The following is a list of popular regions and the profiles of the wines from those regions. Check back often, because this list will be updated as other countries and regions are added.
Perhaps the most important wine producing country in the world, France has numerous regions that set the standard for grape growing, winemaking and wine laws. Admittedly, many countries can claim to produce wonderful wines of high quality that in some cases eclipse their counterparts from France. However, there is seriousness, a long history and age-old traditions that distinguish France from many other wine producing nations. The French would also have you believe, rightfully so in my opinion, that soil and climate play a distinctive role in making France a great wine producing country. No wine education is complete without an understanding of French wines. Here is a brief primer on some of the better known regions:
Bordeaux – Perhaps one of the most famous and well known regions in France, if not the world, Bordeaux sets the standard for age-worthy red wines based primarily on the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes. Bordeaux is also known for its production of white, sweet dessert wines from the appellations of Sauternes and Barsac. Additionally, the appellations of Graves and Entre-Deux-Mers are known for their production of dry white wines based on Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. Probably one of the most famous distinguishing characteristics of Bordeaux is the Classification of 1855. The first of its kind, the Classification is a ranking of Bordeaux properties, almost entirely from the Medoc (the north western portion of Bordeaux), which is intended to provide discriminating wine drinkers with a “quality guide” to red Bordelaise wines. Primarily based on selling price, and considered by many to be a mere marketing ploy, the Classification has ostensibly “stood the test of time,” with no changes, except the elevation of Mouton Rothchild from “second growth” to “first growth” in 1973. The original Classification was subsequently followed by other rankings: the 1932 addition of Cru Bourgeois chateaux, the 1953 ranking of Graves properties, and the 1954 ranking of St. Emilion chateaux. A chink in the armor appeared when, in the early ‘70’s, two California wines beat out a number of Bordeaux wines during an international wine competition in Bordeaux. So began the classic rivalry between California and Bordeaux.
Burgundy – Not as well known as Bordeaux, but every bit as important, Burgundy is home to the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, as well as the Gamay grape in the southern area of Beaujolais. While the wines of Burgundy are among some of the finest in the world, the generally “fickle” nature of the Pinot Noir grape, as well as the often extraordinary costs of both the red and white wines from the region have conspired to keep Burgundy from being as well known as Bordeaux. Another issue that most wine drinkers face with Burgundy is a complex and often confusing appellation system (enacted in 1861), which makes learning, understanding, and purchasing Burgundy wines a challenge. Another factor that often dissuades wine drinkers is the unique taste of many Burgundy wines: the reds filled with complex flavor combinations and the whites characterized as “austere” and unapproachable. However, despite the challenges involved in getting to know Burgundy, the wines are truly remarkable, showcasing the true greatness of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.
Champagne – While familiar lore describes the “invention” of sparkling wine by noted friar Dom Perignon wistfully with the exclamation: “I am tasting stars!” the truth is unfortunately not as romantic. It is thought that Dom Perignon, while not the inventor of Champagne, was more likely a blender at an Abbey that made still and sparkling wines. Such is the French obsession with marketing. Champagne is home to some of the world’s most famous sparkling wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. So famous is the region that numerous other countries have attempted to use the name Champagne to add prestige to their wines. Distinctive, alluring and most often expensive, Champagne has become synonymous with luxury and love. Part of the expense of Champagne is in the production process, one that had been a highly labor intensive set of activities that comprise a lengthy “dual” fermentation process. In recent years, mechanization has supplanted much of the manual labor, now usually reserved for only the most special and most expensive wines. The true “method champenoise” sparklers however, mechanization aside, still use the time tested process of completing the secondary fermentation in the bottle, which naturally imparts bubbles to what started life as a still wine. Available in a range of styles and dryness levels, almost every producer works very hard to create a consistent “house style” wine, typically non-vintage, that becomes the flagship of the brand. It is for this reason that the job of master blender in a Champagne house is thought of as the most important and most difficult job in wine making. Usually thought of as merely a “wine of celebration,” Champagne is actually quite versatile with a range of foods, including entrees of veal and lamb.
Loire – Not very well known the Loire is one of France’s longest wine making regions stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the center of the country, just west of Paris. The Loire is best known for its white wines, made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscat grapes. However, a small amount of red wine is produced and distributed outside the region. The wines of the Loire are made in a wide range of styles, from light-bodied, crisply acidic Muscadelle and Sancerre to heady, unctuously sweet Coteaux du Layon and Vouvray. I tend to think of Loire wines as excellent accompaniments to food, matching well with a wide range of cuisine, especially fish dishes.
Alsace – Often overlooked and consistently undervalued, the wines of Alsace are often quite remarkable. Primarily known for the white grape varieties of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewürztraminer (a tiny amount of red wine is produced from Pinot Noir that rarely makes it out of the region), Alsatian wines come in a variety of styles. Alsace is unique among French wine regions for two reasons. One, Alsace is the only region in France where it is legal to display the name of the grape variety on the label, and two, Alsace is the only region in France where it is legal to grow the German variety of Riesling. Wine laws dictate that a wine must be made from 100% of the named variety, which is also somewhat unique (in America the varietal requirement in most states is only 75%). Stylistically the wines of Alsace range from very dry to slightly sweet, unless a wine is designated Vendage Tardive or Sélection des Grains Nobles, which denotes sweet dessert-like wines. The complex, spicy nature of Alsatian Gewürztraminer makes it an ideal accompaniment to spicy, Asian cuisine.
Rhone – The Rhone valley is actually divided into two major areas, the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. Within each major area are between 8 (in the North) and 12 (in the South) sub-regions. Red and white wine grapes are grown in both areas, although wine production is predominantly red throughout. Most noteworthy are the sub-regions of Cote Rotie, Hermitage, and Crozes-Hermitage in the North and Cotes du Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas in the South. There are many grape varieties grown and vinified in the Rhone, although the predominate red grape in the North is Syrah, with Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah prevalent in the South. The wines of Chateauneuf du Pape are actually allowed to have up to 13 varieties, some even white, in the blend. A range of styles exist in the Rhone, from forward, approachable, thirst-quenching quaffs in Cotes du Rhone, to immense, long-aging monsters in Cote Rotie and Hermitage. Often a good value (except for the prized wines in Cote Rotie and Hermitage), the wines of the Rhone seem to exude the beauty, sunshine and rustic genuineness of the region.
Italy, although not typically revered like France, is a country of vast wine production that is beginning to show noted improvement in a number of key regions. For many years Italy was relegated to the “second tier,” primarily as a result of inferior winemaking techniques and careless over-production in the vineyard. The previous quest to out-produce many countries brought about a poor reputation for copious amounts of marginal-quality “jug” wines. Fortunately Italy is now shedding its previous moniker and is now enjoying a re-birth of sorts. New, forward thinking vinification techniques combined with more concerned vineyard management is leading to a vast improvement in quality across the board. The infusion of “youth” in the winery as well as entrance into the EU has helped shape a more “modern” approach to winemaking. To traditionalists, this may not seem like a good move. However, there has been enough respect paid to the past to guarantee a linkage with age-old traditions in certain regions.
Piedmont – In the northwest corner of Italy, Piedmont reigns supreme over many of the other regions throughout the country with the most DOCG (Italy’s top tier in the quality hierarchy) wines. Heavily dependent on the Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto grapes, the red wines of Piedmont range in style from light and quaffable to full and age-worthy. Most noted are the often brooding and massive wines from Barolo and Barbaresco, sometimes requiring a decade or more to shed the often-impenetrable tannins. For whites, the Cortese and Moscato grapes play a principle role in crafting both light and refreshing sparkling wines in the case of Moscato d’Asti, as well as fruity and well-balanced in the case of Gavi d’Cortese.
Tres Venezia – Located in the northeast corner of Italy, the Tres Venezia are three regions (Veneto, Friuli-Venzia Giula and Trentino-Alto Adige) known for a broad range of very high quality red and white wines. The wines of Soave, Valpolicella, Bardolino and Amarone all hail from the Tres Venezia, along with some exceptional Italian Chardonnay. The whites, like Soave, are often refreshing and light, with the red wines tending towards heavier weight and body.
Tuscany – Located southwest of the Veneto, Tuscany is home to some of Italy’s most well known and well-loved wines. The regions of Montalcino, Chianti, Montepulciano and Gimignano are among wine drinker’s favorites. The most dramatic change in Italian winemaking has probably occurred in this region as well, not only with the advent of vast quality improvements in many areas, but also with the creation of many of the “Super Tuscan” wines from Antinori and Ornellaia. Sangiovese (or one its clones) is the primary red grape in all of the DOCG red wines, with Vernaccia playing a significant role in white DOCG wine.
Central Italy – Although less noted, the wines of Central Italy, especially in Umbria and Abruzzo are often excellent examples of honest, high-value winemaking. Retaining a certain “rustic” appeal, the wines of Central Italy have greatly improved in quality in recent years and reflect a changing philosophy in global winemaking.
Southern Italy – The southern regions of Italy account for the largest amount of wine produced and yet have the fewest DOCG and DOC wines. Like Central Italy, the focus in the south is on high-value, with such regions as Campania, Apulia and Calabria. Also a part of the southern regions are the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Not known for great quality, these southern regions are better known for producing quaffable wines in large quantity.
The following are not really regions in Germany, but instead are the ripeness (the measure of sugar in the grape) levels within the highest rung of the German wine quality hierarchy (known as QmP). Because of the often mind-numbing complexity of the German wine label, it has been my experience that gaining an understanding of the distinctions between these ripeness levels is actually more beneficial (to the average consumer) than understanding the various growing regions in Germany, since there is correlation between the inherent complexity, richness and overall quality in the wines as one ascends through the ripeness levels.
Kabinett – The least ripe of all German wines, can range from very dry to perceptibly sweet. Always very light-bodied. Usually the sweetness is well balanced with the natural acidity of the grape.
Spatlese – The next level of ripeness, again the wines can range from dry to considerably sweeter. Spatlese wines begin to take on noticeable complexity and richness and are usually more age-worthy than Kabinett.
Auslese – The highest level of ripeness for German wines that can be vinified dry. Often, Auslese wines are vinified sweet, again with even greater levels of complexity and richness. More age-worthy than Spatlese, in great vintages, some German Auslese wines a reminiscent of Sauternes and Barsac.
Beerenauslese – An especially high level of ripeness almost guaranteeing sweetness to the level of most dessert wines. The combination of sugar and acidity make for wines of impressive aging potential. Made only in the best of vintages.
Eiswein – A level of grape ripeness achievable only through the freezing of the grapes on the vine (due to an extremely late harvest) and the subsequent pressing of the grapes while frozen to extract a large amount of water, thereby concentrating the grape sugar level. Vinified sweet as a dessert wine. Rare.
Trockenbeerenauslese – The highest level of ripeness in German wine, typically not seen every year. Sometimes affected by Botrytis, or Noble Rot, the fungus associated with great dessert wines. Extremely age-worthy and expensive.
Often lost in the shadow of Germany, Austria boasts a prestigious winemaking industry. Like Germany, Austrian wine law is overseen by a government board that evaluates, rates and then certifies wine in four general quality categories: Tafelwein, Landwein, Qualitatswein (QbA), and Pradikatswein (QmP). Within the upper most quality category, QmP, Austria, like Germany, distinguishes its wine by ripeness levels. Generally, the only Austrian wines to reach the US market are QmP and QbA. The principal grape grown in Austria is the Gruner Vetliner, a white grape that makes interesting and sometimes complex wines.
Spain is often overlooked as a source of good quality, high value wine for reasons that are unclear. Spain has a lengthy and storied history of winemaking, tied to tradition and yet, not without innovation and improvement. Of late, Spain is taking advantage of technical and viticultural advances in both the vineyard and winery. The introduction of greater quantities of grape varieties considered to be more “globally attractive,” is helping to make wines with greater appeal and marketability.
Rioja – By far the most popular and well known region in Spain, Rioja is considered to be the “Bordeaux” of Spain. Dominated by red wines, Rioja wines fall into the following categories: Crianza, Reserva, and Gran Reserva. The primary distinction between categories is the mandated age of the wine before release: Crianza – 3 years, Reserva – 4 years, and Gran Reserva – 6 years. Another distinctive feature of Rioja is the legal requirement for oak aging, aging that almost always takes place in American Oak casks. The oak aging imparts a distinctive flavor reminiscent of leather, vanilla and dried cherries. Like Bordeaux, Rioja wines are a blend of several indigenous varieties: Tempranillo, Garnacha, Mazuelo, Graciano and even Cabernet Sauvignon are often part of the blend in red Rioja. A small amount of white Rioja is made, primarily from the Viura grape. The white wines are subject to similar oak aging requirements, which typically makes the wines more complex and fuller-bodied.
Ribera del Duero – Similar quality as Rioja, again predominately red wines made mainly from the Tempranillo (called Tinto del Pais in the region) grape. Full-bodied, with distinctive qualities added by the Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec grape varieties. Despite the hot summers, the region’s elevation means that there are about 4 months of worry-free grape growing.
Penedes – The largest denominated wine zone in northeast Spain, Penedes is a region full of promise. Known equally for its full-bodied reds, as well as its high quality sparklers (Cava), Penedes produces large quantities of decent, inexpensive wine.
Priorato – A small-denominated wine zone in the northeast of Spain, known for intensely full-bodied and high-alcohol red wines that are made according to ancient methods practiced by the Carthusian monks from which the region takes its name. Wines made pre-1990 are known to be extremely long-lived, often requiring several decades to open. During the ‘90’s, a revolution of sorts hit the region, with many non-indigenous varieties appearing, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, along with changes and improvements to winemaking techniques.
Toro – Like Ribera del Duero, Toro is a region that produces predominately red wines from the Tempranillo (called Tinto del Toro in the region) grape. No wines of real distinction, although the region is capable of producing large volumes of decent, inexpensive wine.
Cava – Spain’s answer to French Champagne, Cava is a sparkling, traditional method sparkling wine. The traditional method, as in France, calls for the secondary fermentation to occur in the bottle. Unlike the other denominated regions in Spain, Cava is the only denominated wine zone that crosses multiple geographic areas, including as many as 159 municipalities that can legally make Cava. The largest volume of Cava is produced in Penedes. The grapes found in Cava are traditionally the Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada varieties, although many other grapes, including Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, are permitted.
Sherry – Spain’s fortified wine, available in a wide range of styles, both sweet and dry. Often thought of as the highly sweetened apéritif for older ladies, Sherry is frequently misunderstood because of the vast quantities of cheap Harvey’s Bristol Cream that inundated America over the last century. Among some of the greatest wines in the world are the Fino, Manzanilla and Amontillado Sherries made in the gran soleras of the finest Sherry houses in Spain. The sherry making process is a fascinating one, which will be profiled in an upcoming Musings Featured Region.
When most wine drinkers think of Portugal, most think of the fortified wines called Port. However, Portugal produces decent quantities of non-fortified wines, many of which are only just now coming to the popular wine market. While the history of winemaking in Portugal is not well chronicled, the history traces back to about the 12th century. Throughout the early years and well into the 17th and 18th centuries, Portugal provided large volumes of wine to England and the Americas, especially during the frequent periods of armed conflict, which made trade with France impossible. The other Portuguese fortified wine, Madiera, was the favorite of the colonists in the Americas, supplanting nearly every other exported wine through the mid-19th century. Interestingly, the long, hot and humid voyage across the Atlantic caused Madiera to take on a more oxidized (hence the descriptor: Madierized), improved style. When advances in transatlantic transport negated the effects of a long ocean voyage, winemakers in Madiera built large, heated aging sheds to ensure that the oxidative style of the wine would be maintained.
Dao – A small region in the southern part of Portugal known primarily for red wine production. The imported wines from Dao are typically very inexpensive ($5 to $6 range) and can be pretty decent in terms of quality.
Vinho Verde – A large region in the northern part of Portugal, known for both red and white wine production, although most of the wine that makes it to America is a crisp, refreshing and slightly petulant white wine, which makes an ideal summer quaff. The name of the region literally means “green wine” and many of the whites have a more herbaceous quality about them.
Porto – Known for the production of long-aging fortified wines, the region stretches along the Douro Valley. Check out the January 2003 Musings Newsletter where Porto was the Featured Region.
Madiera – An island in the Atlantic, Madiera was the wine of choice for American colonists in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. The wines are fortified, the alcohol acting primarily as a preservative. There are many styles of Madiera, ranging from the driest (Sercial) to the sweetest (Malmsey), but all Madiera has some residual sugar. Quality is generally reflected by the age of the wine with the lowest level of quality (Granel) having an age of 18 months, through the highest quality (Vintage) having a minimum age of at least 20 years. It is not uncommon to find Madiera that is well over a hundred years old that still possesses a youthful vibrancy. With our changing tastes, Madiera is harder to find, but worth the search.
Winemaking in the United States is comparatively young when one looks at the age-old traditions present in some European countries. While the earliest colonists in America made wine from the indigenous grapes of the vitis lambrusca, vitis rotundifolia, and vitis aestivalis genera, these wines were mediocre at best. Unlike the noble grapes of Europe, from the vitis vinifera genus, the America varieties made wines with a distinct “foxy” quality, making them more suitable for jams and preserves than wine. It wasn’t until the Spanish missionaries arrived out west did winemaking in America from noble grapes begin. Today wine is made in all 50 states with California, New York, Washington State and Oregon dominating the market. Not only are the classic noble varieties used to make truly first class wine, but also in many regions, hybrid grape varieties are proving that under the right conditions, even lesser grapes can make fine wine. There are nearly 150 American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s ) in the US, with California claiming 86 of the 150. Unlike many European countries, the AVA system does not specify winemaking techniques, grape varieties, or grape yields. Instead the AVA system merely establishes a wine’s “place of origin.” Other laws passed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), the governing body for wine laws in the US has established requirements around varietal content, use of the term “estate bottled,” and other labeling restrictions.
California – The most prolific and well-known winemaking region in the US, with grape growing and winemaking present throughout the state. Along the northern coast are the well-known areas of Napa and Sonoma, regions particularly noted for their high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. The Central Coast, which lies to the south of San Francisco is home to such up-and-coming areas as San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara, regions known for their use of varieties from France’s Rhone Valley (Syrah and Mourvedre) as well as first class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further south, below Los Angeles, lie a number of smaller regions, among them of note is Temecula, a region producing some very fine, high-value wine.
New York – Second in productivity to California, New York boasts of several winemaking areas, the two most well known being the Finger Lakes/Niagara in Upstate NY and the North and South Fork areas of Long Island. Most of the wines made in the Finger Lakes are from hybrid, or non-vinifera grapes, although this has started to change recently with some use of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon taking place. The Finger Lakes has long been home to a large production of low-priced American sparkling wines. Quality has always been a question in NY, though. This has changed significantly in the last decade with the addition of the Long Island winemaking area. Long Island is home to some very respectable Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay wines, with the moderating maritime climate contributing to its success.
Washington – The third most productive winemaking region in the US, Washington State is home to some first class wines. Known primarily for high quality Merlot and Chardonnay, Washington State also does a credible job with Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Oregon – The fourth most productive winemaking region in the US, Oregon is known for its high quality Pinot Noir wines. The combination of soil and climate have enabled Oregon to make some truly beautiful Pinot Noir wines, some quite Burgundian in style, with others uniquely American.