- Q & A
Chapter 5A: The World's Wine Regions
THE WORLD'S WINE OREGIONS
The history of any wine region is what makes it unique. Some go along making perfectly ordinary wines from a given grape because they've been doing it that way for centuries. A different grape planted in the same vineyard could yield a much finer wine. World demand and competition probably won't allow the production of ordinary wine to continue for too long except possibly on a very small, individual scale.
The following is a list of the major grape growing regions and sub-regions, which have earned an important position in the market and have a history of making superior wines. Many other areas are becoming known and, when this book is re-written in 10 years, they may be more famous than the following.
WINEGROWING REGIONS IN THE UNITED STATES
The United States is now the world's fourth largest wine producer. Its 600,000 acres produce more than 300,000,000 cases of wine annually.
When Leif Erikson first laid his eyes on what was to become Greenland, he called it “Vineland” because of the plentiful vines planted there. That was nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. What Erikson saw were the native American vines, probably Concord and others now used for making jams. As American’s taste for wine increased, so did the interest in growing their own.
Thomas Jefferson is credited with being the first American wine connoisseur. So enthralled was he with European wines, that he brought back barrels of wine for his cellar and cuttings to plant at his home in Virginia. His experiment was repeated over the whole length of the Atlantic seaboard with vines from every great European wine region, but the result was a disaster. Climate, pests, and disease destroyed the vines. Nobody knew why at the time and Jefferson always felt it was one of his biggest disappointments. It was, as we mentioned earlier, the root louse, phylloxera.
California’s suitable climate produced the best results and it took a dominant position in the 1840s that it has continued to build upon through today.
The first vinifera variety grown in New Mexico and California was the Mission, probably a New World seedling of an unknown European parent; it is at best a mediocre grape for wine. Importations and trials of many superior vinifera varieties quickly began, and although the Mission grape long dominated California, plantings of other, better varieties increased steadily. The most interesting was Zinfandel, still a California standout.
Outside California, vine growing continued to develop slowly, in much the same way. New Jersey, Virginia, and Arkansas were added to the states where viticulture was already established: New York (where the production of sparkling wine had become a specialty), Ohio, and Missouri. By 1919, a year before Prohibition, the US produced 24 million cases of wine. During Prohibition, 1920 to 1933, some commercial wine production was allowed (mostly sacramental wines) and home winemaking became very popular. Oddly enough, grape acreage actually increased, but the wine industry was in a black hole.
After Repeal in 1934, the US industry went full steam ahead with California leading the way. Unfortunately, the push was for inexpensive and easy to make generic jug wines such as Burgundy, Chablis, Sherry, and Champagnes. The rest of the country’s wine production declined considerably while California saw double-digit increases.
Beginning around 1970, wine production in the US took off like never before. New wineries, large and small, were started in California (there were 240 wineries in 1970, 770 in 1989, 1200 in 2005). New vineyards were planted, and winegrowers made unprecedented efforts to find the best matches between grape variety and location. Technology was the new buzzword. Yet, at the same time, traditional European methods were introduced and adapted. Large-scale foreign investment from Japanese, British, French, Spanish, Swiss, and German companies was attracted to the American wine industry.
Wine tasting groups and wine classes became more popular as Americans took a different view of wine. Many thought that the low consumption per capita in the US would climb to the levels of Europe. This was not to be the case, however. In the 1970s, France and Italy consumed 30 gallons of wine per person. That’s an average of one bottle every three days. Americans were at a paltry 1.5 gallons. Thirty years later, France and Italy were less than 20 gallons and America had climbed to 2 gallons per person.
Outside California the boom in wine was, proportionately, even greater. The Yakima Valley in Washington and the Willamette Valley in Oregon undertook large plantings of vinifera and began to develop a reputation for particular types of wine. Thanks to the prolific Concord grape, New York continues to produce more wine than any state other than California. Washington, South Carolina, and Georgia all produce more wine than Oregon. The number of commercial wineries in the entire country in the by the turn of the last century was more than 2,000.
New York is the second largest wine-producing state in the US. Of course, it lags considerably behind California’s 300,000,000 cases with less than 10,000,000. Its main product is made from the Concord grape as opposed to the finer vinifera varieties.
Serious plantings of French hybrids began in the early part of the 19th century along the Hudson River from which wine was produced in small quantities by the 1840s.
The next region to see the spread of the vine was the Finger Lakes district of central New York, where significant plantings of American hybrids began in the 1850s. From these a large industry developed, centered on the towns of Hammondsport, Penn Yan, and Naples, and specializing in white wines, both still and sparkling. By the end of the 19th century there were 24,000 acres of vines in the Finger Lakes region.
In western New York, along Lake Erie, grapes began to be part of the country scenery. A part of the region's grapes went into wine, but the vineyards were increasingly planted to Concord for grape juice. After Prohibition vine growing in New York was dominated by a few large wineries in the Finger Lakes, which continued the traditional trade in still and sparkling white wines from native grapes, but also used neutral blending wine from California.
New York is best known for the production of sweet kosher wine from the Concord grape, as well as a few dry kosher wines from other grape varieties. The new interest in wine that emerged in the 1970s had important results in New York. The Farm Winery Act of 1976 made it commercially viable to own and operate a small winery by allowing direct sales to consumers. French hybrids and vinifera vines were planted more widely in the eastern end of Long Island and were beginning to make a name for themselves. Today, most of the finest reds produced in the state from Cabernet and Merlot come from wineries on Long Island.
Today, New York's grape and wine industry accounts for about 31,000 acres of vineyards, and is a significant part of the state's agricultural economy. The industry provides thousands of jobs, generates millions of dollars in sales, contributes millions of dollars in taxes, and attracts over a million tourists each year.
The northeast US region that includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, has over 40 wineries. The climate in these regions is quite severe with frost being a concern every year. Many successful methods have been designed to ameliorate the climate and to great success
Ohio has 53 wineries. The Lake Erie has 22 wineries. Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin all have modest, but improving wine industries. Unfortunately, each has to deal with a separate state government that, under the 21st Amendment that formally ended Prohibition, makes laws almost to the detriment of their own industry. As an example, there are commercial wineries in 48 states, yet many states permit shipping of any wine within their borders. These exclusionary laws were successfully challenged in the Supreme Court in 2005 and many states are beginning to rethink their laws regarding wine shipment before they are told to do so in future rulings.
Pennsylvania has 54 wineries, yet it is also a control state, meaning that all alcohol is sold by the bottle in state stores. You can tour their wineries, but not taste or purchase at the vineyard.
In the coming years look for very high quality wines coming from Arizona and New Mexico from sites at high enough elevation to provide a more suitable growing climate than the arid plains. West Texas is taming its climate and finding ways to produce outstanding wines. Idaho has always had an active wine industry and it should continue to grow and prosper.
European grapes were first brought to California in the mid-nineteenth century by several pioneers. The main source of grapes from Europe came from one man, Count Augustine Haraszthy. He somehow convinced the governor of California in the 1850s to finance a trip to Europe to bring back cuttings from the finest vineyards and help begin a wine industry here.
California wines enjoyed a short spurt of success until a vine pest called phylloxera, which attacks the root system of vines, destroyed many of the vineyards. The curiosity of European winemakers is what brought American rootstock, along with phylloxera, to Europe. The phylloxera pest lives benignly in American rootstock without doing much damage. Once, however, it was introduced to those succulent vines from Europe, it feasted on every vine it could find until there were no more vines to destroy. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was hardly a vine standing in all of Europe.
The cure for this worldwide blight brought California and European winemakers close together. Native American vines, called Vitis Labrusca, were resistant to phylloxera, but produced wine of lesser quality than European Vitis Vinifera vines. Europe was slow to realize this cure or it would have recovered from phylloxera in less than five years. As it was, it took almost 50 years for the devastation to be controlled. Today, nearly all of the world's vines are a composite of American rootstock and European vine stock.
As Europe was ridding itself of phylloxera, California was struck by Prohibition. Prohibition extended from 1920 to 1933, virtually destroying the wine industry except for a few wineries, which made wines for "medicinal", or "sacramental" purposes. Apparently, along with prohibition came a newfound interest in religion because there was probably never so much sacramental wines made than during this period.
After the repeal of Prohibition, California began the slow process of rebuilding its wine industry. Since most of the fine wine grapes had been pulled out to plant more "legal" crops, the wineries were forced to begin an industry just like they had 70 years earlier. They concentrated on quantity instead of quality as a way to jump-start the industry. Inexpensive "jug" wines and sweet dessert wines were the order of the day. They lived on the philosophy that less money and more wine was the only way to go. For years very little fine wine came out of California. Most was sold in jugs and in carloads to be bottled elsewhere under anonymous names. The revival of California fine wines did not occur until the early 1960s when, with increased demand for table wines, vineyards of noble varietals were reestablished.
Europe's wine history in both viticulture and winemaking goes back centuries, while California's industry basically began in the 1950s and 1960s, other states even later. Progress has been rapid thanks to highly innovative scientific practices unencumbered by tradition. Extensive microbiological research and fermentation techniques that were developed in California are responsible for the delicate, finely flavored white wines we have today. Yet, in keeping with tradition, California, Washington, Oregon and other state's winemakers still age their wines in small oak barrels while fermentation is carried out in the most modern temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks or hygienically sound barrels. Vineyards, too, have moved forward with stricter crop control, organic farming and pest control. Modern methods for growing grapes also have made dramatic improvements in quality. California's wine production is a combination of Old World traditions and New World technology.
EVOLUTION OF CALIFORNIA WINE
California began a massive vineyard expansion in the 1960s that helped double the existing acreage in one decade. The current total acreage is over 600,000. The number of wineries increased from 245 in 1970 to 500 in 1990 to well over 1000 (and still counting) by 2003. The wines have improved to the point that America competes on a quality level with the world's finest offerings. This does not mean that we should make direct comparisons of one wine against another. Two wines could be of equal quality but taste completely different.
The vineyard expansion is an important part of the success story. For the most part, the new vineyards were planted with varieties of higher quality and in locales better suited to their needs. When Haraszthy returned from his famous voyage a hundred years earlier, he sold off more than 100,000 cuttings of European grape varieties. Unfortunately, he was a better salesman than a viticulturist. Vines were sold without regard for where they should be planted. Cool climate grapes went to hot climates and vice versa. After a hundred years of experiments and Prohibition, winemakers began to see the light.
A greater availability of higher quality wine grapes began to emerge in the early 1970s. Zinfandel became the most widely planted red wine grape. Cabernet Sauvignon went from nonexistence to third in a few short years. For white wines, enormous new plantings were made of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Plantings of Sauvignon Blanc were doubled.
New wineries with new winemakers and new ideas had much to do with the improvement in quality. Most are small specialists, dedicated to producing handcrafted wines. They helped create a spirit of intense, but usually friendly, competition. Many came into the business with a solid understanding of the economics and the capital-intensive nature of winemaking. Many of these wineries were owned by families that had been very successful in other businesses. Small wineries began mixing high technology and state-of-the-art equipment with traditional approaches, combining the best of both worlds.
This is not to say that the wine industry doesn't have its share of people who don't have the foggiest notion about what they are doing. The wine business is as romantic and exciting an endeavor as one could imagine being involved in. Many are attracted by the romance and "lifestyle." As we shall see later, it is a very difficult and unpredictable business, which, like any other, requires brains, brawn and marketing savvy to stay afloat.
Located in the Sierra Foothills this name is known for big, buxom Zinfandels and more recently Rhone and Italian grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese and particularly Barbera. The style is very ripe, full-bodied, often quite tannic (astringent). Classic Chenin Blancs are also produced.
A large section of Sonoma County. To date it is a proven area for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and more recently, Merlot.
A vineyard section at the southern tips of the Napa and Sonoma County line. It has an especially cool climate that has been specifically suited for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and, occasionally, Merlot.
The largest vineyard area in California. It is responsible for most of the state's generic table wines and, more recently, showing promise with the better varietals, specifically Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
A sub-region in Northern Sonoma best known for producing some of the best Zinfandels in the state as well as superb Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The first area in the Central Coast to be singled out for producing quality wines, specifically Chardonnay, in the mid-1970s and still going strong.
One of the oldest grape growing districts, it is best known for Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, along with excellent Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
This region is really two separate areas. Anderson Valley, near the coast, is known for exceptional Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as sparkling wine made from the same grapes. Further inland is the area around Ukiah, which is much warmer. This region produces excellent red wines such as Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and, occasionally, good Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
One of the state's coolest wine districts. So far the best wines are Riesling, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although Cabernet has accounted for some striking examples in the warmer microclimates.
The most famous and most established wine district in California. It is consistently successful with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, ranking among the state's best. Zinfandel and Riesling have their pockets and Chardonnay has been successful on the hillsides.
A very cool region in Northern Sonoma producing many of the best Pinot Noirs in the state as well as classy and stylistic Chardonnay.
San Luis Obispo County
A new region showing fine promise for Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir has been inconsistent in quality as have other varietals that do well in cool climates, specifically Chardonnay. Has seen the most amount of expansion in the late 90s over any other area in the country.
A small and very unique area just south of San Jose. Its rugged mountain terrain makes it a very difficult place to grow grapes, which is probably why it attracts some of the most committed winemakers in the state. Cool climates and steep soils have accounted for exhilarating Chardonnays and Pinot Noir that have more of a kin to Burgundy than California.
Santa Barbera County
A relatively new region, showing excellent results with Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. Is becoming best known for striking Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Cabernet Franc and Merlot, especially when blended with careful lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, have produced superb results. A few wineries have crafted some excellent examples of Bordeaux-style wines made from these grapes. Rhone grapes such as Syrah have also been very successful.
Much larger than Napa, and just as well established, it is only now receiving national recognition. Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, are strong points, but the Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons are the highlights.
In 1970 there were a handful of viticultural areas. These areas were defined by the government to be significantly different both in geography and geology to claim a place on the label. All wines from Napa Valley were labeled Napa Valley as long as 95% of the grapes came from there. The same for Sonoma County, Mendocino County, etc. Since then we have seen a proliferation of more than 300 areas being identified and allowed to adorn the label. So, if you have a good memory, you'll know that Howell Mountain is in Napa County, Sierra Madre is in Santa Barbara County and Anderson Valley is in Mendocino County because the labels don't have to tell you.
Washington's 16,500 acres is roughly half of the plantings of New York and about 2% of California. However, it may be the best place in America to grow grapes, especially the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. While we think of Seattle as cold and rainy, that is not the case in the Colombia Valley in Eastern Washington. Its vast area of rolling farmland is protected from the wet coast by the Cascade Mountains. It typically enjoys hot, dry summers and cold winters.
Virtually all of Washington’s vineyards are in the Columbia Valley. Housed inside the Columbia Valley is the Yakima Valley, which encompasses about 40 per cent of the state's vineyards. What makes this area exciting is not the dryness of the climate or the suitable soils as much as it is the latitude. While overall cooler than Napa Valley, the Columbia valley actually gets more sunlight during the critical growing period, June through September. The longer days and cooler climate allows the vines to absorb the suns rays, while retaining the grapes natural fruit acids, important for producing structure and ageability.
Although best known for Merlot (the second most planted grape variety) and Cabernet Sauvignon, white grapes predominate. Riesling remains the most planted grape variety and one that makes particularly good wine here. Riesling has been most associated with Washington since the 1970s when a tasting of top German and American Rieslings was staged by the Los Angeles Times and Ste. Michele’s entry was picked at the top of the pack. Ever since then, for better or worse, the two have been inescapably tethered.
Cabernet Sauvignon, and more recently Syrah, from here have been approaching world-class status and getting the recognition as well. It may be the grape that takes over Riesling’s grip. Once that happens, one can only hope that the pricing will not go to the producers’ heads as it has in Napa and other parts of California and Oregon.
France is the most famous wine producing country in the world. Many of its wines are the models, which other winemakers try to emulate. The climates in most of its areas, especially in the north, are cold and damp, making complete ripening of the grapes quite difficult in 2-4 vintages out of 10. France allows the addition of sugar during fermentation when the vintage is poor and the grapes never attain enough sugar naturally to make an acceptable wine. More than a few winemakers, however, add sugar (called chaptalization) as a matter of course and without regard for the vintage. France is the largest wine producer in the world, though it is just ahead of Italy and often, depending on the vintage is eclipsed by Italy.
Located in the northeast corner of France, along the German border, Alsace specializes in white varietals similar to Germany like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. These varietals are produced in a much drier style than those of Germany. The finest of the lot is Gewürztraminer-dry, spicy, and forceful; and Riesling-dry, minerally and perfect with the cuisine of the region. Other wines of note include a light, crisp Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. The wines vary with the vintage, but not as radically as those of Germany.
A large area at the Southern tip of Burgundy which produces the fresh, fruity and lively red wine for everyday pleasure. Made from the Gamay grape, Beaujolais is fermented to emphasize fruit over structure. The aroma is similar to strawberry jam and, though deep in color, the wine is soft on the palate. Wines labeled "Beaujolais-Villages" come from two or more villages, which produce more substantial wines than the "Beaujolais" offerings. Finer by far are the 10 "Crus" of Beaujolais produced from grapes grown in one specific village. The 10 villages are: Saint-Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Brouilly, Regnie and Cotes de Brouilly. A small amount of Beaujolais Blanc (White Beaujolais made from Chardonnay) is exported to the United States. The best are fruity and crisp, but not very distinctive. Nouveau wine is the first of the Beaujolais to be released. It is sold, by law no sooner than the third Thursday in November, barely 2 months after it is picked. Nouveau is typically light and fruity and should be consumed within 4 months of release.
The most famous wine region in France, Bordeaux is known for wines that are a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The wines from here are among the best known, most expensive and long-lived wines in the world. However, Bordeaux is the single largest fine wine producing area on earth. Most of Bordeaux wines are fairly ordinary. It is mainly the wines from the areas in the center of Bordeaux, like the Medoc and Graves and the eastern bank in St. Emilion and Pomerol where the best wines are made. In great vintages, wines from these areas possess all the fine qualities and sturdy structure of the greatest wines imaginable. Within the Medoc area are small villages, most notably Pauillac, St. Estephe and St. Julian where the top chateaux are found. White Bordeaux, primarily made from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, has taken its place of greatness along with the reds with regard to their deep, complex flavors, ageability and (recently) price. The best come from a village within the Graves area called Pessac Leognan.
In this area, the red wines are made from Pinot Noir, and vary in quality from light and ordinary to rich, complex, and majestic. Generally, the smaller the area, the better the wine. Burgundy's finest wines come from the Côte d'Or, a mere 30 mile strip divided at the center into 2 distinct parts; the Côte de Nuits in the north and the Côte de Beaune in the south. The Nuits produces 95% red wines from the Pinot Noir grape. These are among the finest, longest-lived and most exotic and expensive wines made on earth.
The Côte de Beaune produces approximately 38% white wine, 60% red and 2% sparkling. White Burgundy is made exclusively from Chardonnay. Quality varies from the finest, Montrachets and Corton Charlemagnes, to a simple Macon Blanc. The best ones from the villages of Meursault, Puligny and Chassagne are aged in small oak barrels. Wines from the Macon are generally non-oak aged and offer good quality, on the order of Pouilly-Fuisse, but for less money. The reds of Beaune are not as revered as the reds of the Côte de Nuits with few exceptions like Pommard, Corton and Volnay. They are normally lighter in style; however, they can produce wines in good vintages that rival Côte de Nuits and beyond.
This region is part of Burgundy although it is not connected directly. Wines are made almost exclusively from the Chardonnay grape in a dry, crisp style with shy fruit and a flinty character due to the high chalk content of the soil. Seldom aged in small oak barrels although a few renegades are conducting some successful experiments.
This area is believed to create the finest sparkling wine of all. The best offer excellent, tiny bubbles (a sign of quality) and a yeasty aroma with fruity, complex flavors. The most common grape here is the Pinot Meunier, a red grape, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
A long, diverse region in western France adjacent to the Loire River that produces wines from charming and fruity to rich and long-lived and a few exceptional Rosés. The whites are predominantly from the Chenin Blanc (Vouvray), Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet) and Sauvignon Blanc (Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé) varietals. The reds are made from Cabernet Franc (Bougueil and Chinon) and occasionally Pinot Noir (Sancerre).
A long, narrow strip in the southern, center of France about 60 miles long and not more than 5 miles wide. It is cut in two by the soil and climate changes making the Rhone almost two regions in one. The northern section is best known for fabled and long-lived red wines from predominately the Syrah grape: Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, St. Joseph and Cornas and a fragrant white, Condrieu from the Viognier grape. The south is famous for the full-bodied Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas and the light Rosés from Tavel. Chateauneuf-du-Pape can be a blend of up to 13 different varieties, 3 of them white. Gigondas uses the same red grapes as Chateauneuf-du-Pape but no white. Most are a blend of the major grapes of the area; Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault. Wines labeled Côtes du Rhone come from the south and are a blend of 5-10 different varieties from the region. In recent years, many Côtes du Rhone reds are being discovered by Americans for both flavor and value. Very little white Rhone wine is made, but most that is produced is quite lovely.
Italy battles France from vintage to vintage as the largest wine producing area in the world. It produces nearly 700 million cases annually. As recently as 1970, a very large portion was used for distilling as it was not good enough to be made into table wine. Another large portion was used to blend with other countries' wines, especially France, to help strengthen their wines in weaker vintages.
While the DOC laws established in 1963 and the DOCG laws of 1980 are a bold step in controlling quality, only 30% of all Italian wines fall into these categories. The term "Classico" refers to the center of the area. Chianti Classico, for example, is in the center of Chianti and is usually a better wine most from outside the "Classico" area simply labeled "Chianti."
amarone A very concentrated and alcoholic version of Valpolicella. Grapes of particular note that were destined to become Valpolicella are dried on mats for up to six months. This process removes a good deal of the water in the grapes, as much as 50%, thus concentrating the flavors and making the sugar a much bigger component in the grape. When fermented it is much higher in flavor and alcohol and can age for many decades. Occasionally, the wine has a certain sweetness in it due the high alcohol, sometimes more than 15%, killing off the yeast cells while the sugar is still present in the wine and stopping fermentation.
Is in the state of Tuscany and is made from several grape varieties, predominantly Sangiovese. Chianti typically has a strong aroma, medium-body and a slight sharpness in flavor. Chianti Classico comes from a smaller and normally finer area, and offers more depth, flavor and complexity. The "Riserva" wines can live for many years. By law, Classico must be aged for one year in the barrel, Reservas for two. Non-Classico Chiantis of note come from Rufina, Colli Senesi, and Siena.
Made in the state of Piedmont. At its best, one of the richest, most complex and longest lived Italian red wines. Made exclusively from the Nebbiolo grape, the wine has incredible depth and extraordinary aging potential.
Also a Piedmont wine made from Nebbiolo, but from an area a few miles Northeast of Barolo. Normally very rich and concentrated, but generally not as tannic as Barolo. Barbaresco is among the most concentrated, enticing and long-lived wines made on Earth.
The most prolific red grape in all of Italy. Produces as simple a wine as can be imagined, or a very complex, oak aged, low yield wine of intensity and character. Can exhibit robust black cherry and spicy, leathery flavors.
Brunello di Montalcino
A relatively new wine made from the Brunello grape grown in the town of Montalcino a few miles east of Chianti in Tuscany. This grape is an isolated clone of the Sangiovese grown in Chianti. It produces a much heartier, tannic and longer-lived wine than the Sangiovese grown in Chianti. It was cultivated in the late 1800s and is now one of the most popular of Italy's hearty reds.
A fresh, light, lively white wine made in Latium. Best enjoyed for its soft, fruity appeal.
A white wine growing in popularity from the state of Umbria. Made from the Trebbiano grape, it is fruity, smooth and flavorful. The "Classico" versions are richer and more age-worthy.
One of Italy's most popular white wines. Made from the grape of the same name, the wine is usually light and delicate with a peach, pear and apple fruit flavor. The best come from the Northern areas of Veneto, Friuli and Trentino.
A clean, modestly fragrant, white wine, occasionally retaining some sweetness for added interest. Made in the Veneto.
A popular Venetian light-bodied red, with simple aromas and a slightly rough flavor. Has recently become a superb food wine by a small group of artisan winemakers who have transformed this area into one of Italy's finest. The grapes are Corvina, Molinara and Rondinella, the same component as Amarone, which is actually a Valpolicella whose grapes have been dried on straw mats for up to six months before being vinified.
Vino da Tavola
The lowest quality designation. Any grape or combination of grapes could be used and is not normally thought of as a quality product. However, recent experimental wines of extraordinary quality must carry this designation because they do not follow the DOC or DOCG laws of the region. Until 1995, a wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Chianti (or even Chianti Classico) could not be called Chianti because the DOCG law said that Chianti can only be made from Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Mammolo and no more than 10% "other grapes." No matter how good the wine is, it could only be labeled Vino da Tavola. Many of these wines are considered better and often are more expensive than their "legal" counterparts. For these reasons the DOC laws were changed to include them. There are now hundreds of these "renegade" wines produced in and around Chianti that are petitioning for, or have already received, a DOC or DOCG ranking.
Germany has one of the coldest, shortest growing seasons of all major wine regions. Consequently, only a few grape varieties, and only in good vintages, are capable of becoming ripe enough to turn into wine. Like France, Germany allows the addition of sugar during fermentation when the vintage is poor and the grapes never attain enough sugar naturally to make an acceptable wine.
The two major growing regions are the Rhine Valley and the Mosel. The finer wines in each come from vineyards adjacent to their respective rivers (the Rhine and the Mosel), which provide a more temperate climate. Germany is famous for its Riesling, but the predominant grape planted here is a crossbreed, Müller-Thurgau. If the varietal is stated on the label it must be 100%, if not so stated it can be anything.
Germany's most famous and sought-after wines have a touch of sugar in them. This is normally balanced by a gripping acidity, which often masks the presence of the sugar. There is a current move in Germany to make more dry white wines, since the country is identified as a sweet wine producer. "Trocken" (dry) or "halbtrocken" (half-dry) are the key words indicating the wine's dryness.
The system of labeling wines in Germany is based upon the condition or ripeness of the grapes at the time of harvest. Too often, Germany's difficult growing conditions do not allow the grapes to ripen so they must add sugar to attain an acceptable level of sugar for the yeast to ferment. Wines labeled QMP (Qualitatswein mit Prädikat) are wines that did not require the addition of sugar to ferment. They are usually either the best, most sun-drenched sites in a poor year or most of the wines in a good year.
Today, German wines benefit from very advanced winemaking technology. A few other special features should be mentioned. The wines of Germany tend to be lower in alcohol, somewhere between 7% and 10%. The labeling regulations are the most complex, but also the most stringent of any winemaking country. And finally, German wines are enjoyed before, between or during meals, the way Americans enjoy beer. The major wine growing regions of Germany are as follows:
The southern most wine producing region. Most wines made from the Muller-Thurgau with some excellent Rieslings produced and a small amount of the red Spatburgunder, which is the German version of Pinot Noir.
Distinctively packaged in the famous "Bockbeutel" bottle featuring the round, narrow body. These wines, made from the usually ordinary Sylvaner grape, are transformed here into a refreshing, "racy" offering not duplicated anywhere else.
Named after the famous Mosel River and includes its two most renowned tributaries, the Saar and Ruwer. These wines are primarily made from the Riesling and are arguably the finest in Germany.
Between Baden and the Rheingau, this area produces very good Riesling and Muller-Thurgau, but it is the Gewürztraminer and the exotic Scheurebe that are its greatest achievements.
The only competition for Mosel as the King of German wines. Almost exclusively Riesling-based, these wines reach a power and longevity beyond the capability of any white wine made on earth. Wines made in the top of the area near the town of Mainz have been reputed to live (and actually be drinkable) after 300 years of aging!
The largest area of the Rhine making pleasant and occasionally distinctive wines from the Sylvaner and Muller-Thurgau grapes. The finest wines in the area, however, are made from Riesling.
The following terms are distinctive to German wines:
Tafelwein The lowest category of table wine. Usually barely ripe grapes with sugar added to complete fermentation and should be drunk within its first year.
A quality wine of some distinction, but usually having sugar added to it.
Qualitätswein Mit Prädikat
A strictly controlled wine, which must be picked at certain minimum sugar levels and cannot have sugar added to it. The following terms are the different levels of Prädikat wines.
The basic grade. Usually fairly tart, but can be excellent with food.
Wine made from grape clusters picked later than Kabinet grapes. Has 1-2% sugar but also fairly high acidity. The impression is not as sweet as one might expect.
Same late picking as Spätlese, however clusters containing unripe grapes are rejected. The wines are sweeter and fuller-bodied.
Made from riper grape clusters than Auslese. Very sweet dessert wine, but retaining the characteristic stinging acidity.
Made from individually selected, late picked grapes that are usually shriveled with Botrytis. A very luscious, and extremely expensive, dessert wine that can live for centuries.
Without question the most unique and exotic dessert wine made in Germany, if not the entire world. At best, Eiswein can only be made in 3 out of 10 years. If the conditions are not perfect, the entire crop is lost. This is why the best sites leave only a few acres of grapes on the wine at the end of harvest in the hopes of making Eiswein. Perfect conditions consist of freezing temperatures coupled with sunshine during the day. This allows the grapevine to continue to stay active while continuing to build sugar in the grape and not lose its acidity. When the grapes are harvested, the frozen solids, made up entirely of water, are discarded and only the essence of the grape is fermented making a wine of incredible richness and concentration. No matter the cost, wine lovers should experience an eiswine at least once in their lives.