It used to be that Austrian wines were hard to find in this country, but that is rapidly changing. Wine enthusiasts are discovering that Austria makes a lot of wine (as much or even more than Germany) and most is very good indeed.
Although not exactly identical, Austria and Germany pretty much use the same quality and labeling systems. Thus, look for the words Qualitätswein and/or Prädikatswein on the label as representing the best, with Landwein and Tafelwein being lower in quality but often good – and a good value.
There are five major wine producing regions, and you should see one of these on any label of Austrian wine: Burgenland, Burgland, Niederösterreich, Steiermark, and Wien (Austrian for Vienna).
Austria has given us a truly delightful white wine – Grüner Veltlinger. It has become enormously popular in the U.S., and for good reason. It’s sharp, crisp, refreshing, and inexpensive. It’s one of the best summer sippers I know, combining dryness with citrus/lemon notes and typical Old World minerality.
Austria also produces other white wines, most notable Riesling with the same levels of sweetness as the German version except that the Kabinett level is omitted. There is also Müller-Thurgau, a Riesling-Silvaner cross that is less well regarded.
Tasting Tip: German and Austrian Rieslings and Grüner Veltlingers are known for their ability to age. Good quality Riesling, especially, can be cellared for decades during which it will turn a delightful honey color.
Austrians have the same designation for dessert wines as the Germans:
Spätlese: (pronounced spate-lays-ah); semi-sweet
Auslese: sweet; similar to a late harvest wine in the U.S.
Beerenauslese: very sweet; honey color; similar to a French Sauternes
Eiswein: very sweet; made from grapes that have partially frozen on
Trockenbeerenauslese: extremely sweet; made from select individual shriveled grapes; very expensive; commonly referred to as TBA
For red wines, Austria produces Zweigelt, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Blaufränkisch, also known as Limberger (Lemberger in the U.S.). However, you are unlikely to see these in your local bottle shop unless it is well stocked with an extensive inventory of international wines.
Finally, like their German counterparts, Austrian sparkling wines are called Sekt.
We start with France because it’s the world’s largest wine producer, and also because it has long been associated with the finest of wines. It uses the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation for legally defined and controlled wine regions. Look for this on French wine labels; it’s often a guide to quality. Six major AOCs are briefly discussed below in alphabetical order.
This region lies in easternmost France near the German border. It produces world class white wines, although most U.S. wine enthusiasts I’ve talked to are unfamiliar with the wines. That’s a shame because Alsace whites are good values and make great summertime sippers for patio and deck parties. I enjoy relaxing on my deck on a warm summer evening enjoying a glass of cold, crisp Pinot Blanc.
The major white wines of Alsace are Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. Although the first two are also produced in quantity across the border in Germany, the Alsace versions are a bit drier in style with lots of wonderful minerality. Alsace wines commonly come in tall, narrow bottles with distinctive yellow labels.
There are also good sparkling wines produced in Alsace, and you might see a few of these in local bottle shops.
Bordeaux produces the largest amount of wine of the six major regions and is subdivided into dozens of smaller AOCs. Unlike in Alsace, you must know the grape variety that goes with the sub AOC, or even the winery (Château), because the bottle label will not tell you. Thus, red Bordeaux wines can be virtually any mixture of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Carmenère. White Bordeaux, on the other hand, can be either Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, or Muscadelle, but are commonly a blend of two or more.
The red wines considered to be the best—called the First Growths—go for $2,000 or more a bottle and are sold as futures while still in the barrel. Because of this fact, the ordinary wine enthusiast may never get a chance to taste one of these unless he or she is lucky enough to have a wealthy friend who collects such wines.
Broadly speaking, red Bordeaux wines are divided into Left Bank or Right Bank, depending on which side of the Gironde River the winery is on. Left Bank Bordeaux is predominately Cabernet Sauvignon (with lesser amounts of the other red varieties usually blended in), while Right Bank Bordeaux is predominately Merlot (again, usually with lesser amounts of the other red varieties blended in).
Fortunately, good red Bordeaux from quality AOCs can be obtained in the $25 - $50 range. Look for Haut Médoc, St-Estephe, Pauillac, St-Julien, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, or Graves on the label for Cabernet Sauvignon dominated wines, and for Pomerol or St-Emilion on the label for Merlot dominated wines. There are other Bordeaux AOCs with quality wines as well; check with your local bottle shop wine expert for advice.
White Bordeaux wines are known as Bordeaux Blanc (or simply as White Bordeaux) and are inexpensive. They often pair well with seafood, especially when made with Sauvignon Blanc.
Bordeaux also produces a unique honey-colored dessert wine in the Sauternes and Barsac AOCs. The white grape variety Sémillon is usually used to produce these wonderful, sweet wines. The grapes are attacked by a fungus known as Botrytis cinerea during the ripening phase, and this fungus causes the grapes to shrivel. During this process, the grapes lose water resulting in concentrated sugars.
Many Sauternes and Barsacs are made by hand-picking individual grapes as they reach optimum sweetness, thus these wines can be on the expensive side and are commonly sold in half bottles.
Burgundy is well-known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although the red grape Gamay is also found here, along with the white grapes Aligoté and Pinot Blanc. For most of the wine drinking world, however, Burgundy is where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay achieve their highest expressions of character and, as a result, wines from the highest regarded vineyards can be extremely expensive.
The entire region of Burgundy is known as the Côte d’Or, with the Beaujolais AOC tacked on (The French dispute whether or not Beaujolais is actually part of Burgundy. Officially it is, but to traditionalists this is an insult).
The major AOCs begin with Chablis which is actually like an island in that it does not border on the rest of Burgundy. Only Chardonnay is produced here and classic Chablis is virtually oak-free, often referred to as being steely in character. This means the wines are sharp and crisp, and contain wonderful citrus and green apple notes, along with a chalk-like minerality. Chablis wines can be very expensive, but moderate priced ones from lesser vineyards can be found on shelves in this country and are worth trying. Chablis pairs well with shellfish; try it with oysters Rockefeller at your next party.
Chardonnay from the rest of Burgundy is simply referred to as White Burgundy and varies tremendously in style and price. The highest regarded ones are as expensive as, or even more expensive than, the highest regarded Chablis. Excellent values can be obtained, however, from the Pouilly and Fuissé AOC near the town of Mâcon (designated as the combined Pouilly-Fuissé AOC).
For red Burgundy, Pinot Noir is the star. The highest rated vineyards produce extremely sought after wines (designated as Grand Crus) and, as a consequence, are out of the price range of most wine enthusiasts. Fortunately, the next level down—the Premier Crus—are much less pricey and are commonly available in this country. Look especially for the AOCs Beaune, Chasagne-Montrachet, Pommard, or Volnay on the label. Your local wine shop owner can also point you to good red Burgundy from other quality AOCs.
Tasting Tip: The designation Bourgogne Rouge on a label denotes simple, cheap Pinot Noir made from lesser quality grapes obtained from vineyards anywhere in the Burgundy region. I have tried a number from different producers but have yet to encounter one that I would recommend because I find the wines to be flat, without much fruit, and lacking in character.
We’ll end our brief overview of Burgundy with the AOC Beaujolais. It’s most known for its red wine made primarily from the Gamay grape. The resulting wine is light-bodied and fruity, and has a distinctive taste due to the flavor of the Gamay grape. You may want to consider Beaujolais as a Thanksgiving alternative because it pairs well with turkey.
Most Beaujolais is inexpensive to moderate in price, so it’s often a good value. You’ll see Beaujolais labeled under sub AOCs of villages such as Juliénas, Fleurie, and Brouilly. All are worth trying.
Tasting Tip: Every third Thursday of November you’ll see the release of a unique wine called Beaujolais Nouveau. I call it bubble gum wine because its aroma and taste remind me of bubble gum. It’s made by a special rushed fermentation method and ready for sale within weeks of the grapes being picked. It’s definitely not a fine wine, but when fresh you may you like it and choose to have it as an alternate red at your Thanksgiving table. Avoid buying it, however, after it’s two to three months old due to how quickly it degrades.
Lying 90 miles northeast of Paris, the Champagne region has given the world the most elegant wine of all. Perfected in the years during and shortly after the reign of Napoleon, Champagne has achieved mythic status thanks to the Czars of Russia and the remarkable marketing ability of the French.
Champagne is made by a unique method developed during and after the reign of Napoleon. Basically, the grapes are made into wine during a first fermentation, then additional wine, yeast,a nd sugar are added later for a second fermentation inside the bottle. This causes carbon dioxide gas to become trapped and dissolved within the wine. After opening, the gas comes out of the wine and the result is all those delightful bubbles in your glass.
There are two basic types of Champagne: that produced by the large companies—called houses—which produce millions of bottles per year, and that produced by small family run operations, called grower Champagnes. This is an oversimplification, but I want to emphasize that the role of the large houses is much different than the smaller producers.
You’re probably already familiar with many of the large houses such as Bollinger, Krug, Laurent Perrier, Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, and Dom Ruinart. Some of these houses produce 10 million or more bottles per year. These houses buy most of their grapes from vineyards owned by small growers but over which they exercise control. This results in consistent quality from year to year.
The small family operations, on the other hand, generally grow their own grapes on their land and make the Champagne themselves. There are also cooperatives that buy grapes and make Champagne. Either way, most of these Champagnes are also high quality.
I’ve had the privilege of private tours at a large house, Louis Roederer, and a small grower, Jean Vesselle, as well as at a mid-size producer, Deutz. From these experiences, I can testify to the passion for quality that the French put into making Champagne.
I’ve also paid homage to the tomb of Dom Pérignon located in the abbey where he carried out his work. (Today, Dom Pérignon is one of the labels of the Moët & Chandon house.) The good monk didn’t invent Champagne, but he helped perfect it and also made valuable contributions to vineyard management.
In the city of Reims is located the house of Veuve Clicquot where during and after Napoleonic times, a widow by the name of Barbe Clicquot made further improvements in the production of Champagne and, in fact, her products became favored at the court of the Czar in St. Petersburg.
(For places to see in Champagne, refer to the page titled, ‘Wine Touring.’)
Tasting Tip: When opening a bottle of Champagne, never loosen the wire cage without having your thumb over the top of it at all times, and always hold the bottle away from people. Champagne is under tremendous pressure and the cork can suddenly and explosively discharge once the wire cage is loosened even a little. In fact, it’s best to use a towel over the top of the bottle (finger or thumb still on the cork) and twist the bottle away from the cork. You can do this without removing the loose wire cage.
Tasting Tip: Properly opened Champagne never overflows; that is a sign of an amateur and, besides, it wastes expensive Champagne. To avoid this, ensure the bottle is chilled, and then hold it at an angle when opening. Never, ever, open a bottle upright! Holding the bottle at an angle creates greater surface area on the wine and thus the gas inside can escape out of a larger area. Conversely, holding the bottle upright creates a very small surface area on the wine; the gas inside must escape through this constricted area and, therefore, usually creates an overflow.
The Loire Valley of western France is a major wine production region that is similar to the Alsace region in two ways: it produces world class white wines, and American wine enthusiasts know virtually nothing about them. Again, that’s a shame, because these white wines are great values, ranging from inexpensive (even downright cheap) to moderate in price.
The mouth of the Loire at the Atlantic Ocean contains the Muscadet AOCs (Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine being a common one you’ll see on store shelves). Contrary to what you might at first think, Muscadet is not made from the Muscat grape. Instead, it’s made from the Melon grape. This wonderfully crisp wine was developed to go with all the great seafood harvested from the Atlantic by local fishermen. Muscadet generally sells for under $20/bottle, and I’ve even seen some for around $10. Enjoy it with shellfish and white fish dishes.
A little further up the valley is located the AOC Vouvray where very lovely Chenin Blancs are produced. The best description I can give of these wines is that they are fruit bowls, or perhaps fruit salads. That is, their aromas and palate contain all kinds of lush fruit notes. They’re also a touch sweet as is typical of Chenin Blanc.
At the upper end of the valley’s wine grape growing region can be found the two AOCs Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. These produce some of the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc. I highly recommend these because their distinct citrus elements and minerality pair extremely well with seafood. They are commonly available in this country and can be found in the $20 - $30 range. It’s a great value for these awesome whites.
Tasting Tip: The Pouilly-Fumé AOC was the inspiration for Fume Blanc wine which is a California version of crisp, dry Sauvignon Blanc. The French version is better, but Fume Blanc can be a great value. I usually buy a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé for a seafood dinner, whereas I’ll enjoy California Fume Blanc as a summer sipper.
The Loire Valley also produces a red wine made from Cabernet Franc, but it is not commonly available in this country. What you can find, however, are decent Loire sparkling wines at moderate prices.
The Rhone Valley is located in southeastern France along the Rhone River. The grape growing region is not contiguous, being divided into two distinct parts: Northern Rhone and Southern Rhone. The wines from each are very different.
The Northern Rhone is a cold climate and produces world class Syrah and Viognier. Both can be very expensive when produced from distinct sub-AOCs. Condrieu has only a white wine made from Viognier but is considered to be where the grape achieves its greatest expression. Since the area is rather small, Condrieu tends to be very expensive.
Tasting Tip: As an alternative, try Viognier from Washington (Columbia River Valley) or Idaho (Snake River Valley). For around $20, you can enjoy what I consider to be the world’s best Viognier.
For Syrah, you’ll typically see the AOCs Côte Rotie (very expensive), St-Joseph (less expensive), Hermitage (again, very expensive), and Crozes Hermitage (less expensive). The differences in price are due to how well regarded the vineyards are, and how much wine is produced.
Tasting Tip: Again, for excellent Syrah at a better value (about $20 - $30), try producers from the Snake River Valley or the Columbia River Valley.
The Southern Rhone is much closer to the Mediterranean Sea and, therefore, has a much warmer climate. This is where Grenache is king, and it is in most of the red wines, usually blended with additional grapes such as Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Counoise, and others.
The best known AOCs are Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas where the predominate grape in the blend is Grenache. These wines pair very well with lamb and wild game but, unfortunately, range from expensive to very expensive (>$100).
Tasting Tip: For a better value, try a Grenache blend from the Vacqueras AOC.
The less expensive red wines from the Rhone come from the overall Côtes-du-Rhone AOC. These are lesser quality and I avoid them unless they have the Villages designation on the label. This means they were produced around a certain village, so the producers try to uphold the reputation of their village by making quality wine. Consequently, Côtes-du-Rhone Villages wines can be great values.
Tasting Tip: I do not recommend any of the generic Côtes-du-Rhone wines.
Vin du Pays
This is lowest official quality category, a designation for wines that don’t meet the strict standards of well-known AOCs. Translated roughly as ‘Country Wine,’ these can be good bargains. I recommend trying different Vin du Pays wines because they are an excellent and affordable way to sample different French wines from across the country.
There are a number of other wine producing regions in France, especially in the southern part of the country. You’ll commonly encounter wines from the AOCs Cahors, Languedoc, and Costières de Nimes. I recommend you explore these wines since they’re usually good values.
Tasting Tip: The south of France makes world class dry Rosé. These wines pair well with dishes such as chicken Caesar salads, or you can just enjoy them as sippers. I highly recommend them.
Germany, like France, is full of idyllic river valleys whose slopes are covered with picturesque vineyards and whose lengths are dotted with fairytale castles. I once spent five days in the Mosel River Valley touring between Trier and Koblenz, an area jam-packed with vineyards and wineries and quaint villages.
The Germans label their wine by quality and by region and, just to make matters more complicated, sometimes by level of sweetness as well. Look for the words Qualitätswein or Prädikatswein on the label (the two words will sometimes both be present). If they are missing, then you know you have a lower quality wine that may be a ‘Table Wine’ (Tafelwein) or a ‘country wine’ (Landwein). Although Tafelwein and Landwein are more likely to be mass produced from lower quality grapes, they can still be decent wines that are great values.
The two wines that Germany is known for in this country are Riesling and Gewürztraminer, both white. Quality Riesling should have a wonderfully lush, fruity nose of pineapples and citrus, while Gewürztraminer will be less lush, but with its own characteristic hint of spiciness on the palate. Both wines are commonly sold in tall, narrow bottles much like Alsace wines.
The Mosel River is a major production area and is a tributary of the Rhine, the major producing river valley of Germany. In fact, tributaries of both rivers produce most of the wine in Germany. Significant valleys you’ll see on labels of German white wine bottles will include Mittelrhein, Mosel, Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz. White wine from any of these areas should be good quality; it’s just a matter of your preference for how sweet you like your wine.
Prädikatswein has six levels of sweetness as shown below:
Kabinett: The least sweet but still containing a touch of sweetness
Spätlese: (pronounced ‘spate-lays-ah) semi-sweet
Auslese: sweet; roughly equivalent to a late harvest wine in this country
Beerenauslese: very sweet; honey-colored; similar to a French Sauternes
Eiswein: very sweet; made from grapes which have partially frozen on the vine
Trockenbeerenauslese: extremely sweet; made from select individual shriveled grapes; very expensive; commonly referred to as TBA
Tasting Tip: A German Riesling that is either a Kabinett or a Spätlese is an excellent choice for hot and spicy foods such as Thai, Mexican, Chinese, etc. The lush fruitiness and sweetness of German Riesling cools off the heat of these dishes. It’s a wonderful pairing.
Tasting Tip: German Riesling (and Gewürztraminer) is a different style than American Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The American versions are all over the map in terms of sweetness and taste; it simply depends on the individual winemaker. It would be a mistake to try to compare the two countries to determine which is ‘best.’ Enjoy each wine for what it is.
Other German Wines
Germany produces other white and red wines, a few of which can be found on shelves in this country. For whites, you can commonly buy Müller-Thurgau and Silvaner. For reds, Dornfelder is commonly available, which is a light to medium-bodied red low in tannins. You may also occasionally come across Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder in German) and Blauer Portugieser, both of which are light-bodied reds.
Germany also makes decent sparkling wines which are known as Sekt in German. However, you must be careful when purchasing these wines and look for the term Deutscher Sekt on the label. This is the assurance that the wine was actually made in Germany from German grapes. Otherwise, the term Sekt by itself simply refers to sparkling wine made from imported grapes.
Although good, German Sekt is produced by the Charmant process, which is the same bulk process used for Prosecco in Italy. Thus, you cannot directly compare Sekt to Champagne; they are very different products.
Greece developed wine many thousands of years ago. Indeed, the island of Cyprus lays claim to having some of the oldest evidence of human winemaking. It was probably the Greeks who introduced the precursors to the Romans to wine and winemaking techniques.
Sadly, today, Greece is not much of a factor in the U.S. market, but there are some wines available on retail shelves. Greece uses two quality designations: AOSQ for dry table wines and AOC for sweet wines. Two dependable AOSQs that export to the U.S. are Naoussa and Nemea. I have had white and red wine from each and have found them to be quite enjoyable.
Wine is produced on both the mainland and on many of the islands. I had an unusual experience in 2005 when I toured the Boutari winery and vineyards on the island of Santorini. The vineyards were unlike anything I have ever seen before. It was explained to me that due to the dry, windy conditions, the vines are trained to grow in coils on the ground, looking for all the world to be rough woven baskets. The fruit clusters hang down on the inside for protection until harvest.
Greece, in general, does not produce much wine from standard grape varieties. Instead, they have grapes such as Assyrtiko (white) and Agiorgitiko (red). There are many more like these, but you get the idea.
Tasting Tip: Two of the important producers in Greece that make excellent, dependable wine, are Boutari Winery and Domaine Sigalas. Look for these on your local shelves and begin your own Greek odyssey.
Greece also makes sweet dessert wines from various varieties of Muscat, and from other native grapes.
Retsina: Okay, we can’t finish talking about Greece without talking about a very unique Greek wine called Retsina because it’s an indelible part of Greek culture and they love the stuff. The problem is, the rest of the world doesn’t.
I had the opportunity to try a Retsina style wine made at a U.S. winery that fancied they knew something about Greek wine. Wow, was it ever awful. You may notice a similarity between the words ‘resin’ as in pine resin, and Retsina. Yes, that’s right, the Greeks put pine resin into their most popular domestic wine.
It seems to be a tradition dating back thousands of years when wine was transported and stored in amphorae which were sealed with pine resin. Some of the resin would leak into the wine and, tradition says, the Greeks liked the new taste. Personally, I think they just got used to it and have acquired a taste for it. It’s been passed down generation after generation ever since.
Italy is the second largest producing wine country in terms of volume. In addition, it has the most grape varieties of any other country. I’m not sure that even the Italians know just how many they have, but it runs into the hundreds. No wonder Italian wines can be confusing!
Italy uses a two-fold system for quality. The basic appellation designation is the Denominatzione di Origine Controllatta, or DOC. You should be wary of buying any Italian wine without a DOC on the label. In addition, some wine growing areas are further delimited as DOCG – Denominazione di Origine Controllatta et Garantita. In other words, both the origin of the grapes and the quality of the wine is guaranteed to meet certain standards. Italians also use the term Classico on bottles of wine made from select, high quality vineyards.
Whether a DOCG designation really is a guarantee of quality is debatable, but I have found in general that DOCG wines are better than DOC wines. Of course you pay more for the DOCG ones, but usually not much more.
Like the French, the Italians often label their wines by geographic area and not by the grape variety. However, the Italians are unique in one aspect: they are only one of two countries (Spain is the other) where the word ‘Reserve’ actually means something (Riserva in Italian).
Listed below are several major wine growing regions and their associated wines.
Located in northwestern Italy, the Piedmonte region lies at the foot of the Alps Mountains and produces some of the most highly regarded Italian wines. Once upon a time, Barolo was king and was made from the Nebbiolo grape harvested from around the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco. It was traditionally a big, bold, robust wine with strong tannins which did not soften out until 10 – 15 years of aging.
Not surprisingly, the two villages eventually had a falling out and Barbaresco went its own way and made its own wine. Today, the difference between Barolo and Barbaresco is that Barolo is aged 3 years and Barbaresco 2 years (if each is aged for 4 years, then they can use the term Riserva).
Both Barolo and Barbaresco are DOCG wines.
The Piedmont region has a host of other great DOC and DOCG wines. Barbera is a softer red made from the Barbera grape and usually a good value. Brachetto, made from the grape of the same name, is a light red which is best as a sweet sparkling wine. Another light red that can be quite good, and a good value, is Dolcetto, made from the grape of the same name. Gattinara, my favorite Piedmont red, is made from the Nebbiolo grape and is somewhat lighter in style than its cousins Barolo and Barbaresco. When in doubt at an Italian restaurant, order a bottle of Gattinara if you’re enjoying hearty fare.
The Piedmont also produces a notable white wine, Gavi, made from the Cortese grape. Serve this to friends with appetizers or seafood. Most wine enthusiasts have not tried it, so you’ll create some interesting conversation.
The Veneto region lies west and northwest of Venice and produces many of my favorite Italian wines. Most are great values in addition to tasting great. There are two notable still white wines: Pinot Grigio and Soave. Pinot Grigio, made from the Pinot Gris grape, is familiar to almost every wine enthusiast. However, much of it is cheaply made and tastes like it. Make sure you buy bottles with a DOC designation for better quality.
Soave, once not highly regarded, has increased greatly in quality in the past decade. It’s made from blending three grapes: Garganega, Chardonnay, and Trebbiano.
A third white wine is a sparkling wine – Prosecco. Made from the Prosecco grape, it has become very popular in this country as an alternate to Champagne style sparkling wines. The bubbles are not as concentrated or as long lasting, but Prosecco tastes good and is a great value.
The best red wine from the Veneto, and my favorite Italian red, is Valpolicella. Made from a blend of Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara grapes, it is a medium bodied, soft wine that goes with many Italian dishes, including pizza. You can hardly go wrong ordering Valpolicella at an Italian restaurant.
Tasting Tip: Valpolicella Classico is, in my opinion, superior to the regular and worth the extra cost.
Before leaving the Veneto, I want to briefly talk about Amarone because it’s available in this country and most people really have no clue what it is. Officially known as Amarone della Valpolicella, it is a DOC wine made from the same grapes as Valpolicella except that the grapes are spread out on a cloth on the ground and allowed to dry out in the sun for up to several months until they become raisins. Then they are pressed for the little juice left in them and the juice fermented into wine that is high in alcohol and has a smoky character. It is an unusual wine and, as you can expect, a little on the spendy side. Also, most Amarone needs to age 10 years to reach their peak.
Romantic and historic Tuscany (Tuscano) has given the world four great wines. Virtually everyone has enjoyed Chianti, a DOCG wine named for a specific region within Tuscany. It’s made from the Sangiovese grape and is a dry red that pairs well with red sauce Italian dishes. Over the past 30 years, there has much cheap, not very good, Chianti on the market, and this has given the wine a bit of a bad rap. Tuscan vintners, however, have recently stepped up efforts to produce a higher quality product.
Tasting Tip: For just a little more money, I would recommend you try another DOCG wine: Chianti Classico. I have found, in general, that it’s a superior product to the regular.
Two other reds, each big and bold, are made from Sangiovese clones and named after regions: Brunello di Montalcino DOCG and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano DOCG. Brunello, especially, is considered to be one of the best Italian reds on the market and, not surprisingly, can be on the expensive side. Montepulciano, on the other hand, usually has three to five other, minor grapes blended in, including two that are white, so the wine tends to be on the softer side and usually sells at a lower price.
The final big, bold red that Tuscany produces is a wine usually misunderstood by wine enthusiasts. Super Tuscans are Bordeaux-style blends involving Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, plus other minor grapes. They are called super (supra in Latin) because they are ‘supra’ (outside of, or above) the wine regulations for Tuscany. Thus, they are not super because they’re better than other wines; it’s just that the winemakers have the freedom to experiment with various blends. Super Tuscans are always worth a try at a tasting event and can be a decent value.
The Rest Of Italy
I’m going to lump the rest of Italy together, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The common wines you’ll encounter for whites will be Orvieto (50% or more Trebbiano grape), Frascati (Trebbiano), Verdicchio, Inzolia, and Vermentino. Of these, I especially enjoy Orvieto and Vermentino.
Tasting Tip: Vermentino (usually from Sardinia) is a great dry, crisp wine ideal for seafood or for just sipping. It’s also a great value.
Four reds are worth noting, all named after a grape: Negro Amaro, Nero d’Avola, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, and Primitivo. The first two are on the lighter, softer side, while Montepulciano is a little bolder and drier. Primitivo is a medium-bodied wine that has been found to be genetically identical to Zinfandel.
Portugal has given the world two great fortified wines: Port and Madeira. Our founding fathers enjoyed drinking both, and their cellars were well stocked with them. Sadly, these unique wines have fallen out of favor over the past several decades. Port has made a comeback of sorts, but poor Madeira is still too neglected.
Portugal has a lot more to offer, though, than fortified wines. There are many white and red table wines, and these are becoming increasingly available in the U.S. Quality-wise, Portugal uses DOC designations (Denominção de Origem Controlada) much like Spain. I recommend you try to buy bottles of Portuguese wines that are marked with some of the DOCs described below.
The northern half of the country produces table wine in four significant areas. The region of Vinho Verde has blessed the wine world with one of the greatest of all values in a white wine – Vinho Verde. Named for the region in which it is produced, Vinho Verde is a green tinged white wine that’s a bit fizzy and a refreshing beverage on a warm summer day. It’s called Verde (‘green’ in Portuguese) because the grapes are purposefully picked slightly under ripe. It’s made from blending up to seven different white grapes, the names of which I won’t bore you with.
Tasting Tip: Vinho Verde is commonly available in the U.S., especially in warm weather. It’s a fantastic value: I’ve bought it for as little as $6.
The Douro and the Dão (pronounced ‘down’) DOC regions both produce many good white and red wines. Look for these DOCs in your local bottle shop. The Douro red wines tend to be fruiter and softer than the Dão reds which are bolder and more tannic. There are dozens of red and white grapes permitted in these regions, the most common reds being Touriga Nacionel, Tempranillo (called Tinta Roriz in Portugal), Tinta Amarela, and Tinto Cão. Blending is common with both the white and red wines, and that is what you’ll probably find with your bottle – it’s a blend of at least three or four grapes.
Tasting Tip: Portuguese wines are usually a good value but you’ll have to experiment with them due to the unique grapes used. I recommend you have a tasting party with friends and try two or three whites, then three or four reds, and have everyone comment.
Finally, well-stocked bottle shops may carry DOC Bairrada red wines. These are made mostly from the Baga grape and are considered to be Portugal’s best reds.
Many good, inexpensive wines are produced in two large production areas: DOC Ribatejo and DOC Alentejo. Look for these on labels of Portuguese wine. Both the red and white wines are almost always blends of several grapes.
Port and Madeira
Port is produced in the north of Portugal in the Douro region in the DOC Porto, while Madeira is produced on the island of Madeira hundreds of miles offshore (it’s officially part of Portugal). Both wines were developed centuries ago to solve a problem – how to transport wine overseas without it spoiling. In the days before climate controlled transport and modern bottles, this was a real challenge. The solution was to fortify the wines; that is, boost their alcohol content high enough so that the wine is essentially preserved.
With Port, this is accomplished by halting fermentation part way which leaves unfermented sugar, thus the wine is sweet. A neutral grape spirit is then added (similar to brandy) to increase the alcohol content to between 20% - 22%. The wine could then be transported in casks for months on sailing ships without spoiling.
Here is a guide to Port terminology:
Ruby: ruby in color; aged 4 years, a blend of more than 1 year; youngest and most inexpensive of all Ports
Tawny: a blend of more than 1 year; tawny brown in color; made by blending white Port with Ruby Port; young and inexpensive like Ruby
Fine Old Tawny: blend of several years; tawny brown in color; aged in cask 7-8 years then bottled (some are aged in cask up to 40 years); color comes from aging; usually very smooth and soft
Late Bottled Vintage (LBV): single vintage Ports; 4-6 years of aging then bottled; more expensive; common in restaurants
Vintage: very deep color; single vintage (made in exceptional years); full-bodied; aged in the bottle so must be decanted when served; expensive to very expensive
Tasting Tip: The best value in Port, in my opinion, is the Late Bottled Vintage. They cost more than the cheapest Ports, but have so much more to offer with their taste. Port can be used as either an aperitif or as a dessert wine, or to just sip and enjoy with a fine cigar.
Madeira is an unusual wine due to the process of making it. The wine is partially fermented, then brandy from France or Spain is added to stop fermentation and raise the alcohol level to 17%. However, Madeira is the longest lived of all wines. How can this be with a lower alcohol content than, say, Port? The answer is a heat process the wine goes through.
Once Madeira is fortified with brandy, it’s repeatedly heated up to as much as 122˚F and cooled in large tanks for up to several months. (It’s essentially pasteurized.) The heating/cooling cycles cause the wine to take on its distinctive caramel color. The next step is to blend the wine from two or more years to achieve uniformity of taste from year to year.
Here’s a guide to Madeira terminology:
Sercial: driest style; light amber color; use as an aperitif
Verdelho: medium dry; darker in color; use as an aperitif
Boal (Bual): medium sweet; slightly darker in color; aperitif or after dinner
Malmsey: sweet; lush; enjoy after dinner
Rainwater: medium dry; light style; use as an aperitif
Spain is the third largest wine producing country by volume and has a wonderful assortment of white, red, Rosé, and sparkling wines. The main quality indicator on Spanish wine labels is Denominacióne de Origen, or DO. You should always look for it on a bottle of Spanish wine. And speaking of labels, Spanish wine labels often indicate the grape, thus making it easier to understand Spanish wines.
There are many DOs in Spain, so I will only highlight the ones you will regularly see. However, do not be afraid to try other DOs not discussed here.
The main DO of consequence is Rias Baixas on the Atlantic coast. Here you will find the great Spanish seafood white wine Albariño. It is generally a great value in this country and pairs wonderfully with shellfish and white fish.
Tasting Tip: Avoid buying Albariño that is more than two years old. The quality tends to go downhill with each passing year that the bottle ages, so enjoy it when it’s young, fresh, and crisp.
The north central wine belt follows the rivers Duero and Ebro. Some of Spain’s best known wines are produced here. First and foremost is DO Rioja, home of Spains’s signature red grape, Tempranillo, as well as the lighter but equally good Granacha (Grenache). Although the wines can be made from 100% of either grape, blending is common. Thus, a Rioja red can be all Tempranillo, all Granacha, or a blend of both. They usually are great values.
Rioja uses a four tier aging system for red wines which I include here to help understand Spanish wine labels:
Joven: either not matured in oak, or else for less than one year; ‘young wine’
Crianza: minimum of one year in oak
Reserva: minimum one year in oak + two additional years in the bottle
Gran Reserva: minimum two years in oak + three additional years in the bottle
Rioja has several white wines, but the best known is Viura (also sometimes called Macabéo).
Besides Rioja, the north central wine belt also produces excellent reds and whites in the DOs of Rueda, Toro, Ribera del Duero, Calatayud, and Navarra. The reds are mostly Tempranillo and Garnacha, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot can also be found. The white wines include Viura as well as Verdejo, both of which tend to be inexpensive.
This part of Spain lying close to the great city of Barcelona is most noted for two unique DOs: Cava and Priorat. The Cava region produces much of Spain’s sparkling wine—called Cava—generally made by the Champagne method. I highly recommend touring this scenic area and stopping in at some of the Cava producers. Many have tours and tastings.
Tasting Tip: If you’re in Barcelona and have a day to do something outside of the city, take the train to the Cava area. There is a stop almost right at the front door of the Freixenet winery (pronounced fresh-en-et). There are English speaking tours of the mammoth underground cellars, as well as a delightful tasting of the sparkling wines afterward.
The Priorat region produces what some experts say are Spain’s most powerful red wines, usually made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Tempranillo. These wines tend to be dark in color, are relatively high alcohol, and need to be paired with robust fare such as steaks and roasts. Unfortunately, they tend to be a little expensive since they seem to have a bit of an exclusivity aura about them.
This region of Spain has been famous for centuries for producing Sherry, a fortified wine made by a blending process called the Solera system. This system blends wines from different years in order to achieve a consistent product (the same idea behind Champagne blending). Sherry is made from the Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel Fino grapes.
Although Sherry has fallen out of favor over the past 30 years, it is making a comeback, and more and more wine enthusiasts are enjoying it straight or in cocktails. I have listed below basic terms for Sherry to help you navigate the Sherry section of your local bottle shop.
Fino: a very dry Sherry and usually inexpensive; not my favorite
Manzanilla: similar in dryness to Fino; not my favorite either
Olorosos: slightly sweet; more complex; I enjoy these as an aperitif
Cream Sherry: sweet; darker in color; good as a dessert wine
PX: Sherry made solely from the Pedro Ximénez grape; very rich & dark colored; rather expensive
VOS: stands for Very Old Sherry; wines used must average 20 years old; very expensive
Tasting Tip: I recommend you start with an Olorosos and see what you think. If you find you like Sherry, then graduate up the scale to PX, or down the scale to Fino and/or Manzanilla to determine where your palate is comfortable.