European Wine — A Draft

The Fjordman Report

The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.

Note from Fjordman: The following text is meant to be included in my long-announced history of beer, which will finally be published in five parts starting from next week. Although it will primarily be about beer, I will include a little bit about other subjects as well, above all wine. Since I am not at all an expert of wine, I have made this very rough first draft to be published here. If any of my readers who know more about wine than I, and I’m sure there are plenty of those, can spot any major errors or omissions in this draft I will be happy to update it when the full history is published. Much of the following information is taken from The World Atlas of Wine, 6th edition, by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, a fine and richly illustrated work updated as of 2007.

A vineyard in Bordeaux

Probably no other country on the planet is more closely associated in the popular imagination with wine than France, and there is a reason for that. Geographically situated between the influences of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, the country has a temperate climate with many different types of soil and local conditions, which makes it excellent for growing a variety of grapes. Of course, in addition to favorable natural conditions, we should not count out the ingenuity and skills of the French people as an explanation for this. France has many top-class wines, but has also managed to classify and control them with greater precision than most other countries have done, although some critical voices have suggested that the French AOC system of certification for wines, cheeses and other agricultural products can at times be too rigid and bureaucratic.

The art of winemaking may have been known in the Mediterranean coast of southern France earlier, but otherwise it was the Romans who spread this knowledge throughout most regions of France (the Gaul). The Mediterranean city of Marseille (formerly known as Massalia) was founded around 600 BC by ancient Greek settlers. In the late Roman Empire, Bishop Saint Martin of Tours (AD 316-397) spread both Christianity and viticulture, which remained a potent combination in medieval European monasteries. Good wines depend upon several factors: The type or mix of grapes used, the climate and the soil at the vineyard and the skills of the winemaker himself. Wines from the best winemakers are called grand cru, French for “great growth,” and a wine produced in a year of optimal climatic conditions becomes a vintage wine. The best wines are stored in oak barrels and then in bottles, sometimes for years.

There are wine producing areas throughout France, but some of the most important regions include Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc-Roussillon, Alsace, the Rhône and the Loire Valley, beautiful Provence as well as the island of Corsica. Champagne is made from the red Pinot Noir, the white Chardonnay or the dark wine grape known as Pinot Meunier. It is theoretically possible to make white wines from red grapes, although this is rarely done in practice simply because there is usually no important reason to do so. One of the few major exceptions to this rule is champagne made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The French call such wines Blanc de Noirs, or “white of blacks.” The pale or pinkish bubbly wine from the Champagne region east of Paris, the northernmost important wine producing area in France, has since the nineteenth century been associated with luxury and celebration. Champagne brands include Dom Pérignon, named after the seventeenth-century Benedictine monk who made major contributions to the development of such wine, Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Pommery and Laurent-Perrier.

Bordeaux next to the Atlantic coast of western France is undoubtedly one of the most famous wine districts in the entire world. In a good year, this area alone can produce close to a billion bottles of wine of all price ranges, most of it red wine. Viticulture here dates back to Roman times, but the history of Bordeaux as a major exporter begins in the High Middle Ages prior to the Hundred Years’ War, when the English were heavily involved in French affairs. Increased demand led to the expansion of local vineyards. The grapes used here include the famous red varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, which are now extensively used in other countries as well. Some of the renowned brands are Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Latour, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Cheval Blanc and Petrus. The Bordeaux region is also the home of some sweet white wines and excellent dessert wines, especially from the Sauternes area.
– – – – – – – –
Burgundy north of Lyon in the east produces red and white wines in equal measure. The most famous ones, often referred to as Burgundies, are red wines made from Pinot Noir or white wines made from Chardonnay grapes. The five most important wine growing areas here are Chablis, Côte d’Or, Côte Chalonnaise, Beaujolais and Mâcon. As with a number of other regions in France, we have definite proof of wine growing in Burgundy only from the Roman period (second century AD), although it has been suggested that the local Celts practiced viticulture even before the Roman conquest. Burgundy became an important wine producing region during Charlemagne’s era in the Early Middle Ages. The Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, stretching from Provence along the Mediterranean coastline to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border, is in terms of the sheer bulk of production the single most important wine-growing region in France, and indeed the world.

The Alsace region close to the German border is above all a white wine region, although some red and rosé wines are made there as well. Alsace with its Germanic cultural ties also produces some of the best French beers, next to the regions of the north close to Belgium and the Netherlands. Producers in the Loire Valley make mainly white wines. Those in the Rhône region in southern France next to the Rhône river valley produce mainly red ones, many of them from the dark-skinned Syrah grape, but white wines from the light and aromatic Viognier grape are also made. The French combine local wines with many different types of food, among them the literally hundreds of national varieties of cheese.

Acording to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in The World Atlas of Wine, Italy has creativity, good taste and many good wines, but arguably still less order, precision and regulation of its winemaking industry than France. Perhaps no other country has a greater variety of local styles and grape varieties than Italy. The Italian Peninsula is blessed with plenty of sunshine and interesting local climatic variations due to its many mountains. Whereas wine can be successfully produced in only some parts of Germany, it can be grown in almost all regions of Spain and Italy. Viticulture in Italy predates the Romans, with Etruscans and others in the north and Greek settlers in Sicily and the south from 800 BC onward, possibly even earlier. It flourished during Roman times when it spread to virtually every part of the vast Roman Empire where grapes could be grown. The best-known Italian wines abroad are clearly the red ones, but the country has managed to produce decent white wines, too. To an Italian meal, wine often plays the most important supporting role.

Grapes are grown in virtually all corners of Italy, from the Lombardy region in the north via Umbria and Marche east of Rome to the islands of Sicily and Sardinia in the south. One of the most significant wines produced in the northwest is Piemonte wine, made in the province of Piedmont with its capital Turin close to the foothills of the Alps. The types of wine — like the topography, soil and climate — vary to the extreme in this region. They include red wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, made from the Nebbiolo grape, although the red Barbera grape is also common in the region. The sparkling wine Asti is made from the white Muscat grape. Northeastern Italy north of Venice is above all white wine territory, with its famous Soave wines made from the local Garganega grape.

Northern Italy between Milan, Turin and Genoa is the most affluent part of the country, and the northeastern regions often set the pace in the crafting of modern wines. The technology of winemaking is more sophisticated here than elsewhere in the Italian Peninsula, thanks in part to the demand from neighboring Germany, Austria and Switzerland as well as more distant markets such as the USA and Britain. Two of Italy’s leading wine schools are situated here, and the nation’s most important wine fair is held each spring in Verona.

Tuscany, with the great historical cities Florence, Siena and Pisa, is above all known for its Chianti wines, probably the most famous wines of all Italy, made from the Sangiovese red grape variety. Central Italy is blessed with perfect natural conditions for the creation of fine wines. Winemakers have modernized in recent years and introduced international grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, the Pinots, Chardonnay and Sauvignon in addition to native varieties. The sunny regions south of Naples, including Sicily, have often been known more for the quantity than the quality of wine produced there, but they, too, have improved significantly in recent years and contributed to the growing reputation of Italian wine among consumers abroad. They have long been known for cheap wines full of taste.

Traditionally, the history of viticulture in the Iberian Peninsula has been taken to start when the Phoenicians founded the trading post of Cádiz in Andalusia around 1100 BC. However, while the Phoenicians, the Greeks and especially the Romans certainly all contributed greatly to the spread of viticulture throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond, there are signs that native Iberians cultivated wine even before the Phoenicians and the Phoenician-derived culture of the city of Carthage exercised any significant influence there. The region of Andalusia is today world famous for its sherry, a fortified wine produced by a special ageing process, mostly in the Jerez de la Frontera area.

Most of Spain, with the exception of some mountainous regions, is excellent for growing grapes, the major challenge being the dry climate in some Spanish regions. Spain is one of the largest producers in the world, next to France and Italy. Wine is made everywhere in the country, from fertile Galicia on the Atlantic coast to the Canary Islands, the volcanic archipelago off the west coast of North Africa. La Rioja and Navarra in the north, Castilla-La Mancha south of Madrid, Catalunya in the east and Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia in the far south produce some of the country’s best brands. Much of the production is exported, but Spaniards themselves are also great consumers of the liquid. Cavas are sparkling Catalan wines (comparable to French champagne) made mainly in the Penedès region close to Barcelona, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and with some of its most delicious food. La Rioja is especially famous for its excellent red wines.

Portugal has maintained many of its local traditions, native breeds and grape varieties, which has resulted in wines with a very distinct taste. As with their Spanish neighbors, Portuguese viticulture owes a lot to the ancient Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks and above all the Romans. In the post-Roman period, these traditions were disrupted during centuries of Islamic rule, but they were not totally destroyed and were gradually restored after the Reconquista.

Portuguese wines are produced from the northern regions to the Madeira Islands, from Algarve to the Azores. Dão and Bairrada, between the cities of Porto and Lisbon, are some of the country’s oldest wine districts. The Madeira Islands in the Atlantic Ocean have long produced the popular Madeira, a fortified wine suitable for sea travels to colonial regions overseas such as the Americas. Port wine and Madeira are among the world’s foremost strong, sweet wines. Port wine is a fortified wine from the Douro Valley. It is typically a sweet red wine, although it does exist in other varieties, too, and is often served as a dessert wine. It received its name in the seventeenth century when much of it was exported to other European countries via Porto in northern Portugal, at the mouth of the Douro River.

Germany is rightfully considered beer territory, but it also includes some of the most northerly significant vineyards in the world. Most of present-day Germany was never a part of the wine-loving Roman Empire, but the regions in the extreme west and south were, and this is where we find both the oldest cities — Cologne (Köln), Trier and Augsburg — and the most important wine districts even today. The primary area is the Rhine region in the southwest close to the border of France and Luxembourg. German viticulture stretches in a belt beginning just south of Cologne via Bonn, Mainz and Trier on the banks of the Moselle River to Heidelberg, Karlsruhe and Stuttgart and finally to Freiburg and the Black Forest (German: Schwarzwald) region close to the Swiss border. In addition to this, there are a few vineyards in East Germany in the Dresden area of Saxony and along the river Elbe.

White wine accounts for the bulk of production and for the vast majority of German export wines. Red wines are challenging to produce in the chilly German climate, but some are nevertheless made here, much-appreciated by the locals. German white wines include some cheap ones of low quality, but also some of very good international standing. Especially cherished are those made from the aromatic white grape known as Riesling, which together with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most highly regarded white grape varieties in the world, also grown in Austria, Luxembourg, Australia, New Zealand, North America, the Ukraine and even in parts of China. One specialty is icewine (German: Eiswein), a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The most expensive of these are made in Germany or Canada.

The most internationally famous European wine regions are those of Continental Western Europe mentioned above. However, grapes have historically been grown in most regions of Europe except the far north. In the Nordic countries, a few decent wines have been produced in Denmark and southern Sweden, and on rare occasions even in Finland or Norway, but these countries are just too cold to ever become major producers. In England and Wales, wine in significant quantities was produced in medieval times, but the climate is challenging, and imports from France and Continental Europe made it difficult to establish a financially viable industry there. Most Welsh and English wines are white, similar to Germany and northern regions such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are more important. The Swiss are enthusiastic wine drinkers, yet only a tiny amount of Swiss wine is exported, in sharp contrast to Swiss cheese or chocolate. Vineyards can be found in almost all cantons, even north of Zürich, but especially concentrated in the French-speaking regions of the south and west, around Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel. Most Swiss red wine is grown in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino, the southernmost canton of Switzerland.

Austrians make more red wines than the Germans do, although white ones predominate here as well. Vineyards can be found even within the city limits of Vienna itself. Most major wine regions, including Wachau, Burgenland, Kremstal and Kamptal, are concentrated in the east, from Graz to Vienna, in a belt stretching along the borders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. Austrians also manufacture high-quality wine glasses. Wine is grown in many parts of Hungary, from the beautiful Lake Balaton via the outskirts of the capital city of Budapest to the Romanian border. However, the most famous Hungarian wine abroad is clearly Tokaj, a white dessert wine.

In the Czech Republic, grapes are grown in both Moravia and Bohemia. Although Czech wines are popular locally, they are not nearly as well-known abroad as Czech beer. Wine is produced more extensively in neighboring Slovakia, especially around the capital city of Bratislava in the southwest and in the east close to the borders of Hungary and the Ukraine. Wine was grown in Slovenia, which borders Italy in the west, the Alps in the north and the Adriatic Sea and Croatia in the south, before the Roman period, at least since the time of the Celts and the Illyrians tribes. Most of the wine is white and is consumed locally, as it is in Switzerland. Primorska is currently Slovenia’s most prominent wine region.

In the Balkans, Croatia is a traditional wine country, with grapes grown for both red and white ones inland in the Zagreb region, but especially along the Dalmatian Coast, from Split to Dubrovnik. Croatians have a rich tradition of employing indigenous grape varieties. Wines are made in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Montenegro, in Albania and in Macedonia from the city of Skopje to the border of Greece. Wines in Serbia are especially grown south of the river Danube, starting from Belgrade and continuing southwards and eastwards, although vineyards exist further north as well. Most Serbian wine is still consumed locally. The Ottoman Turks, as Muslims, previously disrupted the wine traditions in this region.

The most successful wine exporting countries in Eastern Europe in recent years are the ones close to the Black Sea, Romania, Moldova and especially Bulgaria. Bulgarian wine production dates back to ancient times, at least to the Thracians. Decent wines are grown around the city of Varna on the beautiful Black Sea coast and inland to South Bulgaria and to the regions north of the capital city of Sofia, south of the Danube. Bulgarian vineyards use local grape varieties, but also French and international ones such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Romania, with linguistic and cultural ties to France and Italy, is another important producer of affordable wines. Wine is grown in many parts of the country, along the borders of Hungary in the west, Serbia and Bulgaria in the south and Moldova and the Ukraine in the east and near the Black Sea coast, east of Bucharest. The former Soviet republic of Moldova, too, is currently a major international exporter of wine.

Wine production, although mainly for local consumption, continues east of Bulgaria and Romania along the northern coast of the Black Sea, via Odessa and the Crimea in the Ukraine and southern Russia to Georgia, Armenia and the Caspian Sea. Locally produced wine can still be found just outside of the Armenian capital city of Yerevan or Tbilisi in Georgia, some of the oldest wine producing areas in the world, possibly the very oldest.

Few people did more in ancient times to spread the knowledge and love of wine than the Greeks, and these traditions are upheld in modern Greece. Local grape varieties, some of them with roots back to Antiquity, are now grown next to imported ones that are popular with international consumers. There are significant climatic and topographic differences between the northern regions, say, the districts north of Thessaloniki, and the Peloponnese peninsula south of Athens, and this obviously has consequences for the types of wines produced in the different regions. Wine was a major trade item in ancient times, and Greek wines, both from the mainland and from islands such as Crete, were popular.

Wine was exploited in Crete by the Minoans before 2000 BC, and Cretan wines were highly priced as export products in late medieval Europe. Some of the Aegean Islands, for instance Rhodes and Samos, still have significant industries, although the most original wines are arguably produced on the volcanic island of Santorini. Cyprus, too, has one of the oldest wine cultures in the world, with Cypriot wine being traded at least as early as 2300 BC. The western Mediterranean island of Malta has old winemaking traditions. However, the ancient wine- and beer-making traditions of Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa have been severely hampered by centuries of Muslim rule, with the Jewish state of Israel being a notable exception. A few still-Christian enclaves in Lebanon uphold the proud legacy of the Phoenicians, but these areas are under siege by a resurgent Islam.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, European producers have had to face increasingly serious challenges in the making of affordable quality wines from parts of the New World. Some good wines are grown in southern Canada, but Canadian wines are currently not widely known abroad. In the United States, New York State on the east coast as well as Washington and Oregon on the west coast have significant areas of viticulture, but by far the most important wine region in North America is California, from Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz to the areas north of San Francisco. Californian wines have seriously challenged the hegemony of European wines and repeatedly won a number of international prizes for high quality. The experimentation undertaken here and in Australia has inspired new thinking among Old World producers.

Australia, too, has developed into a serious player in the industry and a major global exporter. Australian wine production is concentrated in the southeast, from the Adelaide region via Melbourne and Canberra to Sydney, with some additional production south of Perth in Western Australia. Making wines in dry Australia is challenging, but technological advances during the twentieth century has made this possible. Breakthroughs in cooling techniques proved a major advance for winemakers in warmer regions, and rapidly evolving communications and new means of transportation made possible a truly global competition. Wine is also grown on both North Island and South Island in New Zealand as well as in some parts of southern Africa, especially in the region surrounding Cape Town.

In South America, wine is produced in Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Uruguay and in southern Brazil, but above all in Chile and Argentina, which are clearly the most internationally significant exporters of cheap, but perfectly decent wines in this part of the world. According to the renowned English wine writer Robert “Oz” Clarke, New World wines are generally more adventurous than their European counterparts. In Chile, Argentina, the United States, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, winemakers are exploring, creating and thriving. “The wine world,” he notes, “has never been wider open or more interesting, and your children may be drinking altogether different wines than you are.” When asked to name the most exciting wines in the world at this moment, he mentions Chile for its Merlots, Cabernets and Carmenères; and Argentina, where Malbec, Bonarda and Torrontés (a delicious indigenous white variety) are the cutting-edge grapes.

In addition to this, some wine production takes place in a few Asian countries, in Japan, in South Korea and increasingly in China. This production is not yet internationally significant, and these countries all have their own traditional alcoholic beverages that differ substantially from the Western ones, but the trend could potentially become interesting in the future. The increasingly affluent Asian middle classes have developed a taste for Western-style wines and beers, and while they primarily import Western brands for now, it is not unthinkable that they may decide to produce more of it themselves in the future.

16 thoughts on “European Wine — A Draft

  1. Very interesting, and it’s good to read about something other than Islam.

    I wonder if you do justice to Lebanese wine and Georgian wine. I have visited both countries in the last six years and had some excellent wine. In the case of Georgian wine, nobody can remember or pronounce the names of the grapes, which can’t help.

    If the Muslim population continues to increase, then Lebanese wine will be under threat. And of course Russia spitefully boycotted Georgian wine because Georgia was getting too Westernised.

    Wine is one of the many civilised pleasures under threat from Islam.

  2. Mary Jackson: I wonder if you do justice to Lebanese wine and Georgian wine.

    A lot of people in this country pooh-pooh Georgian table wines. This is a pity as many fine Kakheti vintages appeal not only to the Caucasian palate but also to the cognoscenti of lower Poughkeepsie.

    Old Red Izabela is rightly praised as a kvass flavoured Burgundy, whilst a good Saperavi Syrup can rank with any of the world’s best salted wines.

    Château Bodbe, too, has won many prizes; not least for its mud top notes, and its lingering afterburn.

    Old Apsny 1998 has been compared favourably to a Texan claret, whilst the Tbilisi Wino Society thoroughly recommends a 1990 Kivevri du Chinchila, which, believe me, has a kick on it like a must crazed rodent: eight bottles of this and you’re really finished. At the opening of the Rustaveli Bridge Club, they were fishing them out of the Mt’k’vari River every half an hour.

  3. lot of people in this country pooh-pooh Georgian table wines.

    You say tomato and I say tamada…

    And try saying Tbilisi after you’ve had a few. Or even before.

  4. Fjordman,

    La Rioja is especially famous for its excellent red wines.

    You might want to mention Ribera del Duero which is today considered producing higher class wines then La Rioja, by the Spanish people themselves.

    The “giris” do not know though, they still go for Rioja 🙂

    Speaking of La Rioja, there is a region with that name in Argentina too. Making some of the best wines today. There are quite a few ecological Malbec-Shiraz, some for very good price.

    And the wines from South Africa is a safe bet for good price, good quality wine. Especially Pinotage wines, which is the signature grave variety of South Africa — a crossing between Pinot Noir and Cinsault.

  5. “And try saying Tbilisi after you’ve had a few. Or even before.”

    Ha-ha. Try to say “rkatsiteli” and “mtzvane” – which are Georgian grape types.

  6. Not that I am an expert or anything but it is funny that Fjordman came up with this.
    I just arrived from a 200 kms drive to spend some time with my Godfather and we got to talk about wine, or better, I listened to him in the face of my ignorace and recently born curiosity on the topic.

    “The most internationally famous European wine regions are those of Continental Western Europe mentioned above.”

    Exactly, that’s what I said to my Godfather, do good wines only exist in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany? So, Swiss and Austrian wine appears to be of good quality as well…
    What about Britain?
    Is that because Western European wines are really the best or are we blind by “Wester-European-Centrism”.
    I mean, I heard Croatia has good wine as well…

    Some questions I was just to ashame to ask:
    Is there any difference between Green (Vinho Verde) Wine and White Wine??

    Once, somebody gave me a gasified orange liquid and said it was champagne. I like champagne, but it was horrible and with too much alcohol. Was it champagne?

    “In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, European producers have had to face increasingly serious challenges in the making of affordable quality wines from parts of the New World.”

    But they don’t have their own wines, do they? Those damned New Worlders only replicate what we produce and in bigger quantities, right?

  7. Fjordman–

    There was a tour of Georgian wineries s few years ago before things got ugly.

    It looked fascinating. The future Baron adn I were trying to figure out if he could swing a deal on that but now funding has dried up anyway.

    I went in to look at his books, but there is spare mattress leaning up against the bookcase so I couldn’t access everything (and he took much of his wine book collection with him). However, this one combined his love of wine *and* history:

    Wine and War: The French, the Nazis & The Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup

    Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine by George M Taber

    When the carpenter moves the mattress I’ll see what else he has in that bookcase and email you some more titles.

  8. oh, I forgot: my own favorite wine-

    Vinho Verde. The B says “Famega” and “Neblina” are the best.

    I say the six dollar per bottle price is the best…

    A smooth wonderful wine. Goes with delicate dishes, or the cheese and fruit part of dinner.

    You have to drink the whole bottle because it has a bit of effervensence. Finishing it is not a chore with two people.

  9. Those damned New Worlders only replicate what we produce and in bigger quantities, right?

    When the French vines were killed off, they had to resort to New World offspring that had been brought here. Otherwise, French wine would’ve been kaput.

    Georgian Wine Tour

    This is not the one we saw a few years ago. That was something that some State Department interns had devised for young people. Still,this one sounds interesting….

  10. Fjordman-

    Don’t forget Mead, which may have been the first alcoholic beverage on humanity’s lips, since it self-ferments more easily than any other potential liquor.

    And, where disease-riddled water was all-too-common, booze literally became a medicinal alternative down the septic centuries.

    On a tastier note: I’d suggest an Argentine Trumpeter Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Rich, but not too pricey.

Comments are closed.