No time for a wine vacation? Maybe you want to broaden your wine horizons or just stop getting confused every time you stare at the store shelf trying to pick the perfect bottle of wine. Take a quick trip around the world with this handy guide to vino.
Divide and Conquer
Every country has unique labeling requirements for wine. Forget about trying to learn them all. Just divide up the world into two categories – Old World and New World. The Old World is Europe. The New World is pretty much everywhere else. In most Old World countries, wines are named after very specific places. In the New World, wines are named according to the type of grapes the wine is made from. It’s just that simple.
Old World Wines
The trick to learning about the wines of Europe is to simply try a few and find out what you like. A good way to do this is one country at a time. Buy two or three wines from a particular area, invite friends over and compare them. Serve some food and you have a wine tasting party. Here is an overview of some famous wine place names in Europe:
- Ribera del Duero
Keep in mind when you are looking at wine labels, the name of the producer, bottler, sub-region, vineyard and type of grape might be included depending on the country. Other words that indicate things like level of sweetness, the year it was made and quality control classifications like AOC or DOC also appear.
The single most important factor in predicting what a wine will taste like is knowing the type of grape it is made from. This basic idea is the driving force behind labeling wines in the New World. Once you know a thing or two about grape varietals, you can match up many of the Old World wine place names with the grape varietals they are made from. Once you understand a white wine from Burgundy is made from Chardonnay grapes it all starts to make sense.
Wine Grape Varietals
Ninety-nine percent of all the wine made in the world comes from one species, vitis vinifera. Within the vitis vinifera family there are literally thousands of varieties, but only a couple hundred are important to winemaking. For most wine drinkers, only a dozen or so make up most of what is routinely consumed.
- Cabernet Franc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Noir
- Sauvignon Blanc
Famous Wines of the World
Anyone who has seen the movie Sideways knows the main character named Miles hates Merlot and belittles Cabernet Franc. One of the inside jokes in the movie has to do with a bottle of wine that Miles prizes, a 1961 Cheval Blanc. Cheval Blanc is the name of a famous chateau in Bordeaux. In Bordeaux, red wines are typically blends made from five specific grape varietals. In the case of Cheval Blanc, the blend is Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the two wines Miles likes least. While only true wine geeks appreciate this kind of trivia, it is helpful to know a thing or two about well-known wines, common varietals and popular wine regions.
Barolo and Barbaresco Wine
Italy’s Piedmont wine region is home to many famous red wines, among them Barolo and Barbaresco, both of which use Nebbiolo as the primary grape in their wines.
Red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Dry white wines are produced from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The sweet white wine Sauternes is a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle that have been exposed to the fungus botrytis, also known as the “noble rot.” Being familiar with the smaller sub-region names like St-Emilion or Pomerol is useful as is the names of famous chateaus.
Red wines made from Pinot Noir and white wines made from Chardonnay. Although technically part of the Burgundy region, wines from the area of Chablis (mainly Chardonnay) and Beaujolais (mainly Gamay) are referred to by their own names, not as Burgundies. Knowing famous vineyard sites and sub-regions is helpful.
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the only three grapes that can go into the sparkling wines named after the Champagne region of France. It is illegal to use the name “Champagne” on a label to describe sparkling wines made anywhere else in the world.
The Sangiovese grape is the primary component of the red wine known as Chianti. There are actually seven different sub-zones of Chianti. Once an inexpensive table wine in a straw basket, Chianti now competes with the best wines in the world.
Port is both the city that gave the country of Portugal its name and the country’s most famous wine. Made from a variety of grapes, many unique to Portugal, the wines are fortified with brandy during fermentation. Wines range from simple and inexpensive white and ruby ports to expensive vintage dated ports.
France’s Rhone Valley is famous for red wines made from blends of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. White wines are blends of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Spain’s best-known red wines are from the Rioja region and are made from the Tempranillo grape.
The three grape varietals that go into the wines known as Sherry are not well-known. Palomino, Pedro Jimenez and Moscatel are the grape names, but what is most important to understand is that brandy is added to the wine and a complex system of blending wines of various ages achieves the end result.
Barbera Wine (red)
The second most widely grown wine grapes in Italy, the best examples come from the Piedmont region such as Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d’Alba. In regions like California, Barbera tends to be blended with other grape varietals, but is also bottled alone.
Cabernet Franc (red)
One of the five major varietals of Bordeaux, Cabernet Franc is often used as a blending grape but can be bottled by itself.
Cabernet Sauvignon (red)
Perhaps the best-known red wine in the world, Cabernet Sauvignon has its home in France but spectacular versions can be found in many countries. It produces wines with complex, distinct flavors and excellent potential for aging.
Popular in most countries, Chardonnay is an ancient white wine grape that can be made in a number of styles from lean to opulent, stony to buttery.
Chenin Blanc (white)
Chenin blanc is a versatile white wine grape grown under several different names throughout the world. Both dry and sweet versions are common. Vouvray is a well-known example of this wine.
Full-bodied and distinctly aromatic, this white wine grape is not easy to grow and lends itself well to cool-climate growing regions such as Germany and New York’s Finger Lakes wineregion.
Spain is likely the ancestral home of this hearty red wine grape but it has been highly successful in many regions including France’s Rhône Valley, Australia and California. Grenache is both a blending grape and a stand-alone offering as a red wine and is also made into rosés.
Another of the top five varietals in Bordeaux but used as a minor blending grape. Malbec has found a better home in New World countries, especially Argentina, where the dry climate produces stellar results.
Merlot is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux but it is popular around the globe as a stand-alone bottling. Depending on how it is grown and handled by winemakers, Merlot can be either a simple everyday red or a long-lived collectible.
Muscat is really a family of white wines with several variations such as Muscat of Alexandria or Muscat Blanc. Made in dry, sweet, and sparkling versions this ancient grape family is cultivated throughout the world.
Created in the South Africa wine country as a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, Pinotage produces deep red wines that are fruity and brambly but styles vary so there is little consistency in the marketplace. It is mostly experimental outside of South Africa.
Pinot Blanc (white)
Pinot Blanc is a close relative of Pinot Gris and produces light, dry white wines with good acidity but little aroma. Sometimes used as a blending grape.
Pinot Gris (white)
Also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy, this white wine grape is a clone of Pinot Noir. It does well in Oregon, parts of northern Italy and the Alsace region of France.
Pinot Noir (red)
Notoriously finicky to grow, Pinot Noir is the red wine grape of Burgundy. In the New World, good success has been achieved in Oregon and cooler areas of California. Complex, full-bodied and rich, Pinot Noir is capable of producing some of the very finest wines available.
Petite Sirah (red)
Often confused with Syrah, Petite Sirah’s is the name given to the Durif grape in California and is only a cousin to the Syrah grape. Dark, intense and tannic, Petite Sirah ages well but is often used as a blending grape, especially with Zinfandel.
Riesling’s soul is in Germany but good examples can also be found in many countries. Riesling makes excellent dry and sweet white wines that are unique, pair well with a wide variety of foods and can have good aging ability.
The primary grape of Italian Chianti, Sangiovese is a medium-weight red wine with a good acidic structure that compliments food.
Sauvignon Blanc (white)
Sometimes labeled as Fume Blanc in California, this refreshing light white wine is typically high in acid and has zesty flavors that range from fresh-mowed grass to grapefruit.
Made in both dry and sweet versions, Semillon is perhaps best-known as the primary grape in the world’s most highly touted dessert wine, Chateau d’Yquem. Blends with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are common in France. Chile grows the highest volume of Semillon.
Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape varietal, but Shiraz became the name of the wine in Australia, South Africa and other locales.
The major red wine grape of Spain, Tempranillo is the basis of wines from Rioja and other areas. It is often blended with other grapes to produce a dark, rich red wine with excellent aging capabilities.
A dry, highly aromatic wine that often smells like flowers or perfume, Viognier is growing in popularity in many winegrowing regions. Deep gold in color and weighty, Viognier is not very high in acid and is often used as a blending grape but can be spectacular as a stand-alone bottling.
Although it’s considered a California native, Zinfandel has its roots in the Old World country of Croatia. Red wines made from Zinfandel can be dry, fruity and robust or when very ripe, more like Port. In the 1980s a rose of Zinfandel made in slightly sweet style started the White Zinfandel craze that remains popular today.