Unlike Europe, most of the countries included in the "New World" of wine don't have the centuries-old traditions of winemaking, so each area has kind of made it up as they went along. Most of the original plantings came from European immigrants, who basically planted their clippings where they landed. Clearly over the years certain areas have proven better than others, however, these countries still don't really have any stringent legislation to speak of regarding what or how wine is made.
Because they have generally good, warm weather, they aren't really limited in which grapes they can grow. While the freedom to experiment is a good thing, there's no way to actually judge quality except by price (not always reliable) and reviews from respected organizations, which only cover a drop in the bucket. While almost every country in the world produces wine, I've only included the ones here that produce quality wines you might actually encounter without much effort.
- UNITED STATES: Like most countries, Americans are the leading consumers of their own homegrown wines. US wines aren't really exported heavily, with the obvious exception of the big names. In fact, even in the US, due to outdated laws most states are unable to ship their wines to each other. US labels are pretty straight-forward. The winery's name is usually the most prominent with the name of the grape underneath. Sometimes a region or even a specific vineyard will be listed. The only real law is that if the grape name is on the bottle, i.e. Chardonnay, the wine has to contain at least 75% chardonnay. The rest is up to the winemaker.
There are no laws governing the terms "Estate" or "Reserve." Most labeled "estate" wines are generally grown on the property the winery is set-up on and not blended with grapes from other regions. Reserve wines always cost more because the winery has either selected special grapes for that wine or aged it a specific way or length of time. These decisions are solely up to each winery and vary tremendously. It's up to you to decide whether the extra money is worth the effort. Though Cab is king in Napa, the US grows every conceivable varietal in one region or another.
PRIME REGIONS: Napa Valley, Sonoma County, Central Coast (Santa Barbara & Paso Robles, CA), Oregon and Washington.
- AUSTRALIA: With a country as big as the United States, but with only a tenth of the population, Australia has been at the forefront of the New World when it comes to marketing their wines. Their biggest sellers are Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, with Riesling and Rhone blends (which they call GSMs) viable seconds. Much of what you see in grocery stores are their large brand bottlings labeled from South Australia, sort of Down Under's version of 2-Buck-Chuck, though of better quality in my opinion. Once you get a regional designation Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra, etc. a varietal name and vintage, their wine laws stipulate that 85% of the wine in the bottle must be what's stated on the label, which restricts any random blending. There are no specifics laws governing Estate or Reserve labeling terms.
They are almost as famous for the odd names they call their wines as the wines themselves and are at the forefront of the screwtop movement. This is very hot and dry region, so their wines generally run on the ripe to overripe end of the spectrum. There is elegance and complexity to be had, you're just going to have to pay more for it. The most famous wine to come from the country is Penfolds Grange, a syrah-based wine that begins at around $250 per bottle.
PRIME REGIONS: Barossa, Hunter, Clare and Eden Valleys, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Margaret River and Adelaide Hills.
- NEW ZEALAND: Most of this country is too mountainous or cold to grow grapes, however, there are 10 regions pushing the envelope. Their focus is mainly on Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc (grapes that like cooler temps), with a smattering of Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot grown as well. The country has been growing grapes for over 100 years and has over 500 wineries, though most are fairly small and local.
Their largest growth has been in the last 20 years, especially in the region of Marlborough, which has garnered international attention for its' bracingly crisp Sauvignon Blancs. Hawkes Bay and Gisbourne are highly touted for their Chardonnays and Wellington and Central Otago for their Pinots. Giesen and Villa Maria are two of the largest producers, with over 50% of the other wineries making fairly limited quantities. You'll need to go to a fairly large wine store to get more than the usual three or four bottle selection. Most NZ wines begin around $15 because they don't have the product or marketing for inexpensive bottlings.
- CHILE: Though grapes have been grown in Chile since the Europeans brought them into the country in the 1500s with great success, since the turn of the last century politics kept their industry in the dark and off the world market until the early 1980s. There are 13 different regions with wines from the Rapel, Maipo and Casablanca Valleys garnering the most critical acclaim. The bulk of their production is in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. They are also the only country making significant amounts of wine from the grape Carmenere. Because land and labor costs are so much cheaper there, they are able to produce quality wine for inexpensive prices. A great region to explore to find everyday values of the classics.
- ARGENTINA: Like Chile, much of the grapes and winemaking tradition of this country came from European immigrants. Though wine has been made here for over a hundred years it wasn't until the 1990s that it began to really hit the world market. In the last decade the Mendoza region has become famous for its' Malbecs, a red Bordeaux grape used mostly for blending around the rest of the world. Here it has distinct varietal characteristics that are helping Argentinian wines gain international attention. The main white wine is made from a local grape called Torrontes, which is one of my new favorites for its' aromatic and fruit-forward flavors. Though they have a D.O. system, it only applies to the regions of San Rafeal and Lujan de Cuyo. As for their labels, what you see is what you get.
- SOUTH AFRICA: This country's Mediterranean climate has been home to vinyeards for over 300 years, though they used to make mostly brandy and fortified wines. That changed in the last century and dry wines are now the bulk of their production. Their wine legislation ensures the labeling accuracy, guaranteeing that at least 75% of the grape and vintage are in the wine that's claimed on the bottle. The bulk of their wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinotage (a local cross of PInot Noir and Cinsault), Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, which is their most popular white. The Coastal Region produces the highest quality wines from the districts of Stellenbosch and Constantia, as well as the wards of Paarl and Walker Bay. Though they are becoming easier to find, the wines produced are not exactly cheap. Whites are in the $10-$20 ranges with most reds beginning at $20+.