by Tiffany Pence
Nothing pairs better with a seafood paella or hearty steak than the perfect wine. A favorite beverage for over 6,000 years, we can thank many ancient seafarers for bringing a taste of home with them on their adventures. Many varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are familiar to us and can be found in multiple countries. However, what’s fascinating is how the land and air currents influence the different flavors. Even more interesting are the wines that are not known outside their own country.
Travel awakens our senses of sight, taste, and smell much like the perfect Nebbiolo. Countries are proud of their wine heritage. They retain traditional methods alongside modern technology to make the best wines possible. Embrace the local culture and savor that glass of wine that was probably made just up the road. Whether you travel just for wine, cruise the backroads on road trips, or march through eleven countries in eight days on a group tour, stop and savor the unique wines of your destination.
The wines we are most familiar with such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Syrah are from France. And while many recognize a wine by the grape name, France names its wines after the region they originate from.
Burgundy is an eastern province in France and produces exquisite Pinot Noirs, Gamay and Chardonnay. A Beaujolais is typically a low-tannin Gamay, while a Chablis is a Chardonnay which tends to have less fruit and more of a steely quality to it.
The Bordeaux region in western France is known for its Bordeaux blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. The region also produces smaller amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The Rhone Valley stretches from Lyon to just north of Marseilles where you’ll find the bold Chataneauf-du-Pape made from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsaut make up other Rhone blends.
The Alsace region, to the West and south of Strasbourg, is known for their white wines of Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Sylvaner, and Muscat Blanc and their red wine of Pinot Noir.
Sparkling wine is made around the world, but only the sparkling wines that originate from the region of Champagne can be called Champagne. The primary grapes for French Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. The Champagne region is an especially fantastic day trip from Paris, the City of Love.
Spain has over sixty designated wine regions influenced by the many mountain ranges running through the country and the cooling influences of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean. After the phylloxera epidemic ravished the vineyards of France, many French winemakers moved to Spain to continue their passion. Spain’s wine industry undeniably flourished in the mid-1800s. Nowadays, the globe recognizes Spain as one of the top wine-producing countries in the world.
While France names their wines after the region, Spain names their wines after the grape varietal.
Spain’s most notorious grape is certainly the Tempranillo. Tempranillo possesses flavor profiles of red fruits and cedar. It’s medium bodied with medium acidity and pairs well with the heavy meat dishes of Spain. La Rioja and Ribero del Duero undeniably grow the best Tempranillo wines. Both regions lie in between Madrid and Bilbao. Try a Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva for a special dinner of suckling pig.
Spanish white wines are altogether crisp and fruity. A dry Albarino from Rias Baixas pairs exceptionally well with seafood dishes. A Rueda Blanco is verdejo from the Rueda region. Rueda Blancos are typically served with tapas in Madrid. A Rueda Blanco seems to pair well with everything with its subtle notes of lime and citrus.
You can’t leave Spain without trying their official sparkling wine, Cava. Produced in the Penedès region just outside Barcelona, Cava is made in the same method as champagne using Macabeo, Parellada, and Xarel-lo grapes. These bubbles will not disappoint.
Have you ever had a bad Italian wine? Probably not, because Italians take their wines very seriously. Italy has over 500 grape varieties, but there’s a handful that have ranked among the best for wines for decades.
Known as the “noble” grape, Nebbiolo is certainly one of the most famous Italian varieties. Grown in the northern region of Piedmont, Nebbiolo is light red in the glass, fruity to the nose, and robust to the tongue. High tannins and acidity give this fruit-forward wine real body that pairs well with heavy cream pasta dishes. You’ll find Nebbiolo in classic Barbaresco and Barolo.
Just south of Piedmont is Tuscany where Sangiovese is the star in Chianti and Brunello di Montepulciano. Sangiovese makes wines light in fruit to earthy, but always has a hint of cherry.
And for island lovers, Sicily has many grape varieties that will tease your tastebuds such as Nero d’Avola with its tannins or the lighter-body Frappatto with its notes of cherry. In Sardinia, the most popular red wines are Carignano, a fruit-forward red wine and Cannonau, which is similar to the Grenache grape and the white wine Vermentino.
Wine names from Croatia don’t roll off the tongue easily, but are exceptional in the glass. Croatia consists of three main wine regions with further divisions into subregions. Here’s an interesting fact: Crljenak Kaštelanski (its local name is Tribidrag) is the genetic father of the Zinfandel grape of California and Primitivo grape of Italy. It ripens earlier than other grapes and has soft tannins, high acidity, dark fruits, and a bit of spiciness, which pairs well with meat dishes.
Plavac Mali is unquestionably one of the most popular red wines of Croatia. It has notes of cherry flavors with spices and peppers. Babić is a red wine that grows best in Dalmatia with tasting notes of dark fruits, figs, and baking spices.
White wines are common along the coast. Malvazija is a dry white wine that grows best in the Istria region. It has citrus and white pepper notes and complements seafood dishes. For those that like sweeter wines, try Graševina a late harvest grape variety that’s fruity and flowery with good acidity.
Greece is one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world, and we can thank the ancient Greeks for distributing vitis vinifera vines throughout the Mediterranean. Wine is part of Greek life and maybe the secret to their longevity. Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician prescribed wine for medicinal purposes.
For red wines, try Agiorgitiko for its velvety cherry notes and Xinomavro for its spicy and floral aromas and fruitiness. White wine lovers will have plenty to choose from. Athiri and Moscofilero are both crisp with aromas of stone fruits. One white wine you shouldn’t miss is Malagousia. This grape almost went extinct until winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou began growing it again in the 1970s. Today this aromatic white wine of melon and jasmine creates beautiful, elegant wines.
Germany is most known for its Riesling wines. The best Rieslings grow in the Mosel River region, stretching from the border of Luxembourg to the city of Koblenz. Rieslings tend to display more apple and pear notes and can be dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet. Late harvest Rieslings will be sweeter with higher residual sugar and have tasting notes of lemon, citrus, apricot, and honey. Serve sweeter Rieslings with desserts.
Gewürztraminer is another white wine from Germany. It has tropical fruit and perfume aromas with stone fruit complexity, low acidity, and a bit of baking spice.
Germany grows many of the same grapes as France grows, but labels them with different names. Spätburgunder is the same grape as Pinot Noir. The most popular red wine in Germany, winemakers grow Spätburgunder in all of Germany’s wine regions. If you’re a Pinot Gris lover, look for Grauburgunder.
Fun fact: archaeologists found the largest Roman wine press north of the Alps along the Mosel River in the German town of Piesport (west of Bitburg and Trier). The press dates back to 400 A.D.
Bold, fruit-bomb wines with high alcohol are the signature wines from Australia, and no grape displays these characteristics better than Shiraz. Australians know the Syrah grape as Shiraz. Shiraz flourished in the many wine regions of this vast country. Shiraz is the most planted grape varietal with Cabernet Sauvignon in second place. Some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world grow in the Barossa Valley in the state of South Australia. Exceptional wines are grown in the Coonawarra and McLaren Vale Valleys and include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Merlot. Rieslings from Australia display a hint of lime. For more minerality in your wine, choose a bottle from the Margaret River region of Western Australia.
Australia is a vast country made for road trips. Visit Victoria’s wine region from Melbourne to Warrnambool and drive back along the Great Ocean Road for a unique weekend getaway.
The island of New Zealand is perfect for vineyards. Cooling breezes from the Pacific Ocean and a mixture of soils give New Zealand wines a unique taste of their own. Marlborough is the largest wine region in New Zealand and known for its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. The tropical fruit notes of guava and pineapple can be detected in the best Sauvignon Blanc and their light and fruity Pinot Noirs pair well with seafood, salad, and pasta dishes.
New Zealand’s wine history is only 200 years old, but has grown in popularity since the 1980s and 1990s. Today, New Zealand surprisingly claims almost 700 wineries. Because New Zealand is small compared to other countries, it’s easy to visit several wineries and wine regions on your trip.
The Carmenere grape was devastated by the spread of phylloxera in France in the early 1800s, but luckily a few pioneers had planted some vines a few decades earlier in Chile. Today, Chile’s most celebrated wine is Carmenere, a dark red wine with notes of blackberries, chocolate, and tobacco.
The Spanish conquistadors occupied Chile and influenced its customs and language, but the progression of winemaking in Chile found itself influenced by the French. You’ll see several French varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Syrah, and Merlot. Sauvignon Blancs from Chile are some of the best in the world. The capital city of Santiago is close to several wine regions.
Why is the price of Chilean wine so low?
We associate the cost of the wine with the quality, but Chile has managed to keep the quality high and their prices low. Land and labor make up the highest cost items to a winery. The land is cheap in Chile and they have plenty of room to grow. Another benefit is that the Chilean government actively negotiates its wine export contracts with other nations. With lower import taxes on their wines, Chilean wines are a win in both quality and price anywhere in the world.
Argentina is one of the largest wine consuming countries in the world. In contrast, Argentinians drink five times as much wine as a typical American. Luckily for travelers, wine is everywhere in Argentina.
The two grape varieties that define Argentina are Malbec and Torrontés. Malbec is a red wine with tasting notes of dark fruits, a hint of cocoa and a bit of sweet tobacco. A Malbec Reserva is the perfect wine pairing for Argentinian steakhouses. Torrontés is a white wine which is crisp with notes of peach and lemon. It goes well with complex food like Asian and Indian cuisines and sweet salads.
Argentina’s main wine regions of Mendoza, San Juan, Salta, and La Rioja find themselves concentrated at high elevations at the base of the Andes between 2500-5000 feet. Closer to the border of Chile than to the capital city of Buenos Aires, these wine regions have built ecotourism to a new level with high-end resorts and other activities besides wine tasting.
Many know Mexico for its tequila, mezcal, and beer, but the next up-and-coming wine region finds itself booming with experimentation. Three major wine regions dominate the Mexican landscape of high elevation and semi-arid terrain. Wines from the Baja Peninsula receive the majority of the press with its proximity to Southern California. The oldest winery in the Americas, Casa Madero, was established in the 16th century and is located in La Laguna’s Valle de Parras, two hours from Monterrey. The Bajio region encompasses wineries around the colonial cities of Queretaro and San Miguel de Allende including the Spanish-owned Freixenet which is famous for sparkling wines.
Forty wine grape varieties are grown in Mexico, but Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc seem to grow best. Winemakers view Mexico as a new frontier not tied down by tradition. Because Mexican food tends to be spicy, they have learned that big oaky wines do not compliment their cuisine. Winemakers have toned down the oak and are working on aging for softer tannins and more medium-bodied wines. Individual wineries are also having success with lesser-known grape varieties such as Verdejo, Aglianico, and Viognier. Sparkling wine varieties grow well in Mexico and range from Brut Natur to sweet. For red wine lovers, order a bottle of Nebbiolo. The Mexican Nebbiolo grape is slightly different then its Italian namesake and is one of the best wines produced in all the Mexican wine regions.
Tiffany Pence and her husband both worked in the United States wine industry representing and promoting Australian, Italian, Spanish, and California wines. They’ve traveled extensively for food and wine for the past decade. They now live in Queretaro, Mexico and promote the wine region of Central Mexico with their wine tours.