Discover wines of the Old World

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.

 

France

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Syrah

Whites: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Sémillon, Chenin Blanc

Must try:

Chateau Vrai Canon Bouche Canon-Fronsac, 2012

Domaine Mas du Bouquet Vacqueyras, 2012

 

Spain

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Reds: Tempranillo, Monastrell, Garnacha

Whites: Albariño, Viura

Must try:

Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva

Val do Sosego Albariño Rias Baixas

 

Italy

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Reds: Sangiovese, Chianti, Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Nero D’Avola

Whites: Pinot Grigio, Catarratto, Garganega, Greco di Tufo, Falanghina, Moscato

Must try:

Montresor Valpolicella Ripasso Capitel Della Crosara

Caggiano Taurasi, 2009

Kupelwieser Pinot Grigio Alto Adige

 

Germany

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Red: Blauburgunder (German Pinot Noir), Blaufränkisch, Dornfelder

Whites: Riesling, Silvaner, Müller-Thurgau, Kerner

Must try:

Mueller Piesporter Michelsburg Spatlese

Dr. Loosen "Dr. L" Riesling

 

Austria

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Reds: Zweigelt, St Laurent, Blaufränkisch

Whites: Riesling, Gruner Veltliner

Must try:

Hugl Gruner Veltliner

Winzer Krems Blauer Zweigelt

 

Portugal

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Reds: Touriga Nacional, Castelão, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca

Whites: Fernão Pires, Alvarinho, Encruzado, Sercial

Must try:

Quinta das Carvalhas Reserva Douro, 2013

Aveleda Vinho Verde

Quinta Do Noval Vintage Port, 2013

 

Greece

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.

Distinctive varietals:

Reds: Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro

Whites: Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Roditis

Must try:

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.

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