TRYING TO WRAP YOUR HEAD AROUND THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN A BARBERA AND A BURGUNDY?
READ AHEAD AS JACINTA WALSH EXPLORES THE ORIGIN, DIVERSITY AND UNDENIABLE QUALITY OF ITALIAN, FRENCH AND SPANISH VARIETALS, SO THAT NEXT TIME YOU WALK INTO YOUR LOCAL LIQUOR STORE, YOU CAN CHOOSE WITH CONFIDENCE
Europe has a long history of viticulture that dates back almost six millennia. In that time, the practice of winemaking has and continues to evolve with its makers to reflect the tastes and locale in which it is created. Commonly referred to as ‘regions of the old world’, European nations such as Italy, France and Spain are considered the birthplace of wine, and after you taste their produce, you’ll understand why. Rich in history, these regions have long honed their craft to ensure that they continue to yield some of the best wine in the industry. As the top three producers in the world, strict regulations, diverse growing conditions and an obvious love for their craft set these countries apart from their competitors.
While a shelf full of similar-looking wines can be a little intimidating, if you look a little deeper, you’ll soon realise that each country has their own unique ways of growing, harvesting and bottling their grapes. So, how do you tell the difference between Italian, French and Spanish varietals? Wineries of Victoria has the answers.
THE LAND OF WINE
When Greek travellers first arrived in the south of Italy some 4000 years ago, they were delighted to find how easily cultivated its grape plantations were. As a result, they named the country ‘Oenotria’, which in English translates to ‘the land of wine’.
With a climate perfectly suited to viticulture, Italy’s wines are often renowned as the very best in the world. Following strict regulations governed by Italian authorities, each bottle of wine is sorted into one of four levels of quality, depending upon whether all grapes were
sourced from the same region or not. More than 20 different wine regions exist within the small country, each with their own distinct take on winemaking.
Thanks to its mountainous and hilly terrain, the Italian landscape provides a great variety of altitudes, climates and soil conditions for grape growing. The sheer variety of grapes is astounding, with more than 350 accredited grape varieties available for international export, and many more in local circulation.
Don’t feel overwhelmed just yet. Below, you will find a selection of Italy’s more popular varietals to ease you into la dolce vita. Sangiovese: No other grape is grown or made into wine more than the sangiovese grape. Directly translating in English to ‘the blood of Jove’ – the Roman god more commonly known as Jupiter – it is evident that this grape is held in high esteem by the Italian people. Medium to full-bodied, sangiovese grapes have plenty of acidity and bright-red fruit flavours associated with sour cherry. This Tuscan classic also makes up 75 per cent of chianti, an Italian favourite also popular throughout the western world.
Nebbiolo: Native to Piedmont, a wine-growing region in the north of Italy, nebbiolo grapes are regarded as some of the best that Italy has to offer. As the main constituents of barolo and barbaresco – two of the world’s most revered wines – this grape is not to be overlooked.
As a terroir-expressive varietal, nebbiolo can take on a variety of flavours depending on where it is planted, though it typically possesses an earthy flavour, which deepens as it matures.
Barbera: Despite nebbiolo’s prime positioning on the southern slopes of Piedmont, barbera remains a favourite among the locals, and is often referred to as the ‘wine of the people’. Simultaneously rich and light-bodied, this dark-skinned grape will appeal to the palate and your pocket!
Primitivo: Grown in Puglia in Italy’s south, this black-skinned grape is robust in flavour and used to make rustic-style, highly alcoholic red wine. Accumulating a lot of sugar early in the season, this full-bodied wine takes on flavours of blueberry, figs and black cherry.
Prosecco: A popular alternative to its more expensive counterparts, this sparkling wine hails from the north-east of Italy in the Veneto region. Light, fresh and fruit-focused, prosecco is made using the Martinotti method, whereby the second fermentation is conducted in large autoclave steel tanks before the wine is clarified and cooled.
While the Romans are charged with bringing viticulture to what is now modern-day France, over time, the French have adopted their own winemaking practices. French wine places importance on terroir, rather than the grape itself. If you haven’t come across this term before, terroir refers to the taste of the place in which the grape was grown. This includes outside influences that impact the vine such as soil type, slope and elevation, as well as the climate and weather of the region.
Strict in its regulations, French wine is split into four tiers of quality. Regional wines form the foundation and are sourced from multiple locations across the country. Quality improves as you move to the second tier, which includes wines specific to one village. The third tier includes premier cru vineyards located within these villages, while top-tier grand cru vineyards are nominated as the very best in the region.
If you aren’t confused yet, you may be after reading the label of a bottle of French wine. Wine terms can be confusing at the best of times, but French wine terms are a whole other story. If your label reads grand vin, this is the wine that its makers consider to be their best.
However, if you see the word réserve, don’t be fooled! This term is unregulated and doesn’t necessarily mean that the wine is of high quality.
However, one thing that you’ll often find missing on a French bottle of wine is the name of the grape that was used to make it. Instead, French winemakers put a controlled place name, which appears on the label as the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). These appellations are attached to the piece of land, regardless of who makes the wine. This means that certain pieces of land may have multiple producers who own certain sections of the one vineyard.
To break things down, let’s look at a few popular regions within France to identify their best-selling wines.
Burgundy: Burgundy has five notable growing regions and a focus on two primary exports; pinot noir and chardonnay. Famous for its crisp chardonnay, Chablis is located in the north of Burgundy. Its neighbour Côte de Nuits is home to 24 grand cru vineyards and as a result, some of the world’s most expensive wines. Approximately 80 per cent of wine produced in this region can be attributed to pinot noir, which showcases notes of rich fruit and earthiness. Below this area, the vineyards in Côte de Beaune maintain a south-easterly exposure culminating in fresh and floral chardonnay.
Further south in Côte Chalonnaise, the production of aligoté is almost as devoted as that of pinot noir and chardonnay, and with sweet, citrus and floral notes, it’s the perfect summer wine. Finally, Mâconnais’ soil is full of limestone, which adds structure to its chardonnay.
Bordeaux: While most wines from Bordeaux are a blend of different grapes, the dominant grape will often be selected as a result of where the wine is from. Unlike Burgundy, the classification in Bordeaux is based on the producer, not the land.
Bordeaux is famously separated by the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Regions existing on either side of the Garonne river are often referred to as the left and right banks. The left bank consists of the Médoc and Graves regions, which are famous for their bold, tannic cabernet sauvignon. Located on the opposite side of the bank, the red clay soil of Libournais produces bold variations of merlot. Entre-Deux-Mers is situated between the two rivers, and translates in English to ‘between two tides’. Though the area produces both red and white wine, it is mostly known for its sauvignon blanc and sémillon. Nearby, the Sauternais region borders either side of the Garonne river and is famous for its shrivelled grapes, which produce a sweet wine.
Champagne: A region that perhaps sparks the most debate among sommeliers is Champagne. Until recently, most sparkling wine was often referred to colloquially as champagne. However, new rules state that only wine that has undergone the traditional method – méthode champenoise – in the region Champagne may be labelled as such. More confusingly, Champagne also produces a variety of other wines, which are not called champagne either!
Méthode champenoise is an intense process that involves fermenting underripe grapes to achieve a still wine that will then undergo a second fermentation in its bottle. In this stage, yeast and sugar are added to be converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide, which remains in the wine in the form of bubbles. Following this, the wine goes through the process of riddling, where the bottles are slowly turned upside down over the course of several weeks, before the tops are frozen and disgorged to remove the dead yeast. The bottle is then topped up with additional wine.
Since the grapes in this region struggle to fully ripen in the cool northern environment, wines are often non-vintage. This means that bottles contain a blend of wine from different years. Due to this extensive process, wine from Champagne comes with a high price tag.
While wine culture has existed for centuries in Spain, it is only in the last 50 years that it has transformed into the major player that it is now. As the third-largest producer of wine, behind France and Italy, Spanish wine is often overlooked. However, with its unique flavour profile and competitive pricing, Spanish varietals are to be forgotten no longer!
Though unique, Spanish wine does share some similarities with its neighbours. Much like Italian wine, Spanish varietals are reflective of the region, climate and cuisine of the area in which they are made. Though small, Spain is incredibly diverse in its culture, dialects and climates. Hot, dry and mountainous in some areas and wet and tropical in others, Spanish wine doesn’t boil down to one flavour profile. As with French wine, Spanish wine is labelled according to the region in which it was made.
In an effort to increase the quality of its wine production, Spain’s grading system has quickly surpassed all others. Its system contains four sub-categories, which include Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG or VC), Vino de Pago, Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) and Denominación de Origen (DO), though, the latter is really the only one that you need worry about.
If DO is printed on your label, it’s an indication that it’s a trusted mainstream Spanish wine. If you ever find yourself in Spain, vino de mesa (table wine) is commonly shared among locals, however it’s important to note that this type of wine isn’t regulated.
For some introductory wines that won’t curl your tongue, try these Spanish specialties.
Cava: Spain’s answer to sparkling wine, and a close rival to Italian prosecco and French champagne, cava is made using a similar process to méthode champenoise but with grapes that are native to Spain. These include its primary grape macabeo, as well as additional grapes parellada and xarel·lo, which are used to enhance the flavour and aroma of the blend. Closer to the taste of champagne than prosecco, it is a great cheap alternative.
Sherry: Hailing from Andalucia in the south of Spain, sherry is a fortified wine with high alcoholic content. If you’re a fan of brown spirits, then its salty, nutty and aromatic profile may be for you.
Despite popular belief, sherry ought to be served dry, rather than sweet. Made from white grapes, it is aged in a solera whereby wines from different years are combined to control variability in taste and quality.
Tempranillo: As the most-planted grape in Spain, tempranillo is a favourite among locals and wine lovers around the world. Known for its love of aging as much as its production of red wine, Spain appears to be the perfect fit for the tempranillo grape’s slow oxidation process. Coming from the Spanish word ‘temprano’, which means ‘early’, tempranillo is named after its early ripening as compared to other grapes across the nation.
Fresh and fruity in its youth, as it matures it takes on notes of leather and tobacco. So, if you’re after a rich red, this is the wine for you!
Next time you’re struggling to a pick a wine, take a chance on one of the major players in global winemaking. There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing where your wine came from, so why not test your newfound knowledge on your friends. After all, an educated gulp tastes all the more sweet.