Ultimately, wine is there to drink. But wine is complicated, and book learning helps sort it all
out. The hardest hurdle in wine learning is geography, since wine encompasses the entire
known world. This is best approached in easy chunks.
Starting at home, though every one of the United States has wineries and a number of
states—New York, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Virginia, Michigan and others—have important
wine industries—California is by far the most important force. Step one is to gain a broad
general knowledge of the state's wine geography: north, central and south. Step two is to dig
a little deeper into these regions, say, Napa, Sonoma, and Carneros in the north, or the Santa
Ynez valley in the south. Each of these areas has climatic issues which determine the types of
grapes that work, and those that don't (nearly every combination of dirt and grape has been
attempted in California.) The student should pay some attention to labeling issues (for
example, a wine labeled “Coastal” may be produced in areas so far inland that the Pacific
may well be hours away, traffic permitting.)
Australian wine names are easy to pronounce, but there are so many of them that they can get
a bit confusing. The best course is to try to distinguish a few of the major regions, like the
Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Barossa Valley in South Australia, or Margaret
River in Western Australia. South Australia is one of the country's states, with many fine
wine regions (Barossa for Shiraz, Eden Valley for Riesling, Coonawara for Cabernet, the
Limestone Coast for Chardonnay). “Southeastern Australia” is a catch-all term for mostly
bulk wine coming from a region as vast as a third of the United States.
The other southern hemisphere countries—New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and
Chile—cover a good deal of territory, but can fairly easily be broken down into major regions.
In New Zealand, for example, Hawke's Bay is known for its Bordeaux varieties like
Cabernet and Merlot, Gisborne produces quality Chardonnay, Marlborough excels at
Sauvignon Blanc, and Central Otago and Martinborough are making names for themselves
with their Pinot Noir.
The only way to make any sense of Italian wine is to first zero in on several areas that may
be confusing, which then leaves the subject merely complicated. We will begin in the
northwest, in Piemonte (Piedmont), and delve into some of the “Bar” wines. Barolo and
Barbaresco are villages, each of which gives its name to a red wine made from the
Nebbiolo grape. Barbera is a type of grape widely used in the same region. A Barbera
d'Alba is a red wine made from Barbera grapes from the town of Alba, which happens to be
right between Barolo and Barbaresco. A Barbera d'Asti is a red wine made near Asti, which
also produces the popular sparkling wine called Asti, which is white. Try not to get any of
these confused with Bardolino, a totally unrelated wine from the Veneto.
Another possible confusion: Brunello di Montalcino is a Tuscan wine made from the
Sangiovese grape. Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is another. Both wines are named after
villages. But Montepulciano also happens to be the name of a grape, giving its
name to wines from several other parts of Italy. Also note that the famous Tuscan wine
Chianti is based on the Sangiovese grape (though Chianti itself is doctoral study).
Italian wine is so much more, but enough language for the time being. Barolo, Barbaresco,
and Brunello are so expensive, that these three alone will exhaust most budgets; you can
console yourself with the affordable Asti, and move on the France.
The easiest way to “chunk” France is to isolate the major regions that are associated with the
international grape varieties known so well worldwide.
Bordeaux red wines are based on either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, with a few common
blending partners like Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot.
Burgundy red wines are almost entirely Pinot Noir. Burgundy white wines are generally
Chardonnay (though a Chablis, from north Burgundy, a Meursault or Puligny-Montrachet
from central Burgundy and a Pouilly-Fuissé from southern Burgundy all show different
manifestations of this adaptable international grape). South of Burgundy proper, Beaujolais
uses the Gamay grape.
In Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes are used but
elementary-level study dictates you also learn how the bubbly is produced, and how it is
The northern Rhône favors Syrah, the southern Rhône Grenache (with many other blending
partners in either case). The Rhône white Viognier grape is becoming increasingly
In the Loire, the white grapes Chenin Blanc (in the center) and Sauvignon Blanc (eastwards)
make the biggest splash. Red Loire wines favor Cabernet Franc.
The rest of France, the south, the southwest, Alsace, the Jura and Savoie are worthy of higher
level study, but have less international effect. The same can be said of Spain and Portugal;
don't ignore them, but study them next semester. Germany gives us the international grape
Riesling, which you must know in order to claim to know anything about wine. Read about
Riesling, and drink varieties from Germany, Alsace, California, Washington State, Australia
The obvious next step now that you've learned the geographic and historical context of the
international grapes is to learn how they differ across the world. This is when you put away
your reading glasses, and dust off your wine glasses. Sauvignon Blanc may be the most
enjoyable first test for this; try one from France (Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé), California, South
Africa, and a few from New Zealand. A Syrah-based Rhône wine, a California Syrah, and an
Australian Shiraz (same grape) from the Barossa Valley, will have similarities and
differences. Comparing Pinot Noir wines from Burgundy, Oregon, and New Zealand may
make for a similarly enjoyable learning experience. Of course you should compare wines
from Bordeaux (and here it can get expensive) with Cabernet and Merlot offerings (especially
blends) from California, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and do the same thing with
oaked and unoaked Chardonnays from around the planet. The best way to pace yourself is by
drinking when you've had too much to read, and of course reading when you've had too
much to drink.