The production and consumption of wine is something of a worldwide process, with almost every continent in the world either exporting or drinking wine. From the world-famous wine regions of France to the much lesser known viticulture in China, you could spend a lifetime learning about, and of course sampling, different wines from every corner of the world.
In this article, we’ll share a little about worldwide winemaking history, as well as the most important things you need to know about wine-producing countries across the globe.
A brief history of wine around the world
Areni-1 Winery is a cave over 6000 years old which is believed to be the earliest wine-producing facility, located in Armenia.
If we skip forward to around 1200 BC, we see the first wines being traded between countries, marking the beginning of a huge import and export business. As of 2017, the total value of the global wine industry is more than 300 million United States Dollars. Imagine what the Phoenicians would think about that, who started by transporting wine in ceramic jugs across the Mediterranean from North Africa to Greece and Italy.
400 years later, the Greeks have perfected the beverage and loved it so much they named Dionysus the God of wine. The country of Greece was also becoming more powerful during this time, and in colonizing the surrounding areas, carried grapevines and wine production to Italy.
Rome, by 146BC, was much more powerful than Greece and had also become obsessed with this delicious drink. This history is probably what lead Italy to be the world’s top wine-producing country to this day. Anyway, the Romans conquered even more of Europe and brought wine to modern-day France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and most of the rest of Europe. In the year 380, wine production in the Roman Empire takes a turn.
The entire area adopts the religion of Christianity, and wine evolves from a simple beverage to a sacramental and holy drink. The great advantage of this is that the church and its monks dedicated an incredible amount of time and resources into perfecting the craft of winemaking, giving us the process that we use today.
In the 1500s, wine is brought to the new world, specifically to Mexico and Brazil, by the Spanish Conquistadors. From these locations, the drink spread across South America to some of today’s most successful wine-producing countries.
Not long after, the Portuguese brought wine to Japan, and meanwhile, wine came to the USA for the first time. Unfortunately, the first wines made and drank in America (in Florida) were produced using native fruits, instead of European grape varieties. These wines weren’t very pleasant and promptly stopped production.
A more successful attempt to introduce wine to the USA happened at the beginning of the 1800s when the Spanish brought grapevines to California. Franciscan monks actually established the very first winery here in Sonoma, in 1805. A fleet of ships traveled from the UK, via South Africa (which is now a highly successful wine-producing country) picking up some grape cuttings, to Australia. This quickly spread to New Zealand, and so another two of today’s favorite wine-producing countries are born.
When China opened up its economy in 1980, French wine, followed by French people to produce wine, quickly spread throughout the country. In a period of about 30 years, China then became one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of wine. So, barring Antarctica, that very briefly explains how wine spread from a tiny area of Europe to every continent on the planet. Now let’s dive deeper into the wine-producing countries of the world, starting from where it all began…Europe!
Wine production in Europe
Just under half of the entire world’s wine production happens in only three countries in Europe; France, Italy, and Spain. These three have been leaders in for millennia, exporting favorite and famous bottles of wine. The European Union as a group of countries produced the most wine in the world, with an average annual production of a huge 167 million hectolitres.
In fact, 60% of all global consumption happens in this relatively small group of countries, and that doesn’t even include European countries that aren’t in the Union.
Italians do it best
According to the latest data, Italian wine is the most produced in the entire world, it makes up a quarter of global production. The country has a rich winemaking history that dates back to before the Roman Empire and is responsible for Christianity’s sacrament of wine all over the world. There are over 500 different varieties of grapes planted in over a million vineyards across the country, and each wine region in Italy produces its own specialty.
In northern Italy, the region of Piedmont is world-renowned for Moscato wine, sweet white wine with notes of peach, orange blossom, and elderflower. Arguably the most famous and well-known wine produced in Italy is, of course, Prosecco. This delicate Italian bubbly comes from the Veneto region and is made using the Glera grape. When it comes to Italian red, the island of Sicily is probably most influential. Here, the decedent Nero d’Avola is produced, an incredibly fruity and rich wine that’s actually great for making Sangria.
The French have mastered the art of wine
French wine regions are some of the famous around the globe, you’ve probably heard of them, and you’re also probably aware of how expensive they can be. The Burgundy wine region in eastern France produces some of the most expensive and finest wines in the world. On a list of the 50 priciest bottles, 32 are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Burgundy in France.
We can’t discuss French wine without mentioning Champagne, which is often misconstrued as the name of a type of sparkling wine. It is in actuality, the name of a region in France, where the most famous fizzy wine in the world is made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.
Bordeaux is another incredibly well-known winemaking region, no matter where in the world you’re from. France as a whole owes a lot of its success to this area, as the easy access to the sea meant Bordeaux wines were easily exported to England and other countries. This region in France is the largest wine-producer in the entire world, where red wines like Merlot and Cabernet dazzle and bulldoze the competition.
However, due to the size of the region, wines can be inconsistent in their quality depending on the year of the vintage. Where a Burgundy wine is almost a sure bet when it comes to taste, you might find that the occasional Bordeaux is outshone by wines across the water from California.
The Spanish don’t just drink sangria
Spain is a country heavily varied in climate and terrain, an aspect which is reflected in the country’s wines. Their classification system is much less structured than neighboring France, which allows room for more experimentation when it comes to the wine production process. This leads to more exciting and varied wines but can also make the bottles and vintages slightly less reliable when it comes to taste and quality. Here, single-origin wines are much less popular, and blends made from mixed grapes are preferred.
Traditionally, Spanish wine is oak-aged in American wood, however, newer approaches are leading to the popularisation of less mature wines, or ones aged in French oak. Spanish wine producers are best known for their fruity reds like those from Rioja, a fine wine region that was for a long time the countries most successful. Tempranillo is the most common grape variety from this region, however, you’ll also find Grenache in the form of some stellar rose. Spanish Cava is another highly popular export from Catalonia, which also produces some notable Cabernet Sauvignon.
The rest of Europe
As we’ve mentioned, wine grapes are grown and fermented all over Europe, it’s not just these three huge producers that export wine in Europe. For example, Germany has recently overtaken South Africa in wine production, where white wines are most popular by far. The most common name in German wine is Riesling, a highly acidic white that comes both sweet and very dry. Portugal is another incredibly successful European wine-producing country, with Portuguese Vinho Verde the third largest wine region on the continent.
In Eastern Europe; Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia all have their own wine production. This area is often seriously underrated when it comes to this delicious alcoholic beverage, you’ll actually find some of the oldest winemaking traditions in the world here. Greece, of course, has it’s own very special winemaking heritage, however, this arguable origin of wine has been long-overshadowed by its more successful winemaking neighbors.
The United States has it all
As we mentioned before, the world’s three largest wine-producing countries make up just under half of the world’s total production, and America is number four. If we add in the USA’s 23.9 million hectoliters (as of 2018) then these four countries make up well over half. A
lmost every state in the US produces wine in some way, but California makes the most with a landslide of almost 90%. Californian wines are on par with much older wine regions in Europe, impressive considering winemaking has only been happening for a few centuries in America. Vintages produced here, as well as in other non-European countries, are called New World wines.
In the 1930s, Prohibition means many prized vineyards were ripped up from the earth, and wine production was halted for many years. However, winemaking was destined to return to the country, and in less than a hundred years, the US has gone from having a wine consumption of zero to the largest consumption by volume by a single country in the world.
Napa and Sonoma are the dominating regions in California as well as the whole US, where the wineries are visitor-friendly and leaders in worldwide wine tourism. The most common wines here are oaky whites and flavorful reds, and the most popular grape by far is Zinfandel. Cabernet Sauvignon is also a common grape variety grown in California, but the best-known producers are still those exporting Zinfandel.
Outside of the Sunshine State, there are several other notable wine-producing locations in the US. Oregon, for example, has gained a reputation in Pinot Noir and highly aromatic white wines. This state is often compared in climate to the French wine region of Burgundy, but it actually benefits from more consistent weather. Washington state produces excellent Merlot and Chardonnay, where the Cascade Mountains act as a highly useful geological barrier from unwanted summer rains.
South America’s diverse wine territory
Wines made in South America are very different from New World wines made further north. Here, over 500 years of winemaking history has lead to the production of stylish and varied wines. Argentina and Chile are the leaders on this continent, however other countries like Brazil are definitely on the rise. Some of the most commonly planted grape varieties in South America include Bonarda in Argentina and Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.
Argentina loves Malbec
Argentinian wine is the fifth most prolific in the world, annually 14.5 million hectoliters are produced. Most vineyards in Argentina are located just below the Andes, where grapevines are watered in a singular and magical manner; by melting snow from the mountains. Due to the altitude, temperatures during night and day differ greatly, and this leads to full-bodied and highly structured wines. Red wines from Argentina like Malbec are highly successful, however, the aromatic Torrontes is making a name in Argentine white wine.
Chile’s got that fertile land
Chile has a singular wine industry in that it is, for the most part, completely isolated. The entire country is surrounded by either desert, mountains, or the ocean, leaving Chilean wine producers unafraid of the threat of disease to their vines. Red wines from Chile are extremely popular because of their warm, easily drinkable, and inexpensive nature, with grape varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon finding much success on the world market. Chile’s own grape variety, Carmenere, is also of excellent quality, with a predicted rise in popularity for the whole country to come. Although it’s known for its red wines, the country produces some excellent whites in the form of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Australian’s love their wine
In the land down under, most would recommend sampling a Shiraz or perhaps a Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine is produced in every state in the vast country of Australia, so you can find something for every taste here. The huge variance in climate leads to big variety in terroir, so you can find almost every type of wine in Australia. Tasmania, for example, produces some world-class Pinot Noir. You can find a cheap and cheerful bottle of almost every grape variety from Australia, from Merlot to Riesling.
New Zealand do as well
New Zealand is another country where the varied climate lends itself wonderfully to grape-growing. Their wine production is small at 3 million hectoliters a year, but this hasn’t stopped New Zealand from making itself a respectable name in wine. If you were to define the country with only a single wine, it would have to be Sauvignon Blanc produced in Marlborough. This white wine is undoubtedly among the finest in the world, a crisp, aromatic, and dry fruity beverage.
South Africa and white wine
South Africa, since its colonization by the Dutch East India Company, is the only wine-producing country of note on the African continent. Vineyards and winemaking all center around the capital of Cape Town, where the climate is similar to that of the Mediterranean, perfect for growing grapes. The most common white grape planted in South Africa is Chenin Blanc, whereas white wine is most often made from the countries own hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault called Pinotage.
China is making a comeback
Chinese wine is incredibly popular domestically, but very little is exported to the rest of the world. Approximately 9.1 million hectoliters of wine are produced annually in China, but in the west, we know very little about it. Changyu Pioneer Wine is one of the largest wine companies in the world, however, generally Chinese wines can’t compete on price outside their own country. Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular grape, and China’s wine is often fruit-forward and easy to enjoy with food. We hope to see more wine from China on western shelves in the coming years.
We could write endlessly on the wine-producing countries of the world, as there is so much fascinating history and tradition and flavor to discuss. However, we’ll conclude this relatively brief guide to the most prolific winemaking countries here.
You know have a decent idea of how wine, as we know it today, spread all over the globe, and where the most popular and most delicious wines available are produced. Why not use this information to mix up your usual glass, and try a new variety from a different country today.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to see how the biggest wine-producing countries have changed over the years!