Say you’re a novice wine drinker. You enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner on the weekends, or a glass of chilled rosé when you’re spending time on the patio with friends. You love the idea of being adventurous and ordering exotic wines when dining out at your favorite restaurant, but you lack the wine geek know-how to recognize any particular wine brand when you’re perusing a wine list, and find the whole process a bit perplexing. In terms of enthusiasm, you are good to go, but when it comes to actual knowledge and skills, you’re a bit rocky, and that’s an understatement.
Well this, my friend, is a post dedicated entirely to you. I’ve put together a wine region cheat sheet that will help you navigate a wine list by region alone, while having little knowledge about the actual wines represented on the menu. Following are several of the world’s most commonly known wine producing regions. Each region produces a vast array of wines in drastically varying styles from modern to traditional, sweet to dry, still to sparkling and so forth, so generalizing what a typical Spanish wine might taste like, for instance, is a very tall and perhaps impossible order.
Nevertheless, each of these regions is known for having success with particular grape varieties or particular styles of wine, and these tidbits can act as general guidelines when you’re attempting to narrow down your choices at a restaurant and land on a wine that you will enjoy.
California, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand are classified as New World wine regions and generally speaking, wines made in these regions tend to be produced in a ripe, opulent, and fairly forward or polished style. Unless otherwise stated on the label, the large majority of wines from these regions will show moderate to heavy use of new oak and will have moderate to high alcohol levels. What does this mean? Well if you’re someone who likes fresh, light-bodied wines with laser beam acidity, say something like Muscadet or red Burgundy, then a wine from Chile or Australia may not be your best bet. On the other hand if you like brawny, deeply concentrated wines that are perhaps high in tannins or show rich, jammy fruit, then you’ll probably be pleased with a Chardonnay from Sonoma in California, a Malbec from Mendoza in Argentina, or a Shiraz from Australia. While there are indeed a handful of vanguard wineries in each of these regions that go against the grain in terms of winemaking styles and techniques, it’s safe to say that the majority of wines you’ll find from these New World regions adhere to some of these stereotypical flavor profiles.
For the most reliable results when making your wine selections, choose a wine made from a grape variety that the region is best known for. For example, if you’re looking for a California red, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel are all safe bets. If you’re looking for a Chilean or a New Zealand white, stick with Sauvignon Blanc.
Italy and France are two of Europe’s most historic wine regions and the wines made in these countries are classified as Old World. Wines made in Italy and France will typically show lower alcohol, less use of new oak (if any oak is used at all), and higher acidity (the element in wine that causes it to taste tart) than New World wines. Generally speaking, French and Italian wines are less ripe (AKA sweet) than their New World counterparts and are more earthy or savory in style. Given the endless number of producers, appellations, and grape varieties encompassed by these two countries, there are definitely exceptions to these rules. There is a substantial number of modern producers in each of these countries that have moved away from traditional winemaking methods in favor of something more akin to the viticultural practices of the New World. Nevertheless, these guidelines will definitely help you filter through a long wine list to find the right category of wine for you.
Since Italy and France are home to a seemingly limitless number of indigenous grapes, ordering by grape variety alone, the way you would with New World wines, might be challenging. Once you’ve narrowed down to a few appealing options, make sure to ask your server or the sommelier for some further details on the wines.
Germany, another Old World region, is unique in that it is most famous for producing phenomenal wines from only one grape: Riesling. While Germany does produce other white wines as well as Pinot Noir, which goes by the name Spatburgunder, Riesling is really the reason that Germany is on the wine map. Contrary to popular belief, German Rieslings are not always sweet, though many of them are “off-dry” in style, meaning you’ll get a hint of sweetness on the wine. For a dry style Riesling, look for the word Trocken on the label.
Although Spain is technically an Old World region, Spanish wines straddle the Old World and the New in terms of their style. The region’s wines are extremely diverse; the wines of Priorat, for example, are very ripe and modern, and are often aged in new oak barrels, while the wines of Ribera del Duero are typically made in a more earthy and traditional style and are often aged in old casks.
Like Italy and France, Spain is home to a vast array of lesser-known native grapes, so when choosing a Spanish wine, instead of relying on the grape variety, ask your server or the sommelier for guidance.
Editor’s Note: Do you have any shortcuts or secrets to ordering from an extensive wine menu? Share them in the comments! -KK
Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.