Wines Of The Old World: France, Germany & Italy


In terms of both history and wine, Europe is considered the Old World. Over time, the winemaking countries

of Europe have developed a long and detailed history of producing fine wines. They set the example that all other winemaking countries follow. We begin with these because we will be referring back to them when we discuss the New World wines.

French wines are considered to be among the finest in the world. While other winemakers may never want to admit it, French wines are usually their benchmark- the standard against which other wines are judged.

The French have a long history if intentionally matching the best grapes to the best growing areas. With this in mind, each of the major wine producing areas in France has very specific terms for which grape varieties can be used. You quickly realize that if the bottle in your hand is a red Bordeaux it will be made mostly of Cabernet or Merlot grapes with the distinct smell currents, or if it is a white Burgundy it will be produced from Chardonnay grapes with the wonderful aromas of apple, nut and citrus.

French wine laws are specific and imitated to some degree in other countries. The laws are called AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Controlee. The AOC governs the origin of the wine, grape varieties used, production limits and production methods. Although it does guarantee the geographic origin of the wine, it does not guarantee the quality of the wine. The AOC instead provides the framework within which the growers and producers operate. You can, however, assume that a wine produced under AOC regulations should be of a better quality than wine of no particular origin. However, bear in mind that you, the consumer, are always the final judge.

In this volume we will be looking primarily at the major wine regions. As we move further through the Product Knowledge Correspondence Courses, we will look at these areas in more detail. Along with some of the lesser known regions.


German vineyards are among the northernmost vineyards in the world. The general latitudes for grapes growing are usually between 30 and 50 degrees but in Germany this is extended to 52 degrees north latitude, which in Canadian terms would put it roughly parallel to Hudson’s Bay. While the climate is not as cool as that of Hudson’s Bay, it is cool and distinctly uncertain, making grape growing particularly difficult, if not downright perilous.

The best-known white grape varieties are the famous Riesling, along with Sylvaner, Muller-Thurgau and Traminer, and red grape varieties are Spatburunder, Portugieser and Trollinger. White wines far outnumber reds.

The wines can range from light, fresh and fruity, to elegant, sweet and rich, some of which have proven to be the longest aging white wines in the world. Lately that there has been a great deal of interest in what is considered a newer, drier style of German wine, not unlike those of Alsace which use some of the same grape varieties. However, because of the different microclimates and soil conditions throughout Germany, the wines are all very individualistic in both style and taste.

Most of the growing regions are situated along rivers and their tributaries. The most important rivers are the Ahr, Mosel, Nahe, Rhein, Main and Neckar. They have the same effect as other bodies of water in other areas, mostly moderating temperature.

There are 11 main growing regions or Anbaugebiet in western Germany. They are Pfalz, Franken, Ahr, Mittelrhein, Rheingau, Nahe, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Wurttemberg, Baden, Hessische Bergstrasse and Rheinhessen.

With the reunification of Germany, two other Anbaugebiet has since joined these regions: the Saale-Unstrut region near Leipzig and Sachsen in the Elbe valley near Dresden. As was true of the other regions, the rivers- here the Elbe, Unstrut and Saale rivers-are the focal points for grape growing in these areas. Also like the rest of Germany, 95% of their production is in white wines, but they are very small and account for less than one percent of the wine growing acreage in Germany.

Getting into more detail, each region or Anbaugebiet consists of one or more Bereichs, or sub regions. In turn, a Bereich can be divided into several Grosslagen, which are groups of vineyards. Finally, each Grosslage has a number of Einzellagen, which are single or individual vineyards.  

What many people find the most confusing is how to read German wine labels. German wine producers pack so much information onto their labels, and usually in that wonderful gothic script, that it can often lead to information overload. Actually, this information isn’t as difficult to interpret, as it might seem if you break the process of reading the label down into eight separate steps:

  1. Look for the region.
  2. Look for the vintage. Like other countries, Germany and each of its regions has good, bad and indifferent vintages.
  3. Look for the Bereich, Grosslage or Einzellage. As we mentioned with Bordeaux, the more specific the area, the more specific the style and, presumably, the better the wine in terms of quality.
  4. Look for the grape variety. It isn’t required on a German label but it is often mentioned. If you find that you come to have a favourite, such as Riesling, stick with it but try wines from different areas and different producers.
  5. Look for the style of the wine; be it dry, sweet, etc.
  6. Look for the quality level.
  7. Look for the testing number, which, if you want to get that specific, can tell you exactly who in Germany tested the wine and when.
  8. Look for the producer. As is true of wine throughout the world, good producers good wine. Read the reviews, try them yourself and find out with the most consistency.


      In Italy, wine is food. For centuries wine has been considered one of life’s everyday necessities. It is an integral part of the meal but does not distract you from the flavours. For this reason, most Italian wines are elegant and have subtle nuances of aroma and bouquet.

      Italy is the largest wine producer in the world. It has 20 major wine producing zones stretching the length of the country from 37 to 47 degrees north latitude, with a cool, alpine climate in the north to a Mediterranean climate in the south. It contains more than 1,165,000 registered wineries. In any given year, it produces 20 to 25 percent of the world’s total production. It is also the largest exporter, with 30 to 40 percent of the wines exported throughout the world coming from Italy.

      Italy’s reputation fro producing fine wines of extremely high quality has increased especially over the past 20 years. Some of the wines are called “Super Tuscans” and can command prices almost as high as some of the best Bordeaux and Burgundies.

      Italian wine laws are similar to French AOC wine law in that it controls the production area of a designated wine, production methods and grape varieties. The DOC or Denominazione di Origina Controllata are the wine laws that set these controls and maintain the high standards of the good and great wines found throughout Italy.

      Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita, or DOGG is a designation awarded only to fine wines from a specific region, made from specific grape varieties and achieving a high quality. These wines are analyzed by the ministry of Agriculture and must pass a taste test to prove that the wine is true to its style. This label is a consumer’s guarantee of quality.

      The most recent upgrading of Italian wine laws occurred in January of 1992. Law 164, also known as Gloria’s Law, sets up further and more specific subdivisions of the DOC and DOGG systems in order to keep up with the many new styles and varieties in use throughout Italy. With it comes the creation of Vino Tipico as a step between DOC wines and Vino da Tavola.

      Some of the more common words that appear on Italian wine labels, DOC or not, are listed below.

      In terms of style, the following identifies the type of wine you’re getting:

      Abboccato: semi-dry

      Frizzante: crackling

      Amabile: semi-sweet

      Nero: Deep red

      Amaro: dry, bitter

      Rosato: rose

      Bianco: White

      Rosso: red

      Chiaretto: light red

      Secco: dry

      Dolce: sweet

      Spumante: sparkling


      Vintages dates may be given on either the main label or the neck label. Vendemmia means vintage.

      The following is a brief description of some Italian wines, with the idea of giving you a more extensive vocabulary. Although this is more detailed than other sections in this handbook, it will be helpful because Italian wine terms can be complex.

      Amarone Classico: Also known as Recioto Della Valpolicella, Amarone Classico is wine from Veneto in Northern Italy. It is a ruby red wine, dry and rich in flavour. It is made from selected grapes from the tops and sides, or the “ears” of the bunches, as these have received the most direct sunlight. They are then dried slightly before fermented into wine thus giving the wine to accompany red meat and game.

      Barbaresco: Recognized as one of the classic Italian wines from Piedmont. Ruby red in colour, this wine may have the delicate aroma of violets. Made from the Nebbiolo grape, this wine is aged two years in large oak casks. If aged for three years it is labeled Riserva. Further bottle aging in a celler will soften the wine, leaving it powerful yet smooth. Best served with meat, pasta and game.

      Bardolino:  This is a wine produced in the Veneto region around the town of the same name. It is made from a number of grape varieties blended together, and is a dry red wine of medium to light body and colour.

      Barolo: one of Italy’s best wines from Piedmont made from Nebbiolo grape. This is a big, full-bodied wine with a complex bouquet that may include violets, tar, coffee beans and dark chocolate. It is aged for at least three years in oak casks and generally has high alcohol content.

      Castelli Romani: The name translates as Castles of Rome and it is indeed from an area southeast of Rome. Castelli Romani wines are dry, lighter style red and white wines, ready to drink young.

      Chianti: Form Tuscany, this is one of the best-known Italian reds. Traditionally made from five grape varieties, three red and two white. The red grapes give it body, flavour and colour, while the whites soften the flavour and lighten the colour intensity. At one time, after the wine was fermented, must from late harvest grapes used to be added in what is called the Governo Method. This process adds glycerin to the wine and makes it that much more round and supple. It is now considered too expensive a process for most Chianti producers.

      Cortese di Gavi:  From Piedmont, Cortese is the grape variety grown around the town of Gavi. Dry, medium bodied and well balanced, this wine is best when it is young and goes well with fish or white meat.

      Colli Albani: From the Latium region in central Italy, this is a light bodied white wine, pale straw in colour that is always ready for immediate consumption.

      Frascati: Also from Latium, this is a light bodied wine with a delicate aroma and a clean, dry taste.

      Lachtyma Christi: the name means “ the tears of Christ.”  The wine comes from the south of Italy. It is a dry, full flavoured white wine with a soft finish.

      Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo: Made from Montepulciano grapes in the Abruzzo area of central Italy, this is a medium bodied dry red that is good with pasta or meat dishes.

      Orvieto:  From the town of Orvieto in Umbria in central Italy, we find two styles of this wine-dry and sweet. The dry is clean, crisp and fairly light, and excellent with fish or seafood. The Abboccato is a slightly sweet style but very refreshing and suitable for sipping on its own.

      Rubesco: From the Umbria region, this red wine has a rich grapey taste, along with a full body and flavour that goes well with both sharp cheeses and roast meats.

      Soave: From the town of Soave in Veneto, this is dry, light well-balanced white wine from the Garganega grape. It is generally pale straw in colour with greenish highlights and goes well with seafood or pasta in a light sauce.

      Trocai Fruilano: A grape variety indigenous to the northern region of Friuli, it produces delicate, slightly fruity, dry white wine with a pleasant nuttiness in the finish.

      Tocai di Lison: The same variety as above, but this time grown in the Veneto region, producing much the same style of wine.

      Valpolicella: From Veneto, this is a dry red wine made from a blend of red grape varieties. Light red in colour with good fruit flavour, it is rather light in body and made to drink young. Amarone, as mentioned earlier, is made of the same varieties and in the same area but is much richer.

      Verdicchio: Named after the grape variety, Verdicchio comes from the Marches region on the Adriatic and is popular in Italy and abroad. It is sold in the distinctively shaped amphora style bottle that is often easier to remember than the name. This is a dry, well-balanced white wine that is excellent with fish and other seafood.

      Verduzzo: Is a white grape variety grown mainly in the northeastern area of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. A dry wine, it may have a slight aroma of almonds and will accompany a wide range of foods.

      Vino Nobile di Montepuliano: This is a full bodied dry red wine that has had some wood aging for a more complex flavour. It is well suited to be served with roast meats.

      There is much more to Italy’s diverse wine production than this. The varieties and wines you’ve read about elsewhere in this book- Cabernets, Chardonnays, Rieslings- while not necessarily native to Italy, are all grown there as well, and most of these are clearly labeled by their variety. An interesting tasting that you can set up for yourself and group of friends is to take one of these varieties and find examples from as many different countries as you can, and compare the similarities and differences.


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