered a pairing for different dishes so that the drink can either enhance or complement the consumer’s palate. Avid wine drinkers and connoisseurs may prefer Old World wine more because they value the deep-rooted heritage and legacy behind the wine they drink. As wine lovers, remembering the wine in our bottle has been made the same way for centuries is simply romantic. Often times, wine drinkers would undermine New World wines and consider them to be "out of touch" with traditions, standards, and romanticism of what Old World wines embody.

Terroir and Geographical Indication

Terroir refers to "the taste of place," associating specific foods that originate from a particular region of the world (Besky, 2016). Geographical indication (GI) is a common term used to describe the different regulations used to protect geographical designators to educate consumers on a product's geographical origin and the nature and characteristics of the product. As for to intellectual property rights, GI refers to the use of a given term, typically originating from a geographical area, as an exclusive right of producers living in that zone (Besky, 2016).

Terroir, the word originating from France, is strongly associated with French wines for its deep-rooted heritage of wine-making and procuring has created its own unique, rounded flavors that represent the taste of place. Additionally, it is not an economic strategy but rather a reputation and heritage protection for wine (Zheng, 2019). French wines are famous for their historical connotation of terroir and people, wine drinker or not, naturally know that Bordeaux wines are the definition of terroir when talking about wine from the region and its history for producing the most expensive wines (Ballantyne et al., 2019). However, the term has also been adopted by other wine growing countries to mean wine characteristics due to the place of origin as well. It is now so easy for people to slap "Terroir" onto almost any wine and make it "distinct" to a place. But are we just being wine snobs? Is there a whole new world of wines that we just don't seem to see?

Ancient World and New New World

China: Ancient World Wine

The changing landscape and environment of wine production has been driven, to an enormous degree, by the fast development of both elites and prospering working classes in nations, for example, China and India. These major milestones has brought about the advancement of many small and large local wineries. It has been observed that such progressions of these growing local destinations of wine production has created opportunities for investments and employment.

Grape growing and wine making in China dates back to between 7000 BCE and 9000BCE, however, China has always been regarded as the New New World on the world wine globe. Winemaking technologies and wine culture are embedded in Chinese tradition, and the current New World concept is culturally Euro-centric bias that ignores stated facts that grape growing was also part of the Chinese heritage (Li et al., 2018).

China has a long tradition of growing grape vines, one of the roots of the genus Vitis. There are over 80 species of Vitis plants worldwide, 42 of which are native to China. Vitis vinifera grape was first recorded in Yellow River and Henan Province in The Hexi Corridor and Xian were then applied to the viticulture techniques, and transferred to the north, northeast and other areas of China. Ancient traditions and methods of producing wines were passed down from wineries.

Challenges Faced

During this time, China's Song Dynasty economy was growing rapidly and they exported even more Chinese tea, silk textiles, and spices along the Silk Road to import other goods such as jade, grape wine and aromas. However, this economic rise also led to many political and civil. They encountered strife and boundary wars were common at the time and resulted in three distinct ruling states in China: Song, Liao and Jin. Such boundary wars led to the shortage of grape wine, because of the territorial and land disputes, resulting in the decrease in wine culture (Li et. al, 2018).

Due to economic recession, substitute higher strength alcohol and a number of other causes, grape wine has steadily lost its attractiveness to other drinks in China. These wars and political issues cause ruling states to ignore the use of grapes and use grain instead, thus, the cultural heritage and traditional grape wine producing was lost. Wine drinking in China started growing in the 1990s as the communist government tried to deter their citizens from drinking baijiu through the emphasis of the health benefits of wine.

Fill in the Gap: European Culture Ingrained

When European colonization brought European culture that allowed narrations to fit to bring more interest in wine drinkers. Many wineries, Mile specifically focuses on the storytelling of history, heritage and tradition as a code and language that not only communicates meaning, but also plays an active role in the actual daily production of wine, offering ways in which locality is generated not just at the local level but at the transnational and multicultural level by repositioning the farm as distinctive and best in China's wine-producing world. The variations of wine narrations are linked to European culture and included plots that incorporate the "basic elements of the wine storey: the Tibetan Catholic village of Cizhong and its church; the French priest, the Yunnan–Vietnam railroad, and the displaced officers and urban intellectuals" (Zheng, 2019).

The transformation of the vineyard landscape seen on today's farm is largely attributed to the collective efforts of local farmers, led by the farm. Farmers have essentially gone through three separate periods on the farm, and these changes have had a huge effect on the volume and participation in storytelling. Additionally, during 1997 and 2002, the farm provided substantial assistance to local farmers by supplying them with equipment and training them how to grow grapes, which has prospered and resulting in China being known to be one of the world’s top wine production and consuming nations and tying in the French wine imaginary has positively impacted Chinese wine consumption because it eludes to and connects to a sense of elegance, modernity, and sophistication that many Chinese in the colonized Asia strived to achieve and fit into the culture, as it was their way of making a place for themselves. Using stories to bridge the gap between taste and memory offers wine drinkers the ability to imagine beyond the label and it also allows the storytellers to incorporate symbols and values (Sutton, 2000). By emphasizing the ancient, old and new worlds of wine in China, there is extensive history that plays a role and shapes the way wines are produced and consumed - tying in the past, present and future together.


The belief that the global economy is fundamentally related by capital investment flows, goods, technology and labour is one of the strongest concerns that arises from work on globalization. The expansion of new grounds and lands, creation of stricter guidelines, and political governance has made the world of wines increasingly more complex. However, it has also made wine production and consumption more diverse, accommodating new regions, new terroir and geographical indications as well as opening up opportunities for various modes of production and distribution. Wine has become a form of artisanal craft, in the past many productions were to small and antique - rare to get our hands on fine wine and now with increasingly more advanced technology, wine production has been pushed to large-scale factory production for the consumer market. Many wineries continue to place importance in place because they wish to maintain a constant imprinted memory and knowledge of the grape.

Photo by Wix


Many Old World wines and New World wines struggle both politically and culturally when it comes to the rights to lands for their grape plantations and cultural practices. The struggle between the two worlds is that allowing for more territorial expansion also brings about major geological and political issues that create cultural bias in what is considered New World region or Old World region. Moreover, the binary association for wine is culturally biased towards the Old World wines and European history and terroir for grape production, while neglecting the cultural heritage of new and upcoming wine producing countries (Li et al., 2018). With two fundamental categories between New and Old World wine, it makes marketing wines for wine buyers much easier. This produces negative consequences because using two generalized categories to differentiate the major differences between wine production methods and cultures, while trying to fit hundreds of wineries into these categories, has strips away the opportunity for consumers to learn and understand wine heritage and terroir and the identity of those who produce wine.

The Best of Both (Wine) Worlds

Wine has become a more casual drink enjoyed by many, as opposed to in the past when wine was appreciated, romanticized as a luxury and a rare commodity. With globalization comes commoditization, capitalism, marketing efforts and so on. People’s sensory knowledge can connect people to places they have visited and that “everyday experiences to evoke the memories on which identities are formed” (Sutton, 2000). It is noticeable that wines are not marketed the same way as regular foods are, because of the unique artisanal values it holds. Wine brands and region are "known" through learned and actual experiences such as the Internet, word-of-mouth or by going through aisles at the store. Through offering shared experiences such as wine tourism and wine tasting events for both local and international pioneers is a beneficial way to bring the culture, taste and knowledge that many are distant from to them. Wine tourism is considered a special interest tourist attraction and is a growing attraction around the world because it encompasses the beauty of understanding the heritage behind the grapes and soil of wine. It is becoming a significant attribute to the regional and rural tourism product of most wine-producing countries (Figueroa and Rotarou, 2018).

More importantly, people who drink European-named wine associate it with European land and culture only and Chinese wine bottles with Chinese soil and grapes. They do not stop, but does not stop to think about what story is behind that particular wine. This is due to the fact that many consumers do not carry the same intellectual resource for wine due to its lack of availability. With more marketing efforts to provide consumers with history and indications for authentic terroir, they can drink the deep-rooted culture that represents the unique taste and place of the grapes used, the labour required to produce and process these wines and the heritage it each bottle holds. Due to generalized marketing strategies, people's understanding on their sensory and embodied knowledge of wine has been distorted to only understanding that quality of wine is either based on price, whether it is imported from Europe or not, and flavour. Instead, more efforts whether it is through advocacy or marketing, should be done to highlight the agriculture of the grape that is used and the place that these wines are grown and produced rather than using marketing strategies that only focus on the flavour. The taste in wine is the embodiment of connecting our sensory knowledge to the place that the grape has grown, which is the most important aspect that many wine drinkers tend to lack and forget because they only look at the year, the price and the country of origin.


Ballantyne, D., Terblanche, N. S., Lecat, B., & Chapuis, C. (2019). Old world and new world wine concepts of terroir and wine: Perspectives of three renowned non-French wine makers. Journal of Wine Research, 30(2), 122-143. https://doi.org/10.1080/09571264.2019.1602031.

Monterescu, Daniel, and Handel, Ariel 2020. “Terroir and Territory on the Colonial Frontier: Making New- Old World Wine in the Holy Land.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 62 (2): 222–61. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417520000043.

Nowak, Zachary. 2019. “A Transnational Fiasco : Authenticity, Two Chiantis, and the Unimportance of Place.” Global Food History 5 (1–2): 5–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/20549547.2018.1479574.

Zheng, Xiangchun. 2019. “Narrating Terroir: The Place-Making of Wine in China’s Southwest.” Food, Culture & Society 22 (3): 280–98. https://doi.org/10.1080/15528014.2019.1596435.

B., E. Figueroa, & Rotarou, E. S. (2018). Challenges and opportunities for the sustainable development of the wine tourism sector in Chile. Journal of Wine Research,29(4), 243-264. https://doi:10.1080/09571264.2018.1532880.

Li, H., Wang, H., Li, H., Goodman, S., Lee, P. V., Xu, Z., . . . Yang, P. (2018). The worlds of wine: Old, new and ancient. Wine Economics and Policy,7(2), 178-182. https://doi:10.1016/j.wep.2018.10.002.

Lecture readings:

Besky, Sarah. 2014. The Labor of Terroir and the Terroir of Labor: Geographical Indication and Darjeeling Tea Plantations.” Agriculture and Human Values 31(1):83-96.

Sutton, David. 2000. “Whole Foods: Revitalization through Everyday Synesthetic Experience.” Anthropology & Humanism 25(2): 120-130

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