Wine regions can be categorized into Old Worlds and New Worlds. Old world wine regions date back to the Roman Empire era and include France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. These European regions had years to witness the impact of terroir (local soil) on wine production and refine their vinification methodology. They emphasize terroir and traditions in vinification.
The New World wine regions include Australia, America, Latin America, South Africa, and New Zealand. Without years of terroir knowledge, these regions rely on technology to obtain good yield and quality wines. For example, many Australian and Californian vineyards rely heavily on oak aging and natural compounds to enhance structure and flavor.
Differences between New World and Old World Wines:
Style: Old world wines, emphasizing traditions and terror’s, are earthier, more minerally, and more tannic. Relying more on technology than traditions, new world wines are fruiter, less tannic, and creamier.
Naming and wine label: Most New world regions label their wines by grape variety. Most old World wine regions label their wines by appellations (regions);
France is a critical contributor in the history of viticulture. It is the birthplace of many important grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chenin Blanc. In addition, its government controlled classification and appellation systems had set an example for the wine systems in other European countries.
Administered by the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), France's classification system was established in 1935 to fight trade frauds and to differentiate wine quality.
All French wines are categorized into 4 levels of quality:
Vin de table: Literally means "table wine". This is the lowest quality category. The wine, often blended, can be made from any French grapes.
Vin de pays: Village wine -- takes the characters of a specific region. Some wine producers love this loosely regulated category as it offers room for creativity.
Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS): Not that many wines fall into this category. It is a graded-down version of AC.
Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AC or AOC): Wine subjects to rigid regional regulations on grape variety, yields per hectare, alcohol level, and production methods.
Italy is the home to many grape varietals including Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Corvina, Garganega, and Trebbiano. Italian wines are distinctive in that their reds carry a salivating sweet-sour or even bitter taste. Their whites are bone-dry and neutral.
Being the most diverse wine producing country, Italy has thousands of wine varieties and over 300 DOGs. We will focus on the three key regions: Piedmont in the northwest, Veneto in the northeast and central Tuscany. We will also take a quick look at Southern Italy. Just like Southern France, it is a region with potential.
Italy classifies wine into 4 levels of quality:
Vino da Tavola: Literally means "table wine". This is the lowest quality category. Minimal (or no) regulation is imposed on this category. For example, vintage date is not required. Also, there can be no association to region.
Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT): Like the French's Vin de Pays -- takes the characters of a specific region. This category was created to include quality wine produced in a DOC region but does not comply with its criteria. For example, Super Tuscans (Sangiovese blended with Cabernet Sauvignon) would fall under this category.
Denominazione D'Origine Controllata (DOC): Wine subjects to rigid regional regulations on grape variety, yields per hectare, aging requirement, and vinification methods.
Denominazione D'Origine Controllata E Garantita (DOCG): A category for the most prestigious sub regions in the DOC. Distinctive style, appellation reputation, and commercial success are the additional criteria.
Spain with 1,200,000 hectares, Spain has more land under vine than any other country in the world. As of 2004, data from OIV indicates that Spain has 35% more land under vine than Italy or France. However, due to harsh climate, historic setbacks, and past regulatory constraints on irrigation, Spain lags France and Italy in yields and volume of wine produced.
Spain is also the home to many varietals. Tempranillo and Garnacha (Grenache) are widely planted. Grenache, planted in Southern France, is actually Spanish in origin. Other varietals include Viura (or Macabeo), Albarino, Verdejo, Airen, and Palomino and Pedro Ximenez.
Note there are many local names for the same grape. For example, the massly planted Tempranillo is known as Ull de Llebre in Penedes, Tinto Fino or Tinta Del Pais in Rebera Del Duero, Tinta de Toro in Toro, and Cencibel in Valdepenas!
Like France and Italy, Spanish wines fall into a similar quality tiered system:
Vino De Mesa: Lowest, most basic table wine category. Wine is often made from blended grape varietals and regions. Neither vintage date nor associated region allowed.
Vino Comarcal: Like France's vin de pays, the wine is associated to a classified region.
Vino De La Tierra: Equivalent to France's VDQS -- a category down from DO.
Denominaciones de Origen (DO): Wine subjects to rigid regional regulations on grape variety, yields per hectare, alcohol level, and production methods.
Denominaciones de Origen Calificada (DOC/DOCa): The most prestigious category created in 1986 to further differentiate the DOs. There are ~55 DOs in Spain but only two -- Rioja and Priorato -- are prestigiously classified as DOCa.
Unlike Italy, Spain does not have an IGT category. To differentiate higher quality wine that does not satisfy the criteria of DOC (e.g. producers in the DO regions want to use a different grape or vinification method), a subcategory within Vino De Mesa was created. These higher quality wines are allowed to have a vintage year and the broader non-DO classified region on its label.