Australia's wine glut is legendary -- we are the home of the cleanskin and the four litre goon bag for a reason. With so much local wine flooding the shelves of our local bottle stores and restaurant wine lists, it's no wonder we don't see more French, Italian and South American wine on our shelves. When we do, it can be hard to make sense of what the labels mean -- and that's if they're even in English at all.
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Last time we covered the Australian wine award system, and before that, some of Australia's favourite wine varieties -- neither of which hold any relevance here. Be warned as we delve deeper into Part 4 of Lifehacker's wine guide to explore the world of international wines: this is uncharted territory for those of us who are used to Australian wines.
Starting our international wine tour with France makes the most sense: it's a country with one of the longest and most complicated histories of wine. France is the home of the wine snob, and its wine industry is regulated strictly -- with everything down to the precise design, placement and even font size on their labels adhering to strict standards. Here in Australia we used to use many of their terms for certain blends of wine -- Burgundy, Hermitage, and Champagne amongst many others -- until use of the French names for non-French wines was disallowed in 1992. This is for one main reason, which is also key to understanding French wines: everything is named by region, instead of grape variety.
Wine regions in France are known as 'appellations', certified by a designation called 'appellation d'origine contrôlée' or AOC. You'll see this in some form or another on most French wine bottles. There are over 300 French wines with an AOC designation and it would take multiple articles to fit them all in, so I'm going to stick to a few of the French regions whose exports will most often be found on Australian shelves.
Bordeaux is France's largest wine region, and one of its most well-known exports. Almost 90 percent of the region grows red grapes, with most of this being Merlot, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Most Bordeaux AOC wines will be largely made up of Merlot. Whites produced in Bordeaux, sold under a Bordeaux Blanc AOC, are dominated by Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon -- but don't expect a New Zealand style Sauv from this region. Bordeaux whites tend to be far oakier than new world Sauv Blancs.
Burgundy is known in French as Bourgogne, so first and foremost it's important to remember that these two interchangeable names refer to the same region. The region is home to some of the most expensive wines in the world, if that's what you're into, but it's still possible to find a nice Burgundy at a bargain. The main red grape grown in Burgundy is Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay-dominated AOC of Chablis is also technically a part of Burgundy, but is more commonly referred to under its own name. For a good French Chardonnay, Chablis wines are easy to come by in Australia, and can even be found at a decent price.
One of the most common French wines I've encountered in Australian bottle shops has to be the Côtes du Rhône AOC from the Rhône Valley. It's an easy drinking red that's mainly made up of Shiraz and Grenache and can be picked up at bargain prices. If you're looking to impress someone with a fancy French wine but don't want to break your budget, a Côtes du Rhône is always a safe bet.
The Loire Valley is one of France's better known white wine regions, specialising in Chenin Blanc, Sauvingnon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne -- a white variety which I've not yet seen being grown in Australia. The region also produces a number of sparkling wines, rosé and dessert wines.
I've neglected to mention many regions and AOCs of course -- including that ubiquitous French staple, Champagne -- but these are some of the names that you're most likely to encounter. There are also a growing number of French wines that refuse to conform to the stuffy old system. Indeed, one of my favourite French cheapies, "The Arrogant Frog", doesn't have an AOC designation at all. Instead it is made under the Indication Géographique Protégée designation, which gives winemakers much more freedom to experiment.
Italy follows in France's footsteps with their denominazione di origine controllata, or DOCG, designation, which has the same meaning as France's AOC. Italy is a little more reserved, however, with only 73 DOCG designations. Possibly the most well-known of these is Chianti, which -- contrary to what I believed for many years -- is not a grape variety, but a region in Tuscany that makes Sangiovese-dominated wines. The sun-bathed countryside in Tuscany also excels at producing popular red varieties like Cab Sauv and Merlot.
Whites are also quite big in Italy, with top quality Pinot Grigio being produced in a number of regions such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and the Trentino Alto-Adige region that sits right up next to the Alps. Italy also does a number of whites that are less common in Australia, such as the rich, Chardonnay-esque Soave from the northern Veneto region, and Trebbiano, Italy's most produced white grape.
If sweet wine is your thing, then Italy also has you covered for that. Unfortunately the Italian favourite Lambrusco has earned itself a bad name recently, with Australian shelves being filled with the cheap stuff more often than not. If you can find a Lambrusco above the $8 mark then it's definitely worth a try -- and even the cheap wines make a good summer drink, served up punch-style with ice and fruit. Italy is also the home of Moscato, with the Moscato d'Asti style originating in the Piedmont region. Prior to trying a proper Italian Moscato, I never would have thought that such a sweet wine would be worth a $30 price tag, but I'm happy to say I stand corrected on that front.
Other European Regions
While Germany has a decent wine industry, not much of it makes its way to Australia aside from one or two iconic German wines. Most of the wine in Germany is produced along the river Rhine in the west of Germany, and is largely known for its elegant, aromatic whites. The German wine you're most likely to encounter in Australia is Riesling, which can vary from dry to sweet and aromatic. Another popular German variety is the Gewürztraminer, a highly aromatic wine that can also be made in a semi sweet style. A blend of both of these is also quite popular, generally known as a Traminer Riesling.
Austria no longer exports as much wine as it once did, thanks in large part to the so-called 'Austrian Wine Scandal' of 1985. At the time Austria exported a lot of sweet 'late harvest' style wines, but winemakers were constantly looking for a way to create this style of wine without the extra time that a true late harvest wine required. So they started adding diethylene glycol -- a major ingredient of antifreeze -- to sweeten their wine. When this practice was found out, it meant that most countries stopped importing Austrian wine, including Australia, and their entire industry almost collapsed. As a result of this scandal, however, Austria's wine industry has gone through a complete overhaul, including much stricter rules governing winemaking and a complete change of style from sweet whites to primarily dry whites. While Austrian wines are still hard to come by, they're well worth a try if you can find them.
Spain's most well-known grape is the Tempranillo -- which is increasingly becoming one of Australia's favourite varieties as well. The Spanish wine region you will most often encounter in Australian stores is 'Rioja', which denotes a mainly Tempranillo blend with some Garnarcha -- also known as Grenache. Australia gets quite a few sub $10 young Riojas which are quite drinkable on their own, but also perfect for a summertime jug of Sangria.
Spain is also the home of Sherry -- which isn't just for your grandparents anymore. Often overlooked because of the abundance of cheap one-litre Sherry flagons, Spain actually does some truly exceptional fortified whites such as Pedro Ximenez, a rich dessert style wine which is closer to some of Australia's best stickies than your grandma's cheap Sherry.
New World Regions
While Australia is one of the biggest New World wine regions, the others are not to be discounted either. Unfettered by the years and years of rules and regulations that traditional winemakers in Europe sill adhere to, some of the best new experimental wines come out of these New World regions. Thankfully most of them have similar standards of labelling to Aussie wines -- you're far more likely to see a variety name on a label then a region -- but it's well worth knowing which country does which wine the best.
Looking at market share in Australia alone, South America is by far the biggest New World import we see. Winemaking in South America is clustered on both sides of the Andes, with Chilean wine regions settling to the west, and Argentinian ones to the east. Of particular note are the Argentinian Malbecs that have been increasingly popular in the Australian market of late. While Argentina has a long winemaking history stretching back to Spanish occupation in the 16th century, it has only recently come to prominence as a wine region of note -- at least to the Australian consumer. Look out for wines from the Mendoza Province, Argentina's best winemaking region. You'll also find Argentinian Syrah (Shiraz), Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon, although for the latter you might be wise to look a little further to the west, to Chile. Chile makes some of South America's best Cab Sauvs, with good quality wines to be found even around the $10 mark. It is South America's biggest wine producer, having also begun winemaking in the early 17th century thanks to the Spanish conquistadors. Alongside its famous Cab Sauvs, Chile produces a lot of Merlot, as well as another red variety called Carmenère. One thing that's certain is that red wines are flourishing in the valleys that border the Andes.
Although American wines can be very similar in style to Australian wines, we don't see much of them in our bottle shops. The USA's most successful and popular wine varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Zinfandel -- a red grape variety that is a little bit like a softer Shiraz. If you find US wines in Australia, I can almost guarantee that they will be one of these three varieties. Think about trying the Chardonnay, as this is the variety that proved American winemakers could stand on equal ground with the French in the infamous 'Paris Wine Tasting of 1976' -- an event that ended up being the subject of a Hollywood film. The practice of listing varietals instead of regions also originated from this tumultuous period, when American winemakers sought to distinguish themselves from the European competition by making their wine labels easier for the average person to understand.
While South Africa is a newly emerging wine region, we have yet to see any truly outstanding wines make it over to Australia. That's not to say they don't exist, just that we're not importing them yet. Instead you can expect to see wines around the $8 to $20 mark, with Cabernet Sauvignon one of the top picks for the country. Just like in Australia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are also popular white varieties.