The two most important factors determining the taste of a specific wine are where it is grown and the grape variety or blend from which it is made. Other influences include how the grapes are grown in the vineyard (viticulture), how the wine is made (vinification), vintage variation and the age of the wine (maturity).

Europe - also known as "Old World"- accounts for around 70% of all the wine produced. The "New World" comprises North America and the southern hemisphere and has become increasingly important in the last few decades, in terms of both quantity and quality of the wines produced.

This introduction will focus on the classic wine regions of the Old World as well as some of the emerging classics of the New World. These areas are where wines of the greatest quality are found and it is these areas, and the best producers to be found there, which are the focus of Altaya's portfolio.

New vs Old

The concept of terroir is widely misunderstood, much discussed and debated and a source of considerable controversy. It is also central to understanding the differing philosophies behind the Old and New World approaches to wine and underlies French wine laws as well as the systems of wine law used in other European countries.

The term terroir covers the climate, soil and other features of a region, village or even a specific vineyard: its relevance can be seen most clearly in Burgundy with its divisions of small plots of land, which despite using the same grape varieties and winemaking methods produce wines of different quality and style. It can also be illustrated by reference to the contrast between the red wines of Bordeaux: the Medoc ("left bank") with its predominately Cabernet Sauvignon based blends as opposed to the Merlot based wines which dominate in St Emilion and Pomerol further inland ("right bank"). The key difference is the nature of the soil and its capacity to retain water.

Major producing countries: France | Italy | Spain | Germany | Austria | Hungary |
  USA | South Africa | Australia | New Zealand


France has the current distinction of being the world's largest wine producing country and few would dispute that it also produces the largest share of high quality, classic wines of any country. It has the advantage of 2,000 years of experience in matching grape variety with region and developing techniques both in the vineyard and in the cellar. While the Appellation Controlee system is not without its flaws, it does establish certain benchmarks of quality and style to aid consumers. While some regions and producers may have been guilty of complacency in the past, the current generation, very often with experience gained overseas and a keen awareness of the threats posed by upstart New World competitors, are more than capable of upholding the proud tradition of French winemaking.


Bordeaux is the largest quality wine production region in the world, with around 900 million bottles of wine produced each year, a quarter of the entire French Appellation Controlee production. 90% of this is red and much is from the most basic quality level, Bordeaux AC. The remaining 10% includes fine age-worthy dry white wines and the greatest dessert wines in the world.

For the highest quality red wines, there are two key areas. The left bank comprises the Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Pessac-Leognan and Graves. The Haut-Medoc is further sub-divided into communes, of which the most significant are St Estephe, Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux. As elsewhere in Bordeaux the terrain is predominately flat: the best chateaux are situated on banks of gravel, or gravel mixed with clay, which slope gently to the Gironde river, allowing good drainage for the vines, which are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. Further south, the Pessac-Leognan appellation, on the outskirts of Bordeaux, also enjoys gravel soil suitable for the cultivation of Cabernet based wines.

Due to Bordeaux's function as a major port, its wines have for centuries had a thriving market well beyond the immediate region. The reputation of its wines was further enhanced when in 1855 the wines of the Medoc were classified into five categories, from first to fifth growth. With few exceptions the classification has remained unchanged: the major exception was when in 1973 Ch Mouton-Rothschild was promoted from deuxieme to premier cru status. Ch Haut-Brion, was, and remains, the only Graves wine to be included in the classification.

The two key appellations in the right bank are St Emilion and Pomerol. With a few exceptions the wines are dominated by the Merlot grape which performs well on the mixture of clay, gravel and sand found in those regions. The wines of St Emilion were first classified in 1955 and this has been revised on a regular basis. Currently (July 2008) the most recent revision has been suspended by a French court and chateaux are not allowed to refer to their status under the classification on their labels. Pomerol has never been classified, but many of its producers, led by Petrus, are recognized by the market as being among the finest in Bordeaux.

The best dry white wines from Bordeaux are generally produced from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, with many benefiting from maturation in oak. Many of the finest examples originate from the Pessac-Leognan and Graves appellations.

Sauternes and Barsac are responsible for producing the world's finest dessert wines. In certain vintages, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle grapes are affected by Botrytis Cinerea, otherwise known as "noble rot" leaving grapes with very high concentrations of sugar. This can result in great intensity and complexity and these sweet wines can be among the longest lived wines of all. The production technique and risks involved mean that these wines are inevitably expensive.

Bordeaux wines are traditionally first offered on the market through a system known as en primeur, referred to as "futures" in the USA. Wines are tasted in barrel in the spring following the vintage by the world's wine trade and by journalists. Wine merchants will select those wines they wish to offer to their customers and writers will make their recommendations using their marking systems (points out of a hundred / twenty etc). Merchants will then make an offer to their customers based on the price charged to them by the chateau. Buying wine in this way offers advantages to the purchaser but the system is not without its potential pitfalls.

The advantages are that the buyer secures wines at the opening price. Depending on the vintage and the prevailing economic conditions, the price may rise considerably by the time the wines are bottled and even further by the time the wines are mature and ready to drink. It may be particularly advantageous in the case of small production wines such as some chateaux in Pomerol and St Emilion. Prices for the best wines from good vintages have shown strong gains over the past two decades and demand for the top properties shows no sign of abating.

There are potential disadvantages to be aware of. Young Bordeaux tasted so soon after harvest can be extremely difficult to assess. Purchasers should consult a number of opinions before deciding to buy and be confident in the advice they receive from the vendor. There have been instances where poor, overpriced vintages have been offered at the same price, or even less after bottling and have failed to appreciate in value.


Burgundy is a unique region in that the finest wines are made exclusively from two grape varieties: Chardonnay for whites and Pinot Noir for red. Burgundy is also the region where the concept of terroir shows itself most convincingly in the subdivision of the best plots of land into often minute holdings, demarcated by different owners and quality classification.

The core of Burgundy is the Cote d'Or ("Golden Slope") which is further sub-divided into the Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune. Chablis is also considered to be part of Burgundy, despite its location around 100 miles to the north-west of the Cote d'Or. To the south of the Cote d'Or lies the Cote Chalonnaise, further south is Macon.

Chablis is renowned for its distinctive white wines which derive much of their character from the limestone soil of the appellation. There are four quality levels: Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Chablis and Petit Chablis. Traditionally Chablis had little or no oak influence, but recently more producers have increased the oak input at Grand Cru and Premier Cru level.

Classification in the Cotes d'Or: at the highest level is Grand Cru (30 vineyards), followed by Premier Cru (561). Below this is Appellation Communale, wines named after a village such as Santenay or Meursault and lastly wines entitled only to the Bourgogne appellation. As well as considering the classification and the appellation it is vital to take into account both vintage and producer: a Bourgogne Rouge from a top producer in a good year can surpass another's Premier Cru in quality.

The Cote de Nuits is home to such names as Nuits-St-Georges, Gevry-Chambertin and Chambolle Musigny. Among the Grand Crus are Chambertin, Bonnes Mares and Clos de Vougeot. While a certain amount of white wine is produced, it is red which dominates here, in terms of both quality and quantity. This is the origin of the finest Pinot Noirs in the world.

The most famous names in the Cote de Beaune are the white wine producing villages of Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. Grands Crus are represented by Le Montrachet, Batard-Montrachet, Chevalier-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne. Red wines include Volnay, Pommard and Corton.

The Maconnais is dominated by white wines. The most famous name is Pouilly-Fuisse, but there are many other villages, many producing wines whose quality has greatly improved in recent years. Wines are often labeled Macon followed by the village name, such as Macon-Vergisson. Drinkers looking for Burgundy-style whites at affordable prices should get to know these wines.

Further south, the Beaujolais appellation produces large quantities of fruity red wine of varying quality from the Gamay grape.

The Rhone Valley

The Rhone is the second biggest producing French appellation after Bordeaux. Red wine dominates. The Rhone valley naturally breaks into two parts, north and south.

The Northern Rhone is the home of the finest Syrah wines in the Old World, represented by Hermitage, Cote-Rotie, Cornas, St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. Small quantities of highly regarded white wines are made from the Marsanne, Rousanne and Viognier varieties.

In the Southern Rhone the most illustrious name is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which famously allows up to thirteen different grape varieties in the blend. In practice the most important are Grenache, Mourevedre and Syrah, the trio which make up the blend of the surrounding Cotes du Rhone appellation. This is a promising area for those seeking a combination of character and value. Cotes du Rhone Villages is of higher quality and deserves special attention.


In many ways the least French of all the French appellations: wines are labeled varietally, and presented in tall green bottles, similar to those used across the Rhine in Germany. The grape varieties for quality wines are predominately Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris. Since 1983, fifty vineyards have been identified as superior and are allowed to carry the Grand Cru appellation. There is no Premier Cru in Alsace but late picked grapes may be used to make sweet wines labeled Vendage Tardive or Selection des Grains Nobles.


Champagne is produced in the north-east of France. The cool climate and chalk soil both contribute to the distinctive character which sets Champagne apart from all other sparkling wines. The only grape varieties allowed are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay; a Blanc de Blancs Champagne must be made exclusively from Chardonnay. Approximately 80% of all Champagne is labeled Non-Vintage ("NV"). Small quantities of rose and vintage Champagne are produced and even more limited are those wines referred to as prestige cuvees.


This is predominately rose territory, with about 80% of all production being various shades of pink. Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah are frequent components in the blend. Quality can be patchy, but some producers are setting their ambitions higher. There are some interesting red wines, noticeably from the Bandol region where the Mourvedre grape is capable of producing age-worthy wines of character.

Languedoc and Roussillon

This extensive region covers many appellations, some of which produce wines of real quality. Among a sea of undistinguished wine, the Vin de Pays de l'Herault from Mas de Daumas Gassac, based on Cabernet Sauvignon, has power and style which bely its humble origins. Other appellations which can yield wines of interest include Minervois and Fitou.

Another speciality is sweet wines, made by the Vin Doux Naturel method where fermentation is stopped by the addition of grape spirit. These can be based both on Muscat and, more unusually, Grenache, in appellations such as Maury and Banyuls.


Until recently the leading wine producer by volume, Italy has a vinous history even longer than that of France. Some evidence suggests that wine making was well established in the 7th century BC. Italy is also notable for the diversity of the grape varieties used in its wine industry, as many as 2,000 according to some estimates. The vast majority of these varieties are native to Italy and rarely found elsewhere: this is a key factor behind the unique and distinctive character of many of Italy's best bottles.


Along with Tuscany, Piedmont is responsible for Italy's finest red wines. Crisp, dry whites, from both local and imported varieties do feature, along with delicious sweet wines from the Moscato grape; however it is Barolo and Barbaresco which command attention. Both are made from the Nebbiolo grape, with an increasing tendency towards single vineyard wines. Quantities are often small and prices reflect worldwide demand. Dolcetto and Barbera are the other important red varieties and are more modestly priced.


Sangiovese - literally the blood of Jupiter - is the most widely planted variety in Italy, but it is in Tuscany that it finds its true potential at the core of some of Italy's most characterful red wines. Chianti's reputation has staged a major revival in recent years and there are some serious producers crafting delicious, stylish wines. Brunello di Montalcino has deservedly become one of Italy's most fashionable and prestigious reds. Many Tuscan producers have chosen to renounce the DOCG rules to produce wines from international varieties, mainly Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, either as monovarietals or as blends with Sangiovese. This is a region of rapid change and improving standards.

Southern Italy

Until recently the south of Italy was synonymous with large quantities of indifferent wine destined for distillation, blending or as a base for Vermouth. Thanks to recent investment from more quality orientated producers and the determination of a new generation in some family owned concerns, there are now several interesting wines offering good value for money. Campania offers dry whites from the Fiano and Avellino varieties as well as excellent reds made from Aglianico. Further south, blends of local and international varieties make for good value, uncomplicated drinking.


Situated in the far north-east of Italy of Italy, bordering on Slovenia and Austria, Friuli's location has led to a proliferation of styles and grape varieties. White wines excel, due to the cool climate conditions and wine-making techniques which conserve the natural flavours of the grape. Both international and local varieties are employed; Pinot Grigio here shows much more class than many examples from elsewhere.


Now the biggest wine producing region in Italy, Veneto offers some vinous gems for those who know where to find them. Soave is too often bland and watery but when made predominantly from the Garganega grape rather than Trebbiano the result can be wines of great intensity and flavour. The most important reds are Bardolino and Valpolicella.


Spain is the third largest wine producer in the world and consequently produces a vast array of wines representing diverse regions, styles and quality levels. Traditionally, quality wine in Spain has been associated with the neighbouring regions of Rioja and Navarra in the north-east. In the last two decades there has been a great surge in activity in what were previously little known regions, resulting in a a new wave of high quality wines entering the market.

Many of Spain's finest reds are based, wholly or in part, on the Tempranillo grape. Grenache and Mourvedre are also important and increasingly vignerons are employing imported varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. High quality reds are to be found in denominaciones (the Spanish equivalent of the French AC regions) such as Ribera del Duero, Priorat and Castilla Leon.

Traditional Spanish whites tended to be heavily oaked, often with oxidative characters. Winemakers today aim for a fresher style, epitomised by wines made from the Albarino variety in Spains north-west which make a perfect accompaniment to all types of seafood.

Spain is also the source for two important wine styles. Cava is sparkling wine made by the traditional method, mainly from local grape varieties, in the Catalunya region which surrounds Barcelona. Sherry is one of the world's classic styles of fortified wine, originating from the region around the city of Jerez de la Frontera in south-west Spain. Styles of Sherry range from light, pale and dry to rich, dark and sweet.


German Riesling is without a doubt one of the worlds classic wines and at its best achieves a tingling balance of fruit and acidity at levels of alcohol that can go as low as 7%. The best regions are found along the Rhine and Mosel rivers and their tributaries. Further south, Baden produces some very creditable Pinot Noir, labeled as "Spatburgunder". German wine has for many years suffered from the association with mass-market wines such as Liebfraumilch and Piesporter. These generally contain little or no Riesling and are generally based on Muller-Thurgau or other lesser grape varieties.

German wine labels can be off-putting to the uninitiated. They contain a mass of information, which with a little knowledge can give vital clues to the contents within.


Predominately a white wine producing country, Austria excels at Riesling and Chardonnay but its trump card is the spicy, full bodied Gruner Veltliner. As well as the dry or "trocken" styles it produces, Austria is also the source of some outstanding sweet wines.


Hungary has a long winemaking tradition, going back at least to Roman times. Production is 70% white, with a mixture of traditional grape varieties and more recent plantings of international grape varieties. Since the end of communist rule and the loss of traditional markets for inexpensive wines such as Russia, there has been a renewed emphasis on quality and a wave of foreign investment.

No region has benefited more from inward investment than Tokaji, the oldest demarcated wine region in the world. Tokaji is famous for its sweet wines made from Furmint, Harslevelu and Muscat grapes. A paste made from botrytis affected grapes (Aszu) is added to a base wine, the quantity (measured in Puttonyos) determining the sweetness of the wine. The number of Puttonyos is indicated on the label - between three and seven are most common. The top quality is Eszencia, made from juice which drains naturally from the Aszu grapes.


The American wine industry has come a long way since the first vines were planted by Franciscan fathers in the mid 18th century. The USA is now the largest wine producer outside Europe, with 90% of production originating from California. The area north of San Francisco, covered by the North Coast AVA includes many of the most important areas for quality wine. The fog from the Pacific Ocean which affects the Sonoma coast creates cool climate conditions which produce high quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Further inland warmer and drier conditions lend themselves to Zinfandel, California's signature grape. The Napa Valley further east is probably the USA's most famous AVA, despite producing less than 5% of all California's wine. Napa's speciality is Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends, with the best often named after specific vineyards.

Further north in Oregon State, the Willamette Valley hosts numerous winemakers taking advantage of its cool climate to produce some outstanding Pinot Noir.

South Africa

South Africa's history as a wine producer dates back to the 17th century. For most of the 20th century South Africa's wine industry was dominated by co-operatives but the establishment of new estate-based producers has seen a dramatic increase in wine quality. Long a reliable source of crisp, dry whites made from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, South Africa is now making some exciting reds, both Syrah and Bordeaux blends. The cool climate Stellenbosch region continues to be the most important for quality wine production.


Australia is now the 6th largest wine producer in the world and the 4th largest exporter. Much of this is made up of simple fruity wine, the result of cross-regional blending by the big five producers. Among the remaining nearly 2,000 producers are several producing small quantities of outstanding wines with a very definite regional focus. South Australia is responsible for nearly half of Australia's annual production and is home to such classic regions as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. This is the source of Australia's finest Shiraz, these days often made as a Rhone style blend with the addition of Grenache and Mourvedre. Cabernet Sauvignon also performs well. Victoria contains several cool climate zones making excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the best known being the Yarra Valley. Among white wines, Semillon and Riesling are produced in a distinctively Australian style.

New Zealand

While New Zealand's wine industry dates from the mid 19th Century, it has changed out of all recognition in the last three decades. Marlborough, at the top of the south island, planted its first commercial vineyard in 1973: it is now responsible for more than half of New Zealand's entire production. Marlborough's fortunes are closely linked with that of New Zealand's greatest export success, Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris also perform well. Pinot Noir is now the second most widely planted grape variety and some examples of this variety compete with the world's best.

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