Wine Information Vault – Wine Producing Countries
Wine Producing Countries by Martin Everett, Master of Wine
See bottom of text for reference used.
Although it is one of the largest wine producing countries in the world and the most important in South America, Argentinian wines are less known and understood in the UK than those of their neighbour and rival Chile. It was only when domestic consumption fell off dramatically in the 1980’s and Argentina needed to export, that quality began to rise to meet the demands of foreign markets. The majority of the vineyards lie in the north amongst the foothills of the Andes where rainfall is low and the vines are irrigated by snow melt from the mountains. Altitude is key here as this creates a wide gap between the temperature during the night and day, essential in making wines with body and structure. Red wines are, perhaps, the most successful with Malbec being the most prized for its quality and character; there are, however, fine white wines turned out too, notably the alluring, aromatic, Torrontes. Mendoza is the best known region but other areas such as San Juan and La Rioja are now coming into focus. Argentina is a largely undiscovered, exciting, wine country with enormous potential.
Australians were amongst the first to embrace the new technology being developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s which enabled quality wines to be produced in hot climates where previously it had been all but impossible. Demand for good wine worldwide was growing, Australia saw the potential, and enthusiastically stepped in to fill it. But that was not the whole story, shrewd no nonsense marketing, informative, clear and cheerful labelling launched ‘brand Australia’ which has been astonishingly successful. Other than in the north of the country, there is not much of Australia where wine is not produced: South Australia is a great source for value wines with Coonawarra making some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in Australia, Margaret River in the south west of the country is renowned for its quality. Tasmania produces some of the best Pinot Noir anywhere in the world and this is just a start. As for grape varieties, the usual suspects are all here – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz (Syrah) and Pinot Noir amongst the reds, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Semillon and Riesling amongst the whites. Where do they go from here? Probably less reliance on high volume and low price, more emphasis on quality and regional style. The Australian band wagon is still rolling.
The Austrian wine industry has undergone a renaissance following the scandals of the mid 1980’s when a few rogue producers were caught ‘enhancing’ their wines with essentially harmless but illegal substances. This marketing disaster ultimately worked to advantage in that it forced the authorities to set up tighter regulations. This encouraged the country’s wine producers to take a hard look at what they were doing; out went low quality bulk production, in came squeaky clean wines of real quality and character, establishing a new identity for Austrian wines. The aromatic dry whites made from Austria’s principal grape variety, Grüner Veltliner, still lead the way but there are many others worth looking out for, including some delightfully gentle reds, notably those made from a comparatively new variety, Zweigelt.
Bulgaria may be a relatively small country but its wine heart is huge – in the 1980’s Bulgarian Cabernet was reputed to be the biggest selling red wine in the UK. All that changed following the breakup of communism and the rise and rise of good value reds from the Australia, Chile and other New World areas. Sadly, their wine industry fell into decline. This has undergone a revival of late and it is good to see the warm, generous, easy drinking Bulgarian reds back on the market again; they were thoroughly enjoyable back then and they are no less enjoyable now. Cabernet is not the only show in town however, the indigenous low yielding Mavrud produces full bodied, dark, tannic wines with intensity and character. Bulgarian whites are more problematical, although there is some good Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon to be found, together with the more traditional, flavoursome, Muscat.
Almost the size of France and bigger than many wine growing countries, California is the USA’s most important wine region by far, producing nearly 90% of all the wine made in North America. Nearly 1000 kms long and dominated by the Pacific Ocean, California is made up of a series of diverse viticultural zones, and the range of wines and styles to be found here is considerable. The best known region is probably Napa Valley, followed closely by Sonoma and then Mendocino County. There are vineyard areas that stretch right down the coast to Santa Barbara in the south and each has its own style and character. Wine has been made in California since the 18th century and it is no coincidence that the University of California at Davis has one of the best wine facilities in the world; they were in the forefront when it came to developing all the new technology that so revolutionised wine making. Many different grape types are to be found here (Californian wine farmers are never averse to trying out new combinations) including most of the classic European favourites but also varieties, such as Zinfandel, which are Californian through and through. Here is a wine ‘country’ which turns out some of the very finest and most expensive wines in the world, but also offers plenty of generous, fulsome, relatively inexpensive wine. In short, something for everybody.
When thinking of wine growing countries around the world it is probably fair to say that Canada is not one of the first that springs to mind. However, good wines are to be found both in Ontario to the South East, and in British Columbia to the south west. The Niagara Peninsula in Ontario has a cool climate but this is ameliorated by the lakes that lie both to the north and to the south and much of Canada’s wine is made around here. On the other side of the country the Okanagan Valley, which is not far from the border with Washington State in America, is fast gaining recognition as an excellent source of quality wine; here the deep Okanagan Lake warms the vines in the winter and creates an agreeable micro climate for fruit growing. Not surprisingly, given the very cold winters, a lot of Ice Wine is made in both regions and this is considered to be the jewel in Canada’s vinous crown. In the 1980’s a sort of appellation controllée system, known as VQA (Vintners Quality Alliance), was established and is awarded as a recognition of quality, a sure sign that the Canadian authorities are serious about their wine industry.
Thanks to its relative isolation (running for over 4000 kms from top to bottom, Chile is sheltered by the Atacama desert to the north, Antarctica to the south, the Andes to the east and the pacific to the west) Chile’s vineyards are amongst the most untroubled anywhere in the world. Phylloxera is unknown so there is no need worry about grafting the vines onto disease resistant rootstock, common practice in almost every other wine growing country. Most of the wine action takes place in Chile’s Central Valley, a fertile area which is divided into the sub regions of Maipo, Rapel, Curico and Maule. Most of the easy, warm hearted, inexpensive reds that are so popular in the UK are produced here and these are the names that are most likely to be seen on the label. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chile’s very own, much vaunted, Carmenère, can be found here. Some of the best white wines, notably Sauvignon and Chardonnay, come from the coastal Casablanca Valley, just inland from Valparaiso, which is freshened by the cool winds stirred up by the Humboldt Current. Chile has a vibrant, innovative forward looking wine industry which is continually looking to increase quality; new vineyards in hitherto undeveloped valleys are being established all the time and the outlook for Chilean wine is very promising.
English wines (this heading includes Wales, although there are fewer vines grown there) have gained in stature considerably in recent years. English vineyards have matured and this, together with our warmer summers and better wine making techniques, have all helped the industry to gather pace. Many wineries can be found in the south east, with Kent and Sussex, where the soil types are particularly suited to vine growing, having the largest share. Vines grown in East Anglia, the driest region in the UK, also do well. Although increasingly good red wines are being produced, the majority are white, with Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner, and Müller-Thurgau being the main varieties. English white wines are fragrant, zesty with a refreshing acidity and they make a genuine contribution to the range of textures and flavours available to the consumer. English Sparkling wines are especially successful, at their best they can rival, or even beat, Champagne for quality and style. Welsh wine making is small in scale and is concentrated mostly in the south Wales. It is certainly worth seeking out local wineries if travelling in the area.
There is a strong and ancient wine culture in Hungary, where wine has been produced for centuries. Vineyards are broken up into regions which spread throughout the country, each with its own traditions and often producing wines from grape varieties which are little know anywhere else. All of this gives Hungarian wines a strong point of difference and a sense of place. Classic European varieties are beginning to appear, however, but for the moment Hungary is still a source of original and unusual wine. Most are white, although Hungary’s best known wine is the red ‘Egri Bikaver, or ‘Bulls Blood’, which is made in the north east of the country in the Matra Hills. But there is one wine which, perhaps, defines Hungary like no other, the legendary concentrated sweet Tokaji, made from vines grown in the foothills of the Zemplen mountains in the far north east of the country. Here, long warm autumns and the gentle mists that come up from the nearby river Bodrog create perfect conditions for ‘Aszu’, the local name for the phenomonen known elsewhere as ‘Noble Rot’, essential to the production of such luxurious, intense sweetness.
There is more quality wine produced in France than anywhere else: it may not be the world’s largest wine producer, that accolade falls to Italy, but it is unarguably the best. A generally benign, if often capricious, climate with many different micro-climates and a large range of soils, in short, much good ‘terroir’, creates excellent conditions for vine growing. The industry is highly regulated, some would say over regulated, by the appellation controllée system but, whilst this is open to criticism, there is little doubt that it has worked wonders in maintaining consistently high levels of quality over the years. Add centuries of tradition and expertise and it is easy to see why French wine making is such a success story. Renowned regions such as Champagne, Burgundy and especially Bordeaux have done much to build the reputation of French wines abroad, with many of their top estates sprinkling stardust on the wine industry as a whole. Probably, however, the real strength of the French wine world lies in the huge number of smaller family properties. Often only a few hectares, these lie in nooks and valleys, and they cling to many a hill side. Here, not only the land has been handed down from generation to generation but the understanding and love of what they do has been passed on as well. These are the true unsung heroes of French wine culture. There are challenges ahead, not least a climate that is getting warmer and increasing competition from other parts of the world. But France has natural advantages that give it a heads start so, for the moment at least, their position is unassailable.
Everyone knows about German wines but they are amongst the least understood of any in Europe. The most northerly wine growing country in Europe, the principal vineyards areas are mostly centred on rivers, which create a gentler micro climate. Rheingau and Rheinhesse lie along the Rhine, Mosel Saar/Ruwer along the beautiful Mosel valley, and Franconia on the Main. The Palatinate, or Pfalz, which is dominated by the Haardt mountains is one of Germany’s largest regions and is the exception to this. This is a country of white wines, the main varieties being Müller Thurgau, Sylvaner, and the king of them all, Riesling. That having been said, however, there are an increasing number of fragrant, delicate, elegant reds being produced these days, mostly from Spätburgunder (the German name for Pinot Noir) and Dornfelder and these are well worth looking out for. Aware that their wines were falling behind in the international market place, German wine growers have made a huge effort to reposition themselves. There are now far fewer nondescript, slightly sweet whites, with many more, fragrant drier offerings available. Labelling, often puzzling and near incomprehensible in the past, has become much clearer too. However, the traditional gloriously apple fresh, peachy light white wines which define German wines at their best, and which keep and ripen longer than almost any white wine in the world are, happily, still in the ascendant.
Many of Italy’s vineyards hang from its backbone, the Apennines, which run more or less from the north to the south of the country. These offer a wonderful array of differing soil types and micro climates all of which give Italian wines their individuality and unique character. Italy is Europe’s largest wine producer and many Italian wines are largely still for local consumption, but there is a fast growing middle ground and there is a range of world class wines as well. Tuscany is home to the largest number of big names, the so called ‘Super Tuscans’. The industry is regulated by the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) system, which is similar to Appellation Controlée in France in that it controls the yields and the grape varieties allowed in each of the DOC regions. The entitlement DOCG simply adds the words ‘e Garantitia’. Much Italian wine is red, made from traditional varieties such as Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Nero d’Avola, but there are a growing number of aromatic and fresh tasting white wines being produced. The best known of these is Pinot Grigio from the North East of the country, and there is an enjoyable sparkling wine too, Prosecco. Far sighted growers have had great success with classic European varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are proscribed under the DOC regulations. To get round this problem, a new, looser, regulation was devised, IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) which allows ‘guest’ varieties such as these and this has worked wonderfully well from many different points of view.
This volcanic island it is really only known for the fortified wine that carries its name, Madeira. In broad terms, this starts off like Port with the fermentation being stopped by the addition of grape spirit before the natural sugar is fermented out, resulting in a sweet fortified product. Centuries ago, casks of Madeira were often used as ballast for sailing ships bound for India. The intense heat experienced during the voyage seemed to have improved the wine rather than the other way round and this became a regular practice. Nowadays this process is replicated by using the ‘estufa’ system of running hot water pipes through the vat, which heats the wine imparting the desired, distinctive, flavour. The islands traditional grapes, which give their names to the wines they produce, are Sercial, the driest, Verdelho, medium dry, Bual, richer and darker, and then Malvasia (Malmsey) the sweetest and most luscious. All have a biting acidity which stops them from being cloying. Sadly, these fine varieties have been in decline for many years and they are now expensive, so most modern, commercial, Madeira is made from Tinta Negro Mole, with their different styles being expressed simply as dry, medium dry, sweet and so on. The rarest Madeira of all is vintage, a wine of a single year that must have spent at least twenty years in the cask, but has often been laid down for far longer. Due to the unique terroir and to the relatively high levels of acidity achieved, Madeira is probably the longest lived wine anywhere in the world. 100 year old, and older, vintages are by no means unknown.
The magnificent temple of Bacchus at Baalbek is a potent and powerful sign that there is nothing new about wine making in Lebanon. Most of the vines are planted in the Bekaa Valley, which enjoys a benign climate with sufficient rainfall, long dry summers, and cool nights, all of which combine to make this region ideal for wine production. Thanks to their involvement in the Lebanon between the wars, the industry is run along French lines with the principal grape varieties being those of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and of the Rhône Valley (Grenache, Mourvedre, and Syrah). Many of the best red wines are aged in oak as you might expect with wines of similar quality in France. By far and away the most prominent, but not the biggest, estate is Château Musar, owned by the Hochar family who have worked hard to establish Lebanese wines on the UK market. The largest winery, however, is Château Ksara with Château Kerala running a close second. Wine was made continuously throughout the troubles and political turmoil of recent times, which says much about the strength of purpose and the resilience of Lebanese wine growers.
There is much affection for New Zealand wines in the UK. Whilst the grape has been grown there for many years it was of no real significance until the 1970’s when the UK entered the EEC, and everything changed; farmers were forced to look again at their agriculture and serious vine growing became at least one option. Happily, this coincided more or less with the time when the huge advances that were being made in wine technology had begun to revolutionise wine making in the southern hemisphere. New Zealand is a long thin country, with a good range of soils and micro climates in both North and South Islands and the grape varieties grown are reassuringly familiar. In North Island, Hawkes Bay is best known for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot which, when combined, are known as ‘Bordeaux Blends’, with the sub region of Gimblett Gravels having a world reputation for rich, long lasting reds. Gisborne, the country’s most easterly wine producing area, has built a reputation for fine aromatics such as Gewürztraminer and also for Chardonnay; further south, not far from the capital, Wellington, pungent and delicate Pinot Noir can be found in Waipara and Martinborough. The cooler climate in Central Otago, way down in South Island also suits Pinot Noir well. Sauvignon Blanc made in Marlborough, which lies in the north of South Island, is amongst the finest in the world and no region has done more to promote the image of New Zealand wines as a whole. Nelson, too, has some fine examples as does Waipara, a smaller area just north of Canterbury. New Zealand wine production may still be small (one tenth of that of Australia) but their imprint on the wine world is remarkable.
A benign, largely Mediterranean, climate, good rainfall, and many different soil types make South Africa an attractive place for grape growing and it is now becoming an increasingly important wine producing country. For a number of reasons, excessive regulation and political isolation amongst them, it has been slower than some in exporting its wines but it is catching up fast. The main regions are in the Cape, with long established Stellenbosch and Paarl being the best known. There are, however, other areas that are coming into prominence, notably the Breede River Valley, Franschhoek, and Walker Bay which has a cooler, maritime climate. Chenin Blanc (locally known as Steen) is the most widely planted white grape variety with Pinotage, South Africa’s Pinot Noir/Cinsault crossing, being the variety most associated with red wines from the Cape. Increasingly, international varieties such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah are being used and this is helping to reinvigorate the industry. South Africa’s most historic estate, Groot Constantia, was founded in 1685 by Simon van de Stel, who gave his name to Stellenbosch. Famed originally in the 18th century for its muscatel based luscious sweet wines, it now produces a more prosaic range of good quality red, white, and rosé.
Although Portugal is best known for its two world class fortified wines, Port and Madeira (both covered in other sections), unfortified wines are made throughout the country and as winemaking improves, the best of these are now gaining recognition. There is a bewildering selection of indigenous grape varieties to choose from: add to this widely differing terrain and a mild maritime climate, and the stage is set for producing a range of highly original wines. International vines are beginning to be planted but, for the moment, Portugal has something agreeably different to bring to the party. The Vinho Verde area, which lies in the north, produces fresh (sometimes piercingly so) mainly white wines whilst further south, in both Dao and Bairrada, there is a preponderance of decent, although sometimes quite austere, reds. There has been a lot of investment in Alentajo, which lies to the south of Lisbon not far from the border with Spain, and some excellent reds are being produced there, some made from Tempranillo which is known in the south of Portugal as Aragonês. Just below Lisbon, the Setubal Peninsula is famed for its rich, luxuriously sweet Moscatel de Setubal. Historically there have always been a large number of small wine growers in Portugal, rather than large privately owned estates, and these have been served by well-established co-operatives. Increasingly, the more confident and forward looking growers are turning their backs on this system and are beginning to make their own wines. This can only bode well for the future.
Spain has, perhaps, been a little slower than some in embracing change and to take advantage of all the new wine technology that is now available, but it is catching up fast. Although best known for Sherry, which comes from Jerez in the south west, and Rioja, which is made in the north east, there are now many other regions that are producing excellent quality wines, both red and white. These are defined under the Spanish regulatory system, Denominacion de Origen (DO), and DOCa (Denominacion de Origen e Calificada (DOCa) although only one region, Rioja, qualifies for this superior entitlement. To the North West lies the Rias Baixas, an area of relatively high rainfall which produces aromatic, fresh white wines, whilst to the east, just south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean in Penedes and Priorat, there has been something of a revolution. Penedes is best known for Cava, Spain’s answer to Champagne, but international grape varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay amongst them, have been introduced with considerable success. Just inland from Tarragona, Priorat is getting excellent results from Garnacha (Grenache). Vines have been grown in the Ribera del Duero region, which lies on the upper reaches of the Duero (this becomes the Douro in Portugal) for centuries, and their full bodied rich wines are now becoming better known. Modern style white wines, made from a blend of Viura (Macabeo) and the traditional Verdejo, are to be found close by in Rueda. Valdepenas is really part of La Mancha but because the wines here are generally of a higher quality it has its own DO. The white Airen grape, which seems impervious to the intense heat, is a staple variety, together with Tempranillo.
Although the USA has many grape types of its own, in all the main wine growing states European varieties predominate. How fortunate, then, that when so many European vines were wiped out by the scourge of Phylloxera in the late 19th Century, America saved the day. Virtually all European vines are now grafted onto American root stock which is Phylloxera resistant, and when these were imported into America they thrived. Wine is made in all fifty states, with the regions being regulated as American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) which are based on climate and geography. California, which in wine terms is virtually a country on its own, is the most important by miles, accounting for over 80% of all the wine produced in North America; if you add the two other West Coast States, Washington and Oregon, this rises to over 90%. Further south, Texas and Arizona are both stepping up to the plate, whilst up in the North East in New York State, some creditable wines are also being produced. Although these are the main wine growing states, there are some excellent wines being made in many others all over the country and these are likely to improve rather than the other way round. The University of Davis, California, pioneered much of the new technology that has turned the wine world on its head over the last forty years, and they have made a huge contribution to the increased understanding and development of both viticulture and vinification. The American wine industry is ever restless and questioning, so it is likely that there will be much to get excited about in the future.
In preparing these notes I have used the following for reference:
The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson
The World Atlas of Wine, Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson
(the above must be the two best books on wine ever written and indispensable to all interested in wine, amateur and professional alike)
Sothebys World Wine Encyclopedia, Tom Stevenson
Wine Grapes of Australia, Kerridge and ANtcliffe
Cépages et Vignobles de France, P Galet
Bordeaux, Robert Parker
Burgundy, Robert Parker
Madeira, Rupert Croft-Cooke
Port, Wyndham Fletcher
German Wines and Vines, Alfred Langenbach
The Great Wines of Germany, S F Hallgarten and André Simon
Sherry, Julian Jeffs
The World Wide Web – official and other sites