The Wine Ninjas cater for all levels of wine appreciation, and we’re going back to basics here. So if you need a hand navigating the world’s wine regions, this wee virtual pocket-sized guide should come in useful.
First, let’s zoom out and look at the big picture, and the distinction between New World wines and Old World wines.
New World Wines
As the name suggests, New World wines occupy the space outside the traditional, ancient wine-growing regions of the world. Once upon a time there was an element of snobbery surrounding New World wines, but now they’re recognised as producing some of the most interesting, innovative and elegant wines in the world.
Climate change has also seen English wines on the rise, particularly of the sparkling variety. Some might find it odd viewing England as New World, but in wine terms we’re toddling infants.
So, in no particular order, the top six New World wine producers are…
Australia: Australian wine has come a long way in recent decades, and they export a huge amount of it around the world. They cultivate a wide spectrum of grape varieties, but are best known for oaky Chardonnay from Margaret River and smooth, full-bodied, fruit-forward Shiraz from the Barossa Valley.
Chile: Chile’s interesting array of microclimates produce some of the best-value wines around. It’s known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère, but also produces some fine Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Its most famous regions are the Aconcagua and Central Valleys, both of which lie near the Pacific coast and within range of the capital, Santiago.
Argentina: Food-wise it’s known for its steak, but by far the most famous wine to come out of Argentina is Malbec, which was originally brought over by the French. In terms of white wines, look out for the distinctive variety Torrontès, a highly aromatic and perfumed wine which, if I’m honest, tends to divide opinion.
New Zealand: Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region has become a worldwide sensation, with its tart gooseberry and tropical fruit flavours. But it’s not all about Sauv Blanc over there. The relatively cool climate and steep slopes also produce some highly rated Pinot Noir, most famously in Central Otago in the south of the country.
South Africa: The Stellenbosch region of South Africa produces high-quality, sunshine infused Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. But the country is most commonly thought of in relation to Pinotage (a more full-bodied relative of the red grape Pinot Noir) and Chenin Blanc (a fruity white that’s often a touch off-dry). As in Australia, the hot climate can give rise to wines with plenty of body and ripe fruit flavours.
The USA: California accounts for 90% of the USA’s wine production, and the state’s most famous regions are Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Full-bodied, creamy, oaky Chardonnay is popular here, as are fruity Merlot and bold, smokey Zinfandel (check out my review of a lovely Cali Zinfandel you can get in Sainsbury’s). Further north, Oregon is known to produce fabulous Pinot Noirs.
Old World wines
Wines thought of as being Old World are primarily from Europe, where much emphasis is put on specific regions, estates or even vineyards.
As this is a quick guide, I’ll only cover the top few, starting with the most highly regarded and influential of all…
If you’re looking to start learning about wine regions, start in France, where Terroir (growing environment) is of paramount importance. The most exclusive estates of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne produce some of the word’s most expensive wines. Bordeaux specialises in a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Burgundy is known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and… we all know about Champagne.
Other notable regions include the Loire Valley (Muscadet), the Rhone Valley (Côtes du Rhône blends like Chateauneuf du Pape), and Provence (rosé).
French winemakers like to put the name of the producer and region on the label, rather than the grape, which can make them hard to decipher for beginners. They also have a range of complex quality-classification systems, which you can start to read about here.
Where to buy? Wine Direct has one of the UK’s largest selections of French wines, covering the whole gamut of types and blends.
Perhaps surprisingly for a relatively small nation, Italy produces more wine than anywhere else in the world. Of course, there’s a wide variation in quality, and although the top-end stuff is very highly regarded, it doesn’t tend to command the sort of prices you get in Burgundy or Bordeaux. Winemaking dates back to pre-Roman times in Italy, making it truly Old World.
Popular Italian white grapes include Pinot Grigio, Fiano and Trebbiano, while reds include Montepulciano, Primitivo and Sangiovese, the latter of which is used to make the lean, elegant and tannic Tuscan favourites Chianti and Brunello di Montalcino.
Where to buy? Prestige Italian Wines, www.prestigeitalianwines.co.uk have a large selection of Italian wines to choose from.
Spain is the most widely-planted wine-producing nation in the world, and home to over 400 grape varieties. Its most widely-known grapes are Tempranillo (used to make Rioja), Garnacha (known as Grenache in France) and Albariño.
The top region, meanwhile, is Rioja — a DOC (protected region) in northern Spain, where they make both red and white varieties (although you’re much more likely to find red Rioja on a supermarket shelf in the UK).
Spain is, of course, also renowned for its sweet sherry and sparkling cava.
Where to buy? Vinatis is a UK based online retailer boasting over 100 types of Spanish wine.
Ask the average consumer in the UK what they think of German wine and they’ll likely grimace at the thought of Blue Nun or Black Tower. But, as any wine expert will tell you, Germany makes some world-class wine. White-wise, it specialises in crisp, refreshing, fruity Riesling, while on the red side it excels at earthy Pinot Noir (called Spätburgunder over there).
German wines are classified by sweetness as well as quality. There’s not enough space to go into it here, but see the Wiki link on German Wine Classification for further info.
The best-known German wine regions are Pfalz, Mosel and Rheingau. Click the following link to read my article about the Franken (or Franconia) region.
Where to buy? German wine is a niche market in the UK, but The Wine Barn has a fine selection.
The Top Ten Wine Producing Countries, In Order Of Tonnes Produced
So, when you look at the chart of the top ten wine producing countries, the only one featured in this article that doesn’t make the cut is New Zealand, with China taking its place on the list. New Zealand is in 15th place, in case you were wondering, but its importance in the UK market made it worth including here, over Portugal (12th) and Greece (13th).
Finally, some words about how to store all this wine. If you don’t have the luxury or a cellar, a wine cooler is the best way to protect your precious bottles from heat damage by the elements.
Good quality wine coolers, like those from www.elitefridges.co.uk, are made to last four or five times as long as cheaper options — saving on carbon emissions and benefitting the planet in the long term, rather than your bank balance in the short term.
I did hear China is trying to get on board as a serious contender and hiring some outside help.