Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Wine Primer Part 1

Wine is delicious. This cannot be contested by any single person in the entire world. I challenge ye!

Wine also is not as complicated as it is made out to be. Just because something can be expensive does not mean it's particularly more complex than beer or whatever else.

Hell, in many ways wine is simpler than beer as wine doesn't require cooking and has fewer flavoring components than beer.

But that's a digression.

Over time at HFF I'll throw out some simple explanations and studies to demystify the wine world.

Some things to know:

1. Wine is made from grapes. Most of you know this. Know however that there are over 2000 different grape varietals from which wine is made, and there are scores of varietals that are used to make wines that are held in high esteem but wine drinkers, makers, and collectors.

2. Most wine is made from one grape. Or rather, one species of grape. Virtually every table wine is made from vitis vinifera, that probably originated from the Caucasus region of Eurasia. Every wine grape you can probably name (except for Concord and Scuppernong) is a cultivar of this grape species. Think of wine grapes like dogs.

3. In most of the world, wines are NOT labeled by varietal. Varietal naming is something that is more or less unique to the New World (Alsace in France, Germany, and Austria being notable exceptions). In most parts of Europe where the grapes are grown and the wine is made is of the most importance. Over time, certain grapes became associated with certain regions and that has since been codified into regulations that now require wines labeled in a certain way to contain a specific varietal or combination of varietals. More on that in a bit.

So who makes wine?

There are two over-arching wine-growing areas, the New World and the Old World. The Old World is just that, Europe and parts of Asia. Many of the former Soviet states were esteemed wine producers in the years prior to Soviet rule but collectivization resulted in artisan wine-making being virtually halted in favor of high-yield production for cheap mass consumption. That is slowly changing. New World wine producers include North America (mostly the USA, but also Canada and Mexico), South America (Argentina and Chile, primarily), Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In the Old World, France, Italy, and Spain outproduce all the other countries by a hefty margin. The wines of Germany and Austria (which despite the similarity in grape varietals and language are markedly different) are very highly regarded in export markets and produce white wine that is rivaled only by France (and for significantly less money). Portugal, Greece, and increasingly Slovenia are playing a significant role in the export market. Hungary produces a modest amount of wine for export (mostly the incredible Tokaji dessert wine) and Israel is increasingly working its way overseas. That being said, every country in Europe, Asia, and North Africa south of grape-growing latitudes and non-Islamic fundamentalism produce wine, most of it for domestic consumption.

In the New World, the United States, Australia, and Argentina are the major producers. Within the US, winemaking takes place mostly on the west coast, with a few well-regarded producers in New York and Virginia. Australia's Barossa Valley produces some of its most esteemed wines (as opposed to the cheaper college party staples like Yellowtail and Lindemann's). In Argentina, Mendoza is the main wine region. South Africa is a small but excellent producer of some specific grape varietals and New Zealand is garnering respect overseas for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Canada is producing some of the best ice wine (a type of dessert wine) in the world.

So going back to my point about varietals, it can be very difficult, especially for Californians growing up with domestic wine labeling conventions to navigate wines from other parts of the world. Here's a basic overview of what grape varietals you'll USUALLY find in wines from the major international wine producing countries. Know that there are producers trying out many other varietals in all these regions.

New World (New World wines are almost always varietally labeled)

United States:
- California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (white)
- Oregon: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white)
- Washington: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir (red) and Riesling, Chardonnay (white)

Vidal (for ice wine)

Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Semillon (white)

South Africa:
Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and Chenin Blanc (white)

Malbec and Tempranillo (red) with very limited white production, usually Sauvignon Blanc and Torrontes

Cabernet Sauvignon (red) with very limited white production, usually Sauvignon Blanc

New Zealand:
Pinot Noir (red) and Sauvignon Blanc (white)

Old World (Old World wines are rarely varietally labeled)

- Burgundy: Pinot Noir (red) and Chardonnay (white)
- Bourdeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot (primary, with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec as subsidiary) (red) and Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc (white)
- Loire: Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc (white) and very little red
- Rhone: Grenache, Syrah (primary, with Mourvedre subsidiary) and Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier (white)
- Alsace: Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat (white) and very little red
- Provence: Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (red and rose) and very little white
- Languedoc: Carignane, Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah (red) and Grenache Blanc (white)

Riesling (white) and very little red for export

Riesling, Gruner Veltliner (white) and very little red for export

- Northern: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera (red) and Arneis, Garganega, Pinot Grigio, Tocai Friuliano (white)
- Central: Montepulciano (red) and Trebbiano (white)
- Southern: Negroamaro, Aglianico (red) and Falanginha and Greco di Tufo (white)

Garnacha, Tempranillo/Toro (red) and Verdejo, Albarino, and Sauvignon Blanc (white)

Too goddamn numerous to name. Portugal is very confusing.

Assyrtiko (white) and very little red.

Egri Bikaver (actually a designated blend of three+ specific red grapes) and Furmint (used to make the white Tokaji dessert wine)

Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (red) and very little white for export.

Enough for now.

Next up we'll discuss the nature of global wine growing regions and how it affects wine type, varietals, and quality.

1 comment:

charlie w. said...

yay, wine! was Scuppernong what we drank in North Carolina? i seem to remember it tasting like the Concord grapes we grew when i was a kid.