The famous quote “wine is geography in a bottle” is eloquently illustrated by the wines of the Old World.
Weather, wars, migration and more have shaped the evolution of grapes and European wine production. Today, you can appreciate the fruits of the old master wine growers’ labors. Here’s a quick guide to the wines of seven Old World countries, including a few must-try bottles from each area for your tasting pleasure.
History: The southern French city of Bordeaux has been at the center of wine trade and production since Julius Caesar conquered Gaul more than 2,000 years ago. In Burgundy, many of the present-day vineyard sites were first cultivated by monks in the Middle Ages.
Geography: The humid, misty autumn conditions in the vineyards of Sauternes encourage the growth of Botrytis cinerea, a fungus nicknamed “noble rot.” The affected grapes become dehydrated, concentrating the sugar and acid. These grapes are used in the luscious, luxurious Sauternes dessert wines.
Fun fact: Angelo Mariani, a French chemist, combined wine and coca leaves (where cocaine comes from) to create Coca Wine, the ancestor of Coca Cola.
Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Syrah
Whites: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc
Chateau Vrai Canon Bouche Canon-Fronsac, 2012
Domaine Mas du Bouquet Vacqueyras, 2012
History: In the late 1800s, fleeing economic and agricultural ruin caused by insect and fungal plagues devastating vineyards all over Europe, French winemakers and merchants arrived in Spain. They brought modern techniques, like aging in oak barrels. The Spanish wine scene today is a creative mix of traditional, modern and experimental techniques.
Geography: After the death of dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain’s long-suppressed ethnic and regional cultures rebounded and many winegrowing regions were reborn and reinvigorated.
Fun fact: Grapes are the third-largest crop in Spain after olives and cereals.
Reds: Tempranillo, Monastrell, Garnacha
Whites: Albariño, Viura
Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva
Val do Sosego Albariño Rias Baixas
History: The Roman Empire was responsible for spreading grape cultivation throughout Europe, as well as for innovations in wine production and distribution.
Geography: The familiar boot-shaped Italian peninsula runs north-south, with the Apennine Mountains forming its spine. The borders enclose a huge variety of climates and cultures, and there are vineyards in almost every part of the country.
Fun fact: Italy produces more wine than any other country in the world. Italians drink a lot of it too. According to one survey, Italians consume about 45 bottles per capita a year; Americans drink 13.
Reds: Sangiovese, Chianti, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Nero D’Avola
Whites: Pinot Grigio, Catarratto, Garganega, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, Moscato
Montresor Valpolicella Ripasso Capitel Della Crosara
Caggiano Taurasi, 2009
Kupelwieser Pinot Grigio Alto Adige
History: The Romans are believed to have brought grape vines here, too. As in France’s Burgundy region, monasteries established many of the vineyards.
Geography: Because Germany is the northernmost wine-producing country in Europe, red grapes struggle to ripen there, so white wines dominate.
Fun fact: Riesling, both dry and sweet styles, is considered one of the most universal food-pairing wines, and is famous for providing a cool contrast to a spicy dish.
Red: Blauburgunder (German Pinot Noir), Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder
Whites: Riesling, Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Kerner
Mueller Piesporter Michelsburg Spatlese
Dr. Loosen "Dr. L" Riesling
History: The Roman Empire and monks were busy here, too, but Austria today is fiercely dedicated to producing high quality (and strictly regulated) wines, especially whites.
Geography: Like Germany, where climate, terrain and tradition favor white wines, Austria is especially famous for Riesling, in styles ranging from off-dry to lusciously sweet. More recently the dry white Gruner Veltliner has become an international favorite.
Fun fact: Scandal! After a few bad harvests in the early 1980s, a few high-volume producers of inexpensive sweet wines doctored their juice with diethylene glycol, a solvent used in antifreeze that added body, sweetness and significant risk of kidney failure and death. Millions of gallons were pulled from distribution and destroyed, and although no injuries were reported, took several years for the Austrian wine trade to recover.
Reds: Zweigelt, St Laurent, Blaufränkisch
Whites: Riesling, Gruner Veltliner
Hugl Gruner Veltliner
Winzer Krems Blauer Zweigelt
History: Port, the famously sweet, fortified wine of Portugal, rose in prominence because its extra alcohol helped it weather long sea voyages when war interrupted imports from Bordeaux to England. A steady decline in port’s popularity has compelled many producers to branch out into table wines, and there’s a renaissance of sorts occurring among winemakers all over the country.
Geography: The Douro Valley, source of port and many rich, red table wines, is one of the first demarcated wine regions in Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Fun fact: A fortified wine called Madeira, once a favorite of George Washington and the Founding Fathers, comes from the islands of Madeira, over 600 miles from the Portuguese mainland.
Reds: Touriga Nacional, Castelão, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca
Whites: Fernão Pires, Alvarinho, Encruzado, Sercial
Quinta das Carvalhas Reserva Douro, 2013
Aveleda Vinho Verde
Quinta Do Noval Vintage Port, 2013
History: The Greeks started growing grapes for wine on the island of Crete almost 5,000 years ago, and spread viticulture via trade and colonies throughout much of Europe. In fact, the first vineyard in France was at the Greek colony of Massalia, modern-day Marseilles. A recent trend in high-quality wines made from native varietals may be the start of a new golden age.
Geography: With its fertile valleys, plentiful sunshine and low average rainfall, Greece is a great environment for growing grapes.
Fun fact: The wine Retsina is flavored with pine resin, a taste acquired in antiquity when Greek wine jars were sealed with it to prevent spoilage.
Reds: Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro
Whites: Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Roditis
GWC Assyrtiko Santorini, 2015
Erasmios Agiorgitiko Nemea
—John Midkiff for Total Wine
John Midkiff has worked as a sommelier, restaurant beverage director, bartender and server. He's studying for the Court of Master Sommeliers Level 2 certification.