What do people mean by traditional vs. modern wine styles?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

When speaking of Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds from France’s Rhône Valley, what do people mean by traditional vs. modern styles?

—David, New York

Dear David,

Describing a wine’s style as “traditional” or “modern” is an extension of the thought that there are “old school” and “new school” types of wine (those descriptions are also closely tied to expectations related to wines from the Old World vs. those from the New World). These terms can be used in both complimentary and derogatory ways, depending on how the terms are being used. These terms are used to describe wines from all over the world, not just the Rhône.

The traditional/old school descriptors suggest the history and traditions invoked by wines made before the modern era, and may also suggest minimal intervention. Modern/new school wines would take advantage of technology and innovation. These terms are murky, as you might imagine.

Despite how these terms are defined, they’ve come to imply a style of wines. Modern/new school wines will be softer and riper, show off more new oak influences and potentially be higher in alcohol. Their traditional/old school counterparts will be less ripe and extracted, emphasizing earth and structure. It’s also implied that traditional wines will age better, and modern wines can be homogenous and not reflective of terroir.

I asked Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth, who reviews the wines of France’s Rhône Valley, for his take in applying the phrases there, and he agrees: “The terms are derived from the way the wines are typically made, with traditional wines generally aged in used oak or cement vats, while modern wines tend to be produced with stainless steel or new oak. The resulting displays of fruit and textural nuances from these different techniques result in the two camps.“

He adds, “These are broad terms, though, as there are many traditional wines that also have lots of fruit, and modern wines that offer more than just a display of fruit. In fact, one could argue that the best wines manage to have a little of both sides in the mix.”

—Dr. Vinny

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