Part of the allure of wine is knowing that it comes from a faraway land. A land where English isn’t dominant and where 5th, 6th or even 7th generation winemakers are making wine just as their forefathers did. But that mystique is also part of the problem when it comes to old world wine grape varieties. How are you to know what kind of wine it is – if the grape variety isn’t specified on the label? 

For the general wine drinker, European wines labels appear to be vague. In actuality, when the label states the country and region that it’s from, it’s telling you exactly what’s inside the bottle. You just need to understand the labelling language.

Piecing the Puzzle Together

Generally speaking, European regions are limited (by law) to growing certain grapes. It’s knowing which grapes are grown where that is key! Keep in mind that most regions (indicated in CAPS on the left hand side below) make both red and white wine. However in the charts I’ve created, the colour indicated is the dominant, or most popular style the region is known for.

We’re going to start in France because surprisingly, the French wine landscape is a smidge easier to wrap your head around. That’s because most regions use international varieties. 

And it should be obvious, but these lists are by no means comprehensive. There are always more regions to discuss and varietals to try.

France old world wine grape varieties

Don’t Be Afraid of Italy

Actually, it’s ok to be a little afraid of Italy. Even I’m a bit apprehensive about it sometimes! Italy is home to 20 regions and hundreds of indigenous grape varieties. But here’s a snapshot of the ones you’d likely happen upon in a wine shop.

Italy old world wine grape varieties

Showing Lots of Love for Spain

I’m in the midst of doing my Spanish Wine Scholar accreditation through the Wine Scholar Guild – so I’m showcasing it a little heavier than I need to. You can skim if you want, just keep in mind that La Rioja is an important one. I’ve chosen to leave out Sherry because it’s such a monster of a subject.

Simplifying Portugal

I’ve talked in length about Portugal previously, so I won’t get too heavy into it here. With more than 250 native grapes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae. Today, we’re going to stick to the 2 regions you’re most likely to see when perusing a wine shelf.

Portugal old world wine grape varieties

I hope this helps simplify your wine shopping. Just remember, when it comes to old world wine grape varieties, it’s only as complicated as you want it to be. No matter how many varietals you can name, it’s all just wine and is meant to be enjoyed!