“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” - Albert Einstein.
You and me both Albert. The idea was simple. Name the top five most famous wines in the world and why. But then. How does one quantify ‘fame’ and to whom? Ban Ki-Moon, eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations can be rated as an important famous person, but then MORE people will probably know Kim Kardashian, a somewhat less important famous person, which leads to the question: FAME vs. actual attained STATUS? What we might tell you to be a FAMOUS wine, might very well be a Kim Kardashian, rather than a Ban Ki-Moon, or a Nelson Mandela, or a Martin Luther King Jnr... if you still prefer a Kim Kardashian, we’d like you to stop reading now, we cannot help you.
To FURTHER muddy the water - what about Old World vs. New World? We come from the New World, so would that make us predisposed to a New World wine? And then France has so many spectacular first growths and historic vines, are we just going to fill up our dance card with Lafite, Latour, Mouton, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, Margaux , Dom Perignon, Château Petrus, Château d’Yquem… that’s discrimination! No, we are democratically minded people, who believe in the power of the thoughtful, educated people to make up their own minds.
Rather than giving you the answers, we prefer to give you the TOOLS. In order to do so we’ve had to limit the scope of our investigation, as one cannot possibly classify the New World by Old World standards, nor does it work the other way around. We’ve therefore rounded up, in our OPINION, the top five Old World wine countries we FEEL you should take into consideration when selecting a truly spectacular OLD WORLD wine. These countries are: France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal. Once again, we’d like to stress that this is a statement based only on our own meandering experience and NOT a conclusive finding based on scientific fact.
Now the Old World makes it kind of easy, as they have designated geographical indications and then categorised those indications by quality. So the ‘Old World’ mostly located in the European Union (as it stands today - God knows what might happen to it in the future, should any more countries consider an exit) has two quality categories (which are named differently according to country, but of which the actual meaning remain the same throughout):
Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). In general PDOs refer to smaller areas with very tightly defined regulations with regard to what varietals can be grown there, blending ratios and general winemaking techniques, while PGIs refer to larger areas with much less rigidly enforced regulations. Don’t be fooled however, while the PDOs generally represent prime winegrowing country and usually some of the most premium wines in that area, the PGIs relative freedom to experiment with their winemaking and grape growing has in the past allowed for some stellar wines not limited by PDO regulations. Yet another reason to draw your own conclusions. As you may have surmised THIS is going to be complicated…given that each of these Old World countries had already made their own version of the rules BEFORE the EU decided to standardise. We will therefore endeavour to be BRIEF…
Since 2012 France only has three categories of classification. (There used to be four, but like we said, it’s complicated.)
Vin de France, the ‘lowest’ designation, indicating only producer, varietal, vintage and an indication that the grapes are from France (in general).
Indication géographique protégée (IGP)indicates that the wine comes from a specific region in France, but does not have to conform to the very restrictive regulations of AOC/AOP wines - though in order to maintain their distinction from Vin de France the producers have the wines analysed and tasted, it can only be made from certain varieties or blends in order to carry this classification hence some level of “quality” control.
Appellation d’origine contrôlée/protégée (AOC/AOP), now this is what you look for (if you’re not SURE about French wine yet). This system dictates what grapes can be used based on the terroir, what the alcohol level should be based on the blend and varietal, how the wine should be aged and for how long, even vineyard planting density has been laid out. While very restrictive, we have to concede that these regulations come from hundreds and hundreds of years of experience and experimentation, which means that they can also be seen as bureaucratic quality control. As it stands it was estimated in 2013 that 13% of the country’s wine was Vin de France, 33% IGP and 45% AOC/AOP (we’re aware those don’t add up, it’s France okay, maybe the other 9% never made it to market?), with 360 AOC’s/AOP’s, most from the primary growing regions you’ll have A LOT to choose from.
For an indication on which areas are AOC/AOP here is the most conclusive list we could find.
And here’s the most conclusive selection of French wines we have to offer.
As if three weren’t enough, Spain chooses to muddy the water even further with a six-tier classification system. Though you would do well to remember that Spain has around 400 native varietals of which their Tempranillo, Garnacha, Albariño and Macabeo are most well-known (in a very general sense- by us).
Vino de Mesa (VdM) are table wines made from unclassified vineyards or grapes that have been declassified for what can be seen as ‘illegal’ blending. Though some Spanish producers will have themselves declassified in ORDER to blend as they want, which means that this category could very well represent a new wave of interesting Spanish wines…or not.
Vino de la Tierra (VdlT) is wine from a broader geographical designation and identifies mainstream quality wines as a rule. Vinos de Calidad con Indicación Geográfica (VCIG) is considered a stepping stone to the next level of classification (better than the previous classification, just needs a LITTLE bit more work), wineries have to hold this status for 5 years and can then apply for the next level which is…
Denominación de Origen (DO). Generally speaking, this will be a good wine from 66 (at last count) designated area with rules as pertaining to varietals, maximum yields, limits of alcoholic strength as specified by zone, hence, a good sign we’d say.
Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) represent only two regions with a proven record of quality wines, these areas are Rioja and Priorat.
Finally, Vino de Pago represents the highest standard of Spanish wines and currently represents 15 individual estates. The thing with Spanish wines is that you also have to remember that they’re all about ageing, seen as tannic varietals such as Tempranillo are very well suited to it and often attain their best expression through a sequence of barrel and bottle ageing. As such they OBVIOUSLY have standardised that process and come up with the following terms to classify the levels of ageing.
To try out this newfound knowledge, view our selection of Spanish wines here.
So the thing with Italy is that their classification system was mostly setup to safeguard and promote their 350 native varietals (at last count), meaning that the hugely popular Super Tuscan wines, made up of ‘foreign’ varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet fall into their lowest designation, but which by no means detract from the success and quality of these wines.
They have four designations to speak of.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), their highest designation is limited to a small number of top quality wines, requires precise label specifications, vineyard yields, varietals, precise boundaries, alcohol levels and minimum aging. Piedmont and Tuscany have the most DOCG designated wines in Italy.
Denominazione de Origine Controllata (DOC) wines must be made in specified, government defined areas, and made to preserve the the unique character of the Italian varietals inherent to that specific area, therefore the rules are made per area of which there are 300 DOC areas in Italy.
Indicazione di Geografica Tipica (IGT) are non-descript wines grown in undesignated areas, but remember that Super Tuscans are also made in this classification and therefore not a total write-off.
Vino Da Tavola's (VdT) only requirement is that it be made somewhere in Italy and while we like Italy, we know enough to know if even THEY label it VdT we shouldn’t be expecting too much.
Having said that you may now root through our Italian selection of wines to see what you can find here.
Germany is organized. More than 60% of their wine is white, award-winning white, while they’ve more recently started placing focus on their red wines as well, specifically the Spätburgunder, German for Pinot Noir. Riesling is the grape varietal best suited to this terroir and the one we will focus on (mainly because we can offer you a taste of it here)). It is interesting to note however that they have a number of other white varietals worth mentioning, varietals such as: Traminer, Gutedel, Schuerebe, Bacchus (a God-like name to live up to), Kerner, Weįburgunder, Silvaner, Grauburguner and Müller-Thurgau (if only to sound knowledgeable at the dinner table).
Now Riesling is divided into two general categories, which are then further subdivided according to taste - we find this helps in order to avoid either the sugar-sweet end of the spectrum and identify, what we consider, the nirvana of an aged, petrol-scented, low-alcohol, light Riesling. (Should you prefer the sweet, no judgment.)
Now the two main categories are:
Qualitätswein and Pradikatswein. Qualitätswein refer to your basic Rieslings, usually light-bodied, dry, fruity and refreshing.
Pradikatswein indicates the upper echelons of Riesling-ness and is divided into 6 categories based on the sweetness/ripeness of the grapes, the understanding of which has come to assist us greatly in making sense of the mostly complicated labelling of better Rieslings.
The six categories are:
Kabinett, the lightest Riesling ranging from dry to off-dry at 148-188g/L of sugar;
Spätlese, meaning ‘late harvest’, a little sweeter than the Kabinett at 172-209g/L of sugar;
Auslese, meaning ‘select harvest’, hand-selected from noble rot grapes with 191-260g/L of sugar;
Beerenauslese, means ‘berry select harvest’ and refers to precious dessert wines with the grapes picked almost as raisins with noble rot and 260+g/L of sugar;
Trockenbeerenauslese means ‘dry berry select harvest’ and is the rarest of the lot, dessert wine at unmentionable sugar highs.
Lastly Eiswein refers to grapes freezing on the vine, pressed while still frozen and one of the most prized Riesling wines out there. We suggest you read our story on the Kuddelmuddel that this classification system is here.
And invite you to use what we’ve outlined above to make your selection here.
Portugal’s wine culture developed in relative isolation, meaning there are a number of varietals native to the land, 250 indigenous varieties to be exact, the very vastness of which would severely hamper the brevity of this guide. Hence we’ll only endeavour to provide you with the basics. Two things though, Port is a fortified wine native to Portugal, with several styles including red, white, rosé and an aged style called Tawny Port, made from at least 52 grape varieties.
Then Madeira is the OTHER fortified Portuguese wine, named for the small island of Madeira and also made from a number of varietals. The highest quality Madeira however is single-varietal Madeira made primarily from 4 grape varieties: Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malmsey. As with the rest of the Old World Classification systems, Portugal has 3 main categories.
Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC) is the highest classification including 31 DOCs and following the same rules as the above, meaning the wine comes from a defined geographical area, with specific varietals and maximum vine yields. Vinho Regional (IGP) represents 14 areas with more lenient laws regarding the control of grape varieties and maximum vine yields, which while it could indicate a lesser quality wine some producers use this leniency to create something interesting (like Italy’s Super Tuscans).
Vinho is the most basic classification, representing all the rest, similar to Italy’s Vino Da Tavola and unlikely to be seen OUTSIDE Portugal.
We suggest you start sampling our selection of Portuguese wines here.
Having said all that, we’re getting the distinct impression that we might just be leaving you worse off than we found you. When Portuguese wine, was just PORTUGUESE WINE…but it’s not anymore, is it, you know too much now. You’ll never be satisfied, subject to booking your around the world trip and starting from the top, we suggest you start with the WINE here. Just work your way through and see what YOU like, then we’ll tell you the story.