The Court of Master Sommeliers minted its first Master Sommelier in the United Kingdom in 1969, and “by April 1977, the Court of Master Sommeliers was established as the premier international examining body” (according to the American arm of the organization’s “About” page). Since then, the Court of Master Sommeliers has often set the standards by which service-oriented wine (and, now, other beverage) professionals have been judged.
Part of the theoretical and practical foundations of that standard has rested on the notion of “old world” versus “new world” wine. The conceptual division between “old” and “new” world production approaches, resulting wine styles, and perceived wine quality has had far-reaching sociocultural and economic implications.
Something old, something new…
The American arm of the organization (established in 1987) announced via its December 2023 quarterly members’ newsletter that, as of 2024, the organization is updating their wine tasting terminology and “will no longer use the terms ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’” in their published materials or examination assessments. The announcement indicates that the decision was “driven by the[ir] commitment to uphold historical accuracy, eliminate cultural bias, and acknowledge the growing challenge of distinguishing between ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ wines.” Moreover, they note that their “goal is to align our tasting process with the dynamic wine landscape and evolving styles.”
This change in terminology reflects the organization’s recent efforts to embrace diversity and inclusion (which itself reflects a wider trend in this direction across the industry) but also clearly demonstrates the shifting realities of wine production globally.
Historically speaking, “old world” wines (namely, European ones) could be characterized as lighter-bodied, lower in alcohol, and more terroir-driven, which is put in contrast with fuller-bodied, higher alcohol, less place-derived “New World” wine (see VinePair’s pithy overview of the differences between the two for more info). These differences are attributed to both environmental and cultural differences, including a longer heritage of winemaking and much stricter production rules in the Old World.
However, over time, wine styles have converged in many places, grape varieties have migrated, climate change has impacted geographic indications and their governance, and the proliferation of wine production (and consumption) basically everywhere has redrawn the world map of (fine) wine.
Trendsetting the talking points
This move by the Court of Master Sommeliers is sure to influence professionals across the industry, whether the somm or wine educator is trained by the Court or one of the other prominent wine professionalization organization like the Wine Spirit Education Trust (WSET) , the Institute for Masters of Wine (IMW) or Society for Wine Educators (SWE). The Court has been finding its feet in the contemporary world, and this feels like a move meant to (re)inscribe the organization as a forward-thinking leader in the professional spaces of fine wine education and service. Time will tell if other organizations decide to follow suit.