The subject of wine is multi-faceted and can be overwhelming. There’s just so much to know that even career connoisseurs find themselves learning more each day. Even the subject of wine type is complicated. Most wines are branded by the kind of grape they come from, but there are various classifications, such as old world vs. new world wines, grape varietals, etc. In the restaurant setting, types of wine are commonly classified under three overarching categories: table wine, sparkling wine, and fortified wine.

How Are Wines Named?

Did you know that nearly all wines are technically blends made up of different grape varieties? For a wine to be branded as a particular type on the label, at least 75 percent of the wine must be made from a single grape variety. Say, as an example, for a winery to label a product as a cabernet sauvignon, at least 75 percent of the wine needs to have come from the cabernet sauvignon grape. Few wines are 100 percent one type of grape.

Typical wine naming conventions begin by first understanding if the wine is classified as Old World or New World.

Old World vs. New World Wines

Don’t get caught up in the titles. Old World wines aren’t better than New World ones, and vice versa. It’s all a matter of heritage. When you hear of a wine coming from the old or new world, this refers to the region the wine was produced in. Old world wines come from countries widely considered to be the birthplace of wine – mainly Europe and the Middle East. Old world countries include France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Romania, Hungary, etc. The winemaking process in these countries is more restricted than in other parts of the world because, in these regions, it’s a source of pride passed down from generations. After all, they’ve been perfecting the process for centuries! Therefore, winemakers are held to high standards.

By contrast, New World wines originate from countries that used to be colonies and typically feature a hotter climate, often resulting in bolder, fuller-bodied wines with higher alcohol content. Prominent new world countries include the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and Chile.

The names of wines from New World countries are usually derived from the grape varietal it was made from. Again, using Cabernet Sauvignon as the example, the wine must be made with at least 75 percent of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape to be labeled as such. The winemaker may opt to use another grape, or multiple varieties, for the remaining 25 percent.

Old World wines are typically named from the region. Bordeaux is a common example. A wine grown in the Bordeaux region of France could, in theory, be made up of 80 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent merlot, and instead of calling it a Cabernet Sauvignon, it’ll be labeled a Bordeaux. 

Top Wine-producing Countries Include:

  1. Italy
  2. France
  3. Spain
  4. United States
  5. Argentina

Countries with the Most Wine Acreage Include:

  1. Spain
  2. France
  3. Italy
  4. Turkey
  5. United States

Top Wine Imports into the U.S.:

  1. France
  2. Italy
  3. New Zealand
  4. Australia
  5. Spain

Wine Classifications

There are three umbrella categories in which wine classification stems. Wines are classified as such based on their alcohol content.

1. Table Wine

The majority of wine – including red, white, and blush wines, as well as most sweet and dry ones – can be bucketed here. Table wines feature alcohol content between approximately 8 and 15 percent.

2. Sparkling Wine

The alcohol content of sparkling wine is approximate 8 to 12 percent and features the addition of carbon dioxide. CO₂ is added during the fermentation process. It naturally dissipates into the air, leaving us with traditional table wine. Champagne and sparkling wines undergo an additional process to retain the carbon dioxide, which gives these wines their bubbly appeal.

3. Fortified Wine

Your dessert wines, such as port and sherry, fall under here. Fortified wines traditionally feature a higher alcohol content, ranging between 17 to 22 percent. This is typically achieved by adding a spirit, such as brandy, to the wine.

Both red and white grapes are used to make wine, but did you know that you can make a white wine out of red grapes? The color of the wine comes from the grape skins, which are usually left in during the fermentation process. However, if you remove the skins right after picking, no color will transfer to the wine. In fact, a lot of Champagne is actually made with the red Pinot Noir grape.

Blush wines, like rosé and white zinfandel, are made with red grapes whose skins are left on for the early stages of fermentation, but removed shortly through the process, imparting a light, blush color. White Zinfandel, for example, is made from red Zinfandel grapes.

Notable Wine Regions (Why Does the Region Matter?)

It all begins with the grape. The recipe and process mean little if the vine isn’t adequately harvested. Grapes are sensitive and need the appropriate climate, soil, and conditions to grow. Therefore, many regions, such as the arctic for one extreme example, are ruled out as having any potential for growing grapes for wine.

Some common factors necessary for grapes to thrive include:

  • The number of days of sunlight
  • The angle of the sun
  • The average temperature
  • Rainfall
  • Soil levels
  • Quality of drainage

Because climates vary region to region, different grape varieties and styles of wine are more prominently produced in some than others. However, for a region to stand apart as truly exceptional, climate consistency is key.

Fun Fact: 

A dog is a wino’s best friend. Many Napa Valley wineries feature a house dog who roams the property, befriending casual tasters and protecting the vineyard against rodents. Perhaps most importantly, though, a good vineyard dog knows when the grapes are ripe and will nibble a bundle off the vine when they’re ready to harvest.

Most Common White Wine Grapes of the World:

  1. Riesling – grows best in Germany, France, New York, and Washington State
  2. Sauvignon Blanc – grows best in France, New Zealand, and California
  3. Chardonnay – grows best in France (most notable in the Burgundy and Champagne regions), California, and Australia

Most Common Red Wine Grapes of the World:

  1. Barbera – grows best in Italy
  2. Dolcetto – grows best in Italy
  3. Cabernet Franc – grows best in France
  4. Grenache – grows best in the Rhone region of France
  5. Garnacha – grows best in Spain
  6. Malbec – grows best in France and Argentina

Most Common Wine Grapes in the U.S.:

  1. Chardonnay – approx. 106,000 acres
  2. Cabernet Sauvignon – 101,300 acres
  3. Pinot Noir – 61,800 acres
  4. Merlot – 51,900 acres
  5. Zinfandel – 47,000 acres

(from Forbes: The 10 Most Popular Wine Grapes in the U.S.)

Map of the Napa Valley wine region in California, courtesy of visitnapavalley.com.

There are hundreds of regions throughout the world that grow grapes and produce wines. The list is so long we couldn’t possibly go into detail on every one of them. However, given the specific nuances of climate and how it directly impacts the quality of the grape, it’s no surprise that a select few regions stand apart. The below regions have cemented themselves as wine capitals, producing and exporting renowned wines enjoyed around the globe.

Pro Tip:

When it comes to buying quality wine, specificity matters. Opt for wines that get into the nitty-gritty of the region. Don’t just settle for a red blend from California. If the wine is advertising a broad region, such as the state instead of a specific county, it’s a sign that the grapes had been aggregated from various areas – some may be high quality, while others not. It can be a tell-tale sign of a low-grade wine. If the label is clearly advertising a specific region, it can usually be inferred the winemaker is proud of the grapes and the product, and it’s of a higher quality. Check the label to see if it calls out the specific region, such as St. Helena, Napa Valley, California.

Italy

In Italy, winemaking is a part of everyday life. All regions grow grapes for wine. However, two are more prominent.

 Piedmont

 The Piedmont region shares several commonalities with French Burgundy, perhaps because France is their closest neighbor. What the French and we in the United States call pinot noir, the Italians refer to as Nebbiolo.

 Piedmont is also the leading producer of spumante, popular Italian sparkling wine.

 Tuscany

 The birthplace of the Renaissance, Tuscany has long been the most prolific of the Italian wine scene. Tuscany has forged some of the most popular wine types in the world, including Chianti and Chianti Classico.

Italy Wine Map

A map of prominent Italian wine regions, courtesy of Wine Folly.

France

If you’re looking for fine wine, France is your best bet. French wine is often used as the benchmark against which all other wine is judged. But why? Winemaking has always been a part of their heritage, and practices have been passed down from generations. And, there are numerous geographic locations with hospitable growing conditions.

There are several notable winemaking regions in France. The top four include:

Bordeaux

Hailed as one of the greatest, and most commercially successful, wine regions in the world, Bordeaux is home to more than 8,600 growers who produce more than 661 million bottles of wine each year. These include some of the most expensive bottles in the world. Nearly 90 percent of the wine produced in this region is red, and usually always blends of different grape varietals, done intentionally to achieve complex flavors.

What makes Bordeaux so special? Bordeaux is six times larger than Napa Valley, covering approximately 290,350 acres. Water plays a critical role in the quality of Bordeaux’s grapes. Three rivers stretch along the region, with smaller streams weaving throughout. These rivers and the nearby Atlantic sea, warmed by the gulf stream, temper the region’s climate, creating a stable environment ideal for vineyards. In addition, 2.5 million acres of manmade pine forests stretch along Bordeaux, shielding these vineyards from extreme weather.

Champagne

France’s Champagne region produces both red and white wines, but the most notable production is Champagne. Champagne is often separated by other similar sparkling wines, like prosecco, because for a bottle to don the Champagne label, it must come from this region.

The climate here is much cooler than traditional wine regions. The average temperature is 50°F, the vines often existing at the limits of their cold tolerance. Sunlight is limited and the soil is laced with limestone. Under these unique circumstances, it’s rare for traditional grape varieties to survive and ripen. Many of the vines in this region are trained to grow low to the ground to absorb whatever heat it may offer.

Champagne is made of three types of grapes, each with its own environmental needs, including different soil type, levels of sunlight, and water. Therefore, they are often planted in different parts of the Champagne region. These grapes include chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot Meunier – a clone of the pinot noir varietal.

Burgundy

Wines from the Burgundy region of France are often noted for their complexity. As one of the smaller wine regions in France, it only grows a handful of grape varieties, the most notable being chardonnay and pinot noir.

Burgundy wines, though delectable when the climate permits optimal conditions, are a gamble. The limited grape varieties grown in this region are due to cooler temperatures and inconsistent weather patterns. One thing to consider when choosing a Burgundy wine is there are some years with little sun, and some with less rain, resulting in grapes that produce wine with limited flavor. However, regardless of the year and outcome of the wine, you’ll still pay top dollar for a bottle branding the Burgundy region.

The Rhone

The Rhone Valley borrows its name from the Rhone river. The Rhone region of France is split into two distinct areas – the north and south – each producing polar styles of wine. The northern part is a bit more prestigious, producing fine and rare red and white wines, while the southern area is more popular. From the Rhone region, Côtes-du-Rhône is produced. One of the most popular French wines because of its inexpensive price point, Côtes-du-Rhône is a staple in French cafes.

Spain

Behind Italy and France, Spain is the third largest wine-producing country in the world. Like the countries referenced above, Spain is also divided into distinct wine regions, separated by climate, each known for their independent grape varietals and unique styles of wine. When hearing experts describe the quality of the wine, the term “masculine” is often thrown out. Spanish wines are perceived as bolder than other Old World wines, packing a powerful punch of flavor.

The most prominent Spanish wine region is Rioja. Here, vineyards stretch for 75 miles down the Ebro River, spanning more than 157,000 acres. Rioja is renowned for its bold red wines made from the tempranillo grape. What sets Rioja red wines apart is they’re aged longer before being released than most other wines in the world.

Argentina, Australia, Chile, and New Zealand

Regions are unique for their climate, which produce different types and qualities of grape varieties. Whereas European countries are often desired for their cooler temperatures, Argentina, Chile, and Australia stand apart for their consistently warm and sunny weather patterns. However, the grapes harvested and wine made in these regions still differ, because more than just the temperature goes into the production quality. For instance, rain patterns and soil type still make a major impact. Therefore, each of these countries is known throughout the wine world for different products.

Though some of these other countries have deep histories rooted in winemaking, Argentina is noted for its impressively fast rise in prominence. Before the late 1990s, Argentinian wine was considered slightly better than dirt – cheap dirt. Argentina and Chile are both known for their malbecs. Though the Malbec grape originated in France, the unique, hot, dry and elevated climates of both Argentina and Chile produce a bold, delicious rendition.

Australia and New Zealand, however, are known for their production of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.  Australia ranks seven in the list of top wine-producing countries, and both Australia and New Zealand have made a major impact. Their wines are noted by bursts of deep fruit and berry flavors.

United States

The United States is the fourth largest wine-producing country in the world. Given the massive explosion in the popularity of wine in the United States, every state houses wineries. However, given the diverse range of climates, not all are created equal.

California is the number one state in the United States for wine production, producing 90 percent of the wine in the United States. Given its elongated stretch down the Pacific coastline, even the California climate varies significantly from area to area. The most renowned wine region in California is Napa Valley, which is a little funny considering they only produce about four percent of the wine in the state. Given Napa Valley’s geographical diversity, this county houses several smaller wine regions, each with their unique micro-climate. In some areas, the fog is more persistent, while in others, it rains more. Some have more direct sunlight and late afternoon heat, while others don’t get much at all. This all impacts the grape quality and the result is a diverse selection of some of the finest wines in the world.

Other notable regions in California include Sonoma County, neighboring on Napa, though two times Napa’s size. Like Napa, Sonoma is known for its diverse viticultural areas, each differing in climate and soil. Other significant California regions include Mendocino, Paso Robles, and the North Central and South Central Coasts.

California takes the cake in terms of U.S. wine production, but they’re not the only notable producer. Oregon and Washington State, given their wet, foggy climates, are known for their Pinot Noirs. New York State has exceeded expectations with a cool northern climate that have made them a prolific producer of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and sparkling wines.

 

The region heavily factors into the quality of wine produced; however, the type of wine glass used is also vital to the overall enjoyment. Learn about all the common wine glass types and how it impacts the wine drinking experience in our Guide to the Types of Wine Glasses.

Similarly, the serving temperature also impacts the flavor of the wine. Learn the correct wine storing and serving temperatures here.