There’s a big wide world of wine out there, so let’s celebrate our commonality along with our differences.
Although there’s ample archaeological evidence that wine originated in Eastern Europe, it’s Western Europe that wears the vinous crown. The Romans took vines with them as they conquered Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula. Then they crossed the water to England, before pushing winegrowing north into Germany.
Today, Italy, France and Spain produce almost half the world’s wine. Not only does this winegrowing trio dominate the history and production of wine, but also the perception of quality and the image of this most fascinating drink. Having settled in Western Europe, it took later generations of explorers and colonial conquerors to take the vine to the ‘new world’ – the Spanish to the Americas and the British to Australia and New Zealand.
The tussle between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ is not about absolute quality, but more about style with different winemaking techniques adding spice to the mix. That said, the winemaking of Europe is undergoing an evolution, with technology-driven makers of the ‘new world’ taking on the traditions of historic grape-growing nations. So settle in, as we head off on a virtual tour of the world’s most important winemakers.
Although it was the Romans who took the vine to Gaul, it was the Church that expanded and refined France’s wine. Not only did the monks seek quality (some say for their own pleasure), but they also defined the concept of terroir – by observing the quality of the grapes coming from the individual plots their parishioners farmed. These observations were formalised by the appellation laws of the 20th century.
Appellation – now broadly a legally defined and protected area – is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it sets in stone the geographical area, grape variety and wine styles of a region, subregion or even a small plot. There are strict rules and regulations on how to trellis and prune vines, when to pick, and allowable yields per hectare. All useful stuff, given that such background information rarely appears on a French label.
The curse comes with having to delve into the detail of an appellation to discover what variety you are drinking. Worse, the hierarchy changes from appellation to appellation. Neighbouring regions have different rules. In Bordeaux, for example, in one region all estates might be considered equal, but in the next-door appellation they might be categorised – and this may change every few years. Keeping up to date is not a simple task.
The Rhône Valley is a diverse region that stretches more than 200km from north to south, along and around the River Rhône and its tributaries. This warm region grows many of the grapes that also thrive in Australia. Shiraz (or syrah in the French vernacular) is the hero red grape of the northern Rhône, with appellations such as St Joseph, Hermitage and Côte Rôtie.
In the Mediterranean climate of the southern Rhône, grenache takes the lead, usually blended with syrah, mourvèdre, cinsaut and other warm-blooded grapes. The top drop of the southern Rhône is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is made with up to 13 allowable types of grapes, both red and white. While the red wine is better known, around one in every 16 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape produced is white.
Bordeaux’s reputation as the world’s best wine region is built on its legendary reds. It is the largest region in France, with a complex hierarchy of wines. Most of the great châteaux (wineries) lie along the Garonne River.
Merlot is the dominant grape with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and petit verdot backing it up. For the (dry and sweet) whites, it’s semillon, sauvignon blanc and muscadelle, which we see in Australia as the fortified wine, topaque.
Most Bordeaux is a blend, though once again, it doesn’t say so on the label. The Bordeaux hierarchy is complicated, with the ‘classified growths’ at the top. At the pointy end are the First Growths – four from the left bank of the Garonne River; one Sauternes (Château d’Yquem); and Château Haut-Brion for the Pessac-Léognan region in the outer suburbs of Bordeaux.
The other 56 crus are rated from second to fifth growth, and these are all on the left bank, too. Coincidence? Peut-être (perhaps). You’ll have to delve through the history books to gain a thorough understanding.
Champagne is one of the most famous wine regions in the world. The three key grape varieties are pinot meunier, mainly grown in the Vallée de la Marne, pinot noir grown on the Montagne de Reims and chardonnay planted in the aptly-named Côte des Blancs.
Twenty per cent of Champagne’s grapes actually come from the Aube, a region rarely spoken about, as it’s 100 kilometres from Champagne’s heartland of Reims and the production centre of Épernay.
Non-vintage champagne is a blend of still wines aimed at producing a consistent house style. (Pol Roger and Delamotte are good examples.) Vintage champagne celebrates a single year and must be aged in the cellars for at least three years. Cattier and Perrier Jouët show the marked individuality of their vintages.
Non-vintage has a minimum aging of 15 months, although both styles usually stay much longer in the cool, damp cellars. The categorisation of vineyard quality is by premier and grand cru status – celebrated on the label and in the price paid for grapes.
A two-hour journey from Paris, the fertile Loire Valley was once the playground of kings and queens and is home to some of France’s most opulent châteaux. The Loire River rises in the Massif Central mountain range and flows west to the Atlantic, its distinctive appellations matched to the geology and the micro-climates along the way.
The Sancerre region shares the similarly chalky soils of Chablis and Champagne, so it’s no surprise that the sauvignon blanc grown in Sancerre has a chalky, mineral taste quite unlike the passionfruit-driven styles of New Zealand’s Marlborough.
Further downstream, near Tours, is the Vouvray appellation where chenin blanc reigns supreme. The delight of Vouvray is its versatility – sparkling or still, dry or (lusciously) sweet, youthful or aged – they’re all wonderful.
Just to the east of the Rhône, along the Mediterranean coast, lies picturesque Provence. The varieties grown are similar to those of the Rhône but here, rosé leads the charge. In fact, the astonishing surge in rosé sales in France has seen it overtake white on a national basis. Take a sip of the Roseline Prestige and you’ll see why.
On the eastern edge of France, in a valley along the Rhine River, lies Alsace. Its history of being the prize in a tug-of-war between France and Germany is reflected in its wines, the heroes being a dry riesling, pinot gris and aromatic gewürztraminer.
This long, skinny wine region south east of Paris runs south from its capital, Dijon. As a wine, burgundy is the name on every pinot noir drinker’s lips.
Chardonnay is the alter ego, although both varieties only appear on the labels of the basic regional wines – known as bourgogne blanc and bourgogne rouge. Other wines are defined by their appellations.
Chablis is an outlier to the north with chalky soils like Champagne, with the mandatory grape being chardonnay. The style is lean and crisp with an ascending quality order of petit chablis, chablis, premier cru and grand cru. Chablisienne is a top-notch producer.
At the heart of Burgundy is the Côte d’Or where its name switches to ‘Mâconnais’. It produces richer chardonnays under the names of pouilly-fuissé and saint-véran. The Côte is a skinny strip of vineyards covering the top appellations, some white or red only, others with both. Village wines are the base with premier and grand cru sites at the pinnacle.
Beaujolais, to the south near Lyon, is officially part of Burgundy. Gamay is the grape here – a juicy, rustic cousin to pinot noir. Beaujolais nouveau is released just weeks after vintage in November.
New Zealand has had a major impact on the world of wine in a very short period of time. Although its vinous history dates back to the 19th century, it was only in the 1970s that the Kiwis surged ahead – driven by sauvignon blanc in the newly planted Marlborough region.
The launch of Cloudy Bay in 1985 set the scene for a new terroir, which has been readily lapped up across the globe. While sauvignon blanc dominates the New Zealand industry, it’s pinot noir that has elevated the image of its wine. Marlborough pinots are soft and juicy in style, with nearby Nelson and North Canterbury to the south offering compelling alternatives.
The first pinot noir vines were actually planted much further south near Queenstown, and the pinots from the surrounding Central Otago region are intensely flavoured due, in part, to the long, sunshine-drenched days of this southerly extreme. Add a distinctly continental climate with warm days, cool nights and snow laden winters and New Zealand boasts a second unique terroir.
On the North Island, the pinots of Martinborough offer a more definitive example with excellent structure and balance, while Hawke’s Bay leads the way with fine Bordeaux-style blends, as winegrowers take a fresh look at syrah.
But back to the whites. Chardonnay is the second most planted white grape in New Zealand and there are some great examples of that from Hawke’s Bay, too. Meanwhile, riesling and pinot gris are taking on sauvignon blanc’s whitewash with full rich styles such as Mount Difficulty, proving that Central Otago is perfect for pinots of all colours.
The USA is the world’s fourth largest wine producer, behind Italy, France and Spain, and – surprise, surprise – is the world’s largest market. Americans drink most of their own production with very little left for export. Add the high prices of US wine (even in their domestic market) and the similarity in style to our own, and it’s no wonder we see so few bottles here.
California produces most of America’s wine, with the Central Valley its commercial hub. The top drops come from the coastal regions of Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Sonoma and the justly famous Napa Valley, just inland to the east. Add the cooler regions of Oregon and Washington State and a minuscule volume from the east coast regions of Virginia and the Finger Lakes in New York, and you have a snapshot of American wine.
Zinfandel is the grape that defines US wine, a variety better known in Australia by its Italian name of primitivo. Plum cake and dark chocolate define a good zinfandel, its big, bold flavours just right for a rare steak. Wente is a historic zinfandel producer with vineyards in Livermore, not far from San Francisco.
Californian chardonnays tend to be bold and buttery, a style that has almost disappeared in Australia. If you’re a lover of old-school ‘chardys’ grab a bottle of the Wente or the Simi from Sonoma and you’ll be well rewarded. Cabernet sauvignon is another variety that the Americans make in their own way – powerful and persistent with the Franciscan Estate cabernet just waiting for that juicy roast.
Winegrowing in Chile and Argentina was pioneered by the Spanish, although the influences of the French in the 19th and 20th centuries redefined the varieties – and the quality. Production is driven by a hungry export market, and value is the name of the game. Argentina is the world’s fifth largest producer with Chile a step behind.
It’s the towering Andes mountain range that defines and divides South American wine. To the west, Chile clings to the Pacific coastline, which brings chilly air but little rain to the vineyards that nestle in the foothills of the Andes. They typically sit at around 200-500 metres, but some vineyards soar right up to 2,000 metres.
Irrigation is essential, with a plentiful supply of melted Andean snow. Chile’s benign climate (it’s never too hot or too cool) is perfect for fresh whites, with sauvignon blanc leading the way. The crunchy, bright Vistamar Sepia is an excellent example.
Chardonnay succeeds, too, but it’s the top-value reds that open Chile’s export doors. Bordeaux varieties do well, but the usual suspects of merlot and cabernet sauvignon are challenged by the more obscure local carmenere. The dense earthy flavours of the Aresti Special Release give a taste of this distinct Chilean terroir.
It’s malbec that defines Argentinean wine. Mendoza is the heartland, to the east of the Andes, with pure, melted snow irrigating the vineyards planted as high as 3,000 metres. The elevation shelters the Argentinean vineyards from the westerly weather, so the climate is continental with warm, clear, sun-drenched days and chilly nights. This helps extend the ripening time, infusing the malbec grapes with power and intensity.
A number of European winegrowers have formed joint ventures to make and market top-class malbec. But it’s not all about the malbec show. To the north of Mendoza is the Salta region where an indigenous white grape, torrontes is the hero. And way to the south in Patagonia, are small plantings of succulent and highly sought-after pinot noir.
Spain has the largest area under vine globally and sits in third place in production terms. This tells a salient story that Spanish winemaking is more rustic than industrial. Indeed, up until 1986, when Spain joined the EU, Spanish wine was largely drunk by the Spanish.
The one exception was sherry, which evolved when England lost control of western France and its ready access to wine. The first shipments of wine from Cadiz date back to the 16th century but the wine turned ‘sour’ on the voyage. A shot of spirit fixed the problem. Shipped in cask to English ports, it was blended and bottled there under names such as Harvey and Osborne.
Sherry production these days is tightly controlled and to use the name, the wine must come from the Jerez region, specifically the DO of Jerez, Xeres and Sherry. Hence Australian ‘sherry’ is now labelled as apera, even if most people still call it sherry.
The other external influence on Spanish wine was France. Bordelaise producers raided the Rioja region for bulk wine when phylloxera (insects that feed on grapevines) decimated their vineyards in the late 19th century. This legacy introduced merlot and cabernet sauvignon to the region, along with the practice of ageing young wine in oak casks. Rioja winegrowers embraced the concept with their hero grape, tempranillo, the core of their now hugely successful Rioja reds.
The Spanish wine laws are similar to France and Italy with the Denominación de Origen (DO) the base appellation and the designation DOCa for the top rioja, and DOQ in the cult Priorat region.
Grenache is the key grape in Priorat along with carignan – named locally as garnacha and carinena respectively. Garnacha grows best in warmer areas in central and eastern Spain with juicy wines such as the Adaras Aldea coming from the La Mancha region.
Whites play second fiddle to reds in Spain, although albarino from the westerly Galicia region is in vogue, with some pioneering plantings now in Australia. The indigenous grape verdejo is a light, fresh white and an interesting alternative to sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. The basa blanco comes from verdejo’s ‘sweet spot’ in Rueda to the north west of Madrid.
The Spanish were early adopters of an alternative name to champagne, with cava the local moniker and its own DO. However, the grapes are dramatically different from the typical chardonnay andpinot blend with the austere yet well-structured macabeu, parellada and xarel-lo the key varieties. The main centre of Cava production is the Penedes region near Barcelona, with the Vallformosa Brut MVSA a stunning example.
Spanish wine is evolving rapidly with almost extinct varieties like mencia being rediscovered, and ancient vineyards being nourished back to life. Even the reds from the hero region of Rioja are being challenged by the potent wines from the Ribera del Duero DO.
POP are three letters that have (historically) defined the wines from the western Iberian coastline. They stand for Portugal, Oporto and Port. Like sherry, port was created by the English with red wines fortified for the sea voyage and sold under English brand names. The headquarters of the port industry remains the beautiful city of Oporto at the mouth of the Douro River, which meanders its way from central Spain to the Atlantic coast.
The steep valleys of the Douro are planted with touriga nacional supported by tinta francesa, tinta cão, tinta roriz (the Portuguese name for tempranillo) and tinta barroca. These super concentrated yet brightly flavoured reds are fortified with grape spirit and earmarked for a range of styles.
Vintage port, as the name implies, comes from a single year and is bottled early in its life where it ages slowly, much like a traditional red wine. Great vintages live for 50 years or more. While port remains the cornerstone of the Portuguese industry, there’s an increasing move into dry table wine – always important for local consumption but only recently finding international markets.
The hero white is vinho verde and its alter ego is rosé, much celebrated by big brands such as Mateus. However, the real excitement is around the dry reds, especially those from the Douro region, made with the varieties typically used for port. Watch this space – Portugal is on the move!
Italy produces more wine than France but, unlike today, its historic image was more about quantity than quality. However, the sleeping giant woke in the affluent post WWII era, with the image – and prices – of Italian wine surging.
Italy’s wine regions have a long history with Tuscan producers such as Frescobaldi and Antinori harking back to the Florentine merchant families of the renaissance period. However, without any wine laws, blending was rife with lots of bulk wine shipped from the warmer southern regions including Sicily to ‘bolster’ the often-thin wines of the north.
Baby boomers will remember the raffia-clad chianti bottles of the 1960s and ’70s containing wine that looked and tasted more like rosé than red. All that changed when Italy’s version of appellation, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) rules were introduced in 1963.
The more stringent Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) rating was instituted in 1982. The more flexible Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) was introduced in 1992 to incorporate wines made from non-traditional grapes varieties (often French) and using newer winemaking techniques including small oak barriques. The rise of Italian wine has been astonishing and, despite the hefty priced icons, there’s still plenty of value to be had.
Chianti is the main name and sangiovese the main grape of Tuscany. The wine hierarchy begins with standard chianti (the excellent value Villa Montecchio is a good example); and steps up to chianti classico – from the original area between Florence and Siena. Outlying DOCGs include chianti rufina and chianti colli senesi. The twin hilltop cities of Montalcino and Montepulciano have their own DOCGs. Wines that step outside the rules (originally known as Super-Tuscans) now carry the IGT designation.
To the east of Tuscany on the Adriatic coast is the Marche region, home to verdicchio, a crisp white that’s made for the region’s famous seafood. The neighbouring region of Abruzzo is where you’ll find the robust, juicy red montepulciano d’abruzzo – its suffix added in order to avoid confusion with the Tuscan city. Veneto is the home of soave, a dry white made from garganega and as smooth as its name. The reds are made with corvina and rondinella and carry the Valpolicella DOC. It’s a cherry bright red that’s perfect with pizza. The region’s hero DOCG is amarone, made with air-dried grapes and aged for decades; and the big hit is prosecco, the single ferment bubbly that has stormed the world.
Piedmont is our final stop, the cool, lofty region in the north-west corner. In a refreshing move, the key varieties appear on the label – dolcetto, barbera and nebbiolo, the latter the new darling of the world’s pinot fans. Nebbiolo hits the heights with Piedmont’s twin DOCGs, barolo and barbaresco. (The Bosio range is a perfect example of the power of these reds.)