Just one sip of wine can expose you to a whole new world. No, really!
I’m fortunate to live in a state that has a pretty solid local wine production, but not everyone can claim the same.
What are the top producing wine regions in the world and how did they get to that coveted spot? Let’s take a look below so you can better enjoy your next glass.
1. Napa Valley, California
You don’t even have to be a wine connoisseur to know about Napa Valley. It’s a downright legendary wine-producing region, with the romantic rolling hills and lush vineyards that come with the title.
It’s not just a popular industry: it’s a way of life. One of California’s most famous wine-related destinations is the Wine Train, designed as a tour with an extra kick: you get to try out aged wine varieties, travel through the countryside and see firsthand why the Golden State sits at the top spot. At least, before the coronavirus hit. Wine production isn’t just calculated by the amount, either, but where it sits in terms of quality. From careful cultivation to fine aging, the slightest tweak can affect the final bottle.
As such, statistics from this famous wine-producing region may come off as contradictory. That’s because Napa Valley prides itself on quality over quantity. NapaVinters states less than 0.5% of the world’s wine production comes from this wine-producing region, with just under 5% contributing to California on the whole.
Its unique climate combined with its rigorous advocacy programs means every bottle is one you won’t soon forget. It’s funny I only got into wine after I left California. Then again, I wouldn’t have been able to drink it as a teenager…
Napa Valley boasts a quality over quantity approach, with a focus on cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and merlot.
2. Sonoma, California
Here’s another name you might’ve glimpsed while browsing the grocery store aisle. Sonoma (also known as Sonoma County) is a prestigious title with a lot of hard work behind it.
Just how much hard work? USA Wine Ratings explores the different regions in California and how Sonoma stacks up on quality and a production level.
Five hundred wineries under this label are strewn about the northern part of California, working tirelessly to maintain its name in a very competitive industry. This is also despite recent wildfires and climate change (and I even got the opportunity to taste wine affected by wildfires at a winetasting event).
Pinot noir is the reigning champion here, though you can also find sauvignon blanc and sparkling wines.
If you’re more curious about the history of the Sonoma wine-producing region, Sonoma Wines is the ultimate repository. Their vintners (another term for winemaker) have been around since the 1800s, working within a highly complex region that has several climates bundled up into one.
This means they can really bring out the potential of each grape variety without cutting corners. They’ve even separated their achievements by the decade, eventually totaling a stunning sixty different grape varieties planted in their soil.
If you’re a fan of pinot noir, chardonnay, or cabernet sauvignon, a Sonoma creation should be the next bottle you reach for.
3. Columbia Valley, Washington
I have to give my current stomping grounds some love! While California is the undisputed champion of high-quality wine production in the United States, Washington follows very close behind.
I went to a few wine tasting events, as well as wine shops, last year. When it comes to sheer prestige, Columbia Valley takes the cake. Wine Folly is one of my favorite websites for breakdowns on wine, their history, and their varieties.
This piece talks about Washington and how it got to its number two spot on the American wine production list, making a special note for its incredible rieslings. I can personally attest to this, as one of my absolute favorite rieslings of all time comes right from my city.
Enjoying local wine is a way to get in touch with your state and its unique approach to a classic method. It’s not just the grape varieties that change the flavor, but planting, cultivation, and the special touch of hard workers. USA Wine Ratings further breaks down the complex details behind Columbia Valley, relatively recent compared to other wine-producing regions and no less impressive.
A curious detail about this location is its presence in a regular rain shadow, which is then used to provide more ideal temperatures to help farmers cultivate grapes at the right time.
Columbia Valley of Washington is the best wine-producing region for dry white wines.
4. Champagne, France
Here’s one wine that doesn’t need any explanation. This is the envious claim to fame of the crisp and bubbly champagne from Champagne, a staple of many an office party and wedding reception.
Think you can just pick up any bottle and call it a day? Consider taking a pause and reading about the difference. France Bubble Tours touches on the highly specific rule set needed to define the original champagne from all the rest, including the pinpointed areas defined by France’s food certification AOC.
Quality control is designed not to waste your time, but to keep you from wasting your dollars. While the style of champagne can be mimicked quite closely, authentic bottles must come from within the region’s boundaries.
Visiting this legendary wine-producing region is considered a must for wine fans. CNTraveler has a great list detailing what you should and shouldn’t do during your stay, including a list of ideal harvest times and timing your meals strategically. While I usually prefer crisp white wines and robust red wines myself, I can see the appeal. I might just have to buy some champagne and save it for a special occasion (like my favorite show coming out with a new season).
Champagne is the wine-producing region for none other than the finest bubbly.
5. Burgundy, France
Why stop there? Where there’s champagne, there’s often chardonnay, and nowhere is a better wine-producing region than where the grapes came from in the first place.
This luscious white grape variety is among the most well-known in the wine world, so much so it serves as a gateway for most beginners. Wine Folly explores how the Burgundy region gave birth to this famous variety, from the classic white Burgundy (that you might’ve already tried without knowing it) to the Sauvignon Blanc. This wine-producing region goes beyond mere name recognition, however. It’s ascended to fame on its delectable flavor notes and brilliant food pairings by today’s most experienced sommeliers. These wine experts are often found at today’s best restaurants and hotels.
The ever-reliable Wines.com has a great breakdown on the appeal of chardonnay as both a complex and light wine variation. Not unlike specialty coffee beans, much of this flavor comes not from the grapes themselves, but all the surrounding elements. Terroir, barrel, cultivation methods, you name it. The range of flavors goes from sweet vanillas to more tangy, even sour, fruits.
You can even find husky, smoky varieties if you seek out wine bottles a little further outside the region.
Seek out white wine from Burgundy to taste history and perfection at the same time.
6. Lombardy, Italy
There’s nothing quite like popping open a twinkling, bubbly wine on a lazy Sunday. Who says you have to wait until a special occasion?
Lombardy is the wine-producing region for sparkling wine lovers. Also known as Lombardia, this gorgeous Italian location extended beyond its borders into a household name for doing things differently.
Wine Searcher takes a look at the varied geography and weather that gives the grapes the juice they need (pun intended) to send your tastebuds spinning. The recently recognized pinot grigio has garnered a fine reputation, with several white grape varieties being considered must-tries.
If you’re not familiar with Italian wine (everyone has to start somewhere!), Wine Mag has a brisk breakdown to help you get started. They go into how to read a wine label, the most popular wine-producing regions in the country (including Lombardy), and the differences between farms.
Keep in mind that riserva, the label used to denote a particularly finely aged wine, is often overused to the point of being meaningless. It’s the same reason why gourmet is slapped onto gummi bears and cheap chocolate at grocery stores.
Next time you’re craving, get your sparkling wine kick from the Lombardy region of Italy.
7. Chianti, Italy
Is Tuscany on your travel bucket list? If you’re getting into wine for the first time, it might just have to be. This is an iconic location for history’s, and today’s, very best red wines.
Reverse Wine Snob is quick to acknowledge just how layered, even convoluted, Chianti classification is. You could make a good argument that applies to the wine industry as a whole! Their breakdown numbers the regions within this region, more commonly referred to as zones.
Consider investing in a Chianti that’s been finely aged and comes from a specific zone to test your palate, which doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank. Bonus points if you’re a fan of the classic Hannibal movies and want to make a tired joke at your next get-together over Zoom.
Wine Mag has a fascinating article on the history behind Chianti and how its quality ended up doing it in a few centuries back. They talk about how winemaking and winetasting standards are notoriously slow to evolve, so much so they can hurt the very businesses they were meant to help.
This is something I think about as a rather new wine drinker. For all that wine has an incredibly rich and complex history (indeed, that’s part of the fun), it can also turn people off entirely. Make sure to bring a little stubbornness alongside your love of the drink.
Red wine fans have a lot to love in the iconic Chianti region of Italy.
8. La Rioja, Spain
Here’s a wine-producing region I’ve heard a lot about and is high on my to-try list. More specifically, the tempranillo wine variety and its very particular, very powerful flavor notes.
Sometimes called La Rioja, other times just Rioja, this wine-producing region is a fascinating little slice of Spain. Wine Spectator has a concise piece on tempranillo and all the details that separate it from other red wine varieties.
It’s a rich and heavy cup you’ll be trying, famed for its dark cherry, plum, and cocoa notes (compared to the brighter pinot noir). It also has a notably smoky flavor that can turn off those with lighter palates. Several types of oak are used to round out the flavor notes of this very special wine variety.
Need a little more history to go with your cup? Vine Pair talks shop on the appeal of this somewhat lesser-known, yet no less impressive wine-producing region. The tempranillo grape has centuries to its name, originating in Spain and straddling the line between popular and just a little rare.
I’ve heard people refer to these more powerful, smoky wine varieties as tasting like a leather couch…but I won’t lie, I still really want to try it. I can only imagine how nicely it’d pair with red meat or a mushroom ravioli dish.
Get a little bit darker in the Rioja region of Spain, whether under the bright sun or with a glass of tempranillo.
9. Okanagan Valley, Canada
Canada is a country I’ve considered moving to. What better way to learn more about it than through a bottle of wine?
Wines Of Canada has a list of quick facts and statistics on this often underrated wine-producing country. It boasts an economic impact of nearly $7 billion, with over 30,000 people employed in the sector.
This effort is poured into the 1,600 vineyards strewn across its famously beautiful landscape, from cheap box wine to rare, finely aged varieties that stack up with the best France and Italy have to offer. …Also, pro tip? Be careful when drinking box wine, because you’ll be out like a light before you know it.
Narrow down your search for Canadian wine a little and you’ll eventually hear of the standout performance of Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It wasn’t always that way, however. Wine Traveler looks at how this wine-producing region got off to a rather slow start in the 1800s, only to pick up in the 1960s during a pointed, and widely supported, cultural revival.
Nowadays it’s a popular tourist destination for wine lovers in Canada. A cool wine variety popular in the region (that I’ve never heard of before) is ice wine, where wine is cultivated using frozen grapes.
From dry rieslings to juicy red wines, Okanagan Valley is the wine-producing region that has it all.
10. Cape Town, South Africa
Last, but most certainly not least, we have the wine-producing region of South Africa. While travel restrictions are looking pretty dour in these coronavirus days, you can always live vicariously through the online experiences of others.
What makes South African wine stand out from the pack? Its industry overview on The Wines Of South Africa details the hot, wet climate that helps several grape varieties flourish. Winter is barely a concept as it is and there is more than enough space to craft several zones within this wine-producing region.
Fun fact! One of South Africa’s best-known wines is called ‘pinotage’, which mixes pinot noir and hermitage. It first cropped up in the 1900s and is considered very much an acquired taste by several wine critics.
As far as I’m concerned? The more unique the wine, the better. The Culture Trip takes a look at the gorgeous vineyards strewn around this wine-producing region, including the popular tourist choice of Stellenbach and the scenic Franschoek.
Wine fans are encouraged to visit these locations in-person to try both fresh and aged wine varieties, then visit local restaurants to put food pairings to the test. Wine producing regions are nothing if not incredibly scenic, so consider snapping a few photos if you ever get the chance.
Wine from the Western Cape area of South Africa can come in the classic pinot noir or the relatively new and unique pinotage.
For the longest time, I thought I wouldn’t get into wine.
When it wasn’t too strong, it was hitting flavor notes that didn’t sit right on my tongue. No, I was a beer and vodka girl! A few grocery store purchases and winetasting events later, however, and I was feeling different. There’s too much variety in wine to pin the drink under one label. Nowadays I’m a big fan of rieslings and pinot noirs.