Wine & spirits

Food & restaurants

Sports & pastimes

Fashion & looks

Drive, sail & fly

Travel & leisure

Arts & literature

Homes & living

Business & people

Et cetera

What is this site?


The book


Wine regions and what to order from where

By Jeffrey Carl

Relatively few countries in the world produce wine of export quality. Most wine (probably as much as 80%) is made locally for local consumption. In 2003, the world’s leading exporters of wine (ranked by market share) were:

Note that the above data comes from Wikipedia so it may be entirely made up by some smartass kid.

Old-world wines come from Europe (“duh”). Each winemaking region in Europe typically produces wines that are made of specific grape varietals, and they are labeled by region rather than “type.” (Identifying wines by varietals is actually a rather new idea, first used by California winemakers in the 1960s because their areas did not all produce the same types of wine.) This has the dual effects of increasing the snob appeal of European wines and making them a major pain-in-the-ass to identify if you aren’t already familiar with them. France is generally recognized as the apex of old-world wines, with Germany following next and Italy showing some standouts as well.

It turns out that French wines are particularly well known for reasons beyond pure snobbery. Certain types of grape grow best with certain climates and soil types, and France happens to have generally superb growing conditions. The French use the term terroir (pronounced “tare-WAHR”) to refer to the unique contributions of each vineyard’s soil to the taste of the eventual wine, and they’re serious about it.

There are five major French winemaking regions, and each is known for one or more particular styles of wine. Alsace produces dry, savory white wines using Riesling and Pinot Gris grapes, similar to those in Germany. Rhone Valley red wines are fiery and peppery, and its whites (based on the Viognier grape) are fruity. The Loire Valley is best known for sweet, dry white wines. Burgundy wines may be red or white; the whites are among the world’s pre-eminent chardonnays. Most red burgundies are complex wines based on the pinot noir grape, while those produced in the Beaujolais region of Burgundy make a fruity, flavorful wine using the Gamay grape. Bordeaux is the largest wine-making region in France, and is famed for its bold red wines that are a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes.

Germany is well known for light, sweet white wines (such as Riesling) from the Rhine and Moselle areas. It’s worth noting that since Germany is so far north (on a parallel with Newfoundland), suitable vineyard land is limited and the costs of making wine there are among the highest in the world. Therefore, while good German wines are some of the world’s most expensive, cheap German wines are more likely to be of poor quality and taste like BMW engine coolant. Austrian wines are generally similar in type to those of Germany, with a strong emphasis on Riesling.

Italy produces a tremendous amount of wine, but is best known in the United States for Chianti (a red table wine, served in a straw-covered bottle, that pairs exceedingly well with Italian food) and Barolo (a fine, dark red made from Nebbiolo grapes in the Piedmont region). Italian wines are generally labeled by their town or locality – of which there are hundreds – so good luck trying to remember or distinguish them without some help. (The author’s tactic, when presented with a wine list in an Italian restaurant, is to try to find a wine with the same name as a character from the Godfather movies. It doesn’t always work, but it’s better than throwing darts.)

Other countries in Europe are generally known for specialty wines. Spain has more vineyard land than any other European country; but like Italy, most of its wine production is simple fare intended for local consumption with dinner. However, it is recognized internationally for its sherry (see below) and dry red and white wines from the Rioja region. Hungary is famous for Tokay (also spelled Tokaj), a sweet white wine whose better examples rank among the world’s finest wines. Wines from Greece are often an acquired taste, since many of them are flavored with resin, which tastes like turpentine to those not used to it. Thankfully, the English don’t even attempt to grow wine (would you trust the people who invented eel pie with your Chardonnay?) and just drink the readily available French or Australian stuff.

New-world wines come from basically anywhere else but Europe. While Old World (especially French) wines are known for their complexity and subtlety, many New World wines are famed for their big, bold flavors (often called “fruit forward”). It’s a gross oversimplification, but you can stand by a general rule that new-world wines are a good choice for drinking by themselves (because of their bolder tastes) while the subtler tastes of old-world wines go best with food.

The most well known among new-world winemaking regions – and the one with the greatest claim to equality with old-world wines – is California. Wine grapes were planted in California as early as 1769, and savvy growers who recognized the excellent grape-growing climate in Northern California began to import European wine grapes in the 1850s and 1860s. Especially in the north, California has a climate and soil remarkably like that of France, with the addition of a cool ocean breeze. Over the years, California began producing some outstanding wines, but was still regarded as a second-class citizen of sorts in the wine world until the 1970s.

In 1976, an English wine merchant organized a blind tasting in Paris that pitted several premier cru French wines against their California equivalents. Much to their own surprise and consternation, the French panel of experts chose two Californian wines as the winners. The results of the “Paris Tasting,” as it became somewhat uncreatively known, shocked the wine world and effectively ended France’s claim to being on a different plane than wines made elsewhere in the world. Wine critic Robert Parker (see below) credits this event with “democratizing” the wine world and paving the way for other wine regions worldwide to legitimately aim to produce truly world-class wines.

The Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, is widely recognized as the premier wine-growing region of the state, with the Sonoma Valley and the Great Central Valley following. California is known especially for producing excellent Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache wines. Note, however, that much of the cheap wine coming from California is just that – made from grapes that are normally used for raisins rather than wine – so a California pedigree is certainly no guarantee of quality.

Wine has been made in New York since 1829, and it is the traditional second region for American wines behind California. Most of these are grown on Long Island or in the upstate Finger Lakes region. A wide variety of wines are produced there – including those from native American grapes such as the Concord or Catawba – and while few of them rank as world-class wines, there’s a lot of worthwhile stuff to be found there. The author’s personal favorite cheap red table wine comes from the Bully Hill vineyards in New York.

The most fashionable new wine area in America is the area around the Columbia River Valley in Washington and Oregon. (Pinot noirs from the Willamette Valley are especially prized.)

Australia is a rising star in the world of wine, notably producing excellent spicy Shiraz wines, as well as oaky Chardonnays and rich Cabernets. South Africa is best known for its whites (no pun intended). South America is also an important wine region, with Chile and Argentina taking top billing.

One more thing

Please bear with us as the site gets up and running. In the meantime, feel free to browse our current content or join us as a contributor.

Snob Marketplace