Here at Opening a Bottle, we spend a lot of our time focused on Old World wines. In general, we love their tradition, their use of local and indigenous grapes, their balance between fruit and savory, nutty, rocky, floral notes, and how well they work with food.
Many of Europe’s wines are strictly regulated to control grape varieties, grape yields, vineyard management and winemaking methods, all in an effort to preserve tradition or — more honestly — a brand name. In other words, if you buy an Amarone della Valpolicella, it ought to taste like an Amarone della Valpolicella. And in turn, nothing else in the world should taste the same way. At least in theory.
But for many wine drinkers in the United States, these rules are a barrier to entry. How can you tell what Gigondas taste like if you can’t even read what grapes are used on the label?
Our series of First-Taste Guides are meant to introduce readers to some of these wines by breaking down those barriers. In many cases, they were written shortly after our first taste of a particular wine, so while the research and background are as detailed as all of our accounts, the tasting notes are filled with a freshness and excitement for the experience that hopefully you’ll encounter, too.
Amarone della Valpolicella
One of Italy’s most distinctive and labor-intensive wines, Amarone is a fully loaded, plush red wine made from dried grapes. Learn more about Amarone della Valpolicella.
Bold and nuanced Bordeaux-style blends with a tinge of Italian rusticity. Learn more about the wines of Bolgheri.
Another Nebbiolo wine, but one that can be found at moderately affordable prices and often with 8 to 10 years of age. Learn more about Gattinara.
One of Italy’s oldest indigenous grape varieties thrives in Emilia-Romagna where its frizzante helps cut through the country’s richest cuisine. Learn more about Lambrusco.
Perhaps Italy’s boldest and most tannic red wine … and a great excuse to cook pork belly or a Porterhouse steak for dinner. Learn more about Montefalco Sagrantino.
Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
A crisp and refreshing white wine that has the potential to be among the world’s best food-friendly white wines. Learn more about Ribolla Gialla.
All Nebbiolo, but with whispers of classic Pinot Noir from a sunny valley in the Italian Alps. Learn more about Valtellina Superiore.
Dark, fruit-packed, graphite-and-smoke laden Mourvèdre from the coast of Provence. Learn more about Bandol.
Focused and crisp Chardonnay without the usual palate fatigue of … well, Chardonnay. Learn more about Chablis.
Southern Rhône, France
Bold, juicy, nuanced and complex blends centered on Grenache. Among the most famous wines of France. Learn more about Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Northern Rhône, France
Wild and complex Syrah from the famed “roasted slope” of the Northern Rhône. Learn more about Côte-Rôtie.
An excellent — and more affordable — alternative to Champagne, with a gorgeous texture to liven up any occasion. Learn more about Cremant d’Alsace.
Southern Rhône River Valley, France
Anthemic Grenache wines pierced with licorice and orange peel flavors from an area better known for Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Learn more about Gigondas.
Synonymous with the famous Château Margaux, this appellation offers rounded, supple Cabernet Sauvignon blends. Learn more about Margaux.
Recalling black currant, coffee and tobacco on the nose, the Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Pauillac are among the world’s most distinctive. And three of the top five Bordeaux estates are located here. Learn more about Pauillac.
Loire River Valley, France
A brilliantly colored Sauvignon Blanc with delicate fruit and matchstick aromas, as well as a glorious texture. Learn more about Pouilly-Fumé.
Plush and precise Merlot blends from the Right Bank of Bordeaux. A leader in sustainable viticulture. Learn more about Saint-Émilion.
Northern Rhône River Valley, France
Gamey Syrah from the Northern Rhône … without the exorbitant prices of Hermitage and Côte Rotie. Learn more about Saint-Joseph.
Loire River Valley, France
An elegant and complex rendition of Chenin Blanc redolent of lemon, apricot and lavender. Learn more about Vouvray Sec.
Galicia’s rich and full-bodied, Chardonnay-like white grape plays an excellent foil to its Pinot Noir-like partner in red, Mencia. Learn more about Godello.
Elegant and expressive Mencia wines that recall Pinot Noir and all its glory. Learn more about Ribeira Sacra.
Castile and León, Spain
Bold, wild and tannic red wines made from the Tinta de Toro grape — a variant of Tempranillo. Learn more about Toro.
Badacsony and Tokaji, Hungary / Tokaj, Slovakia
This grape is cultivated mostly in Hungary and scattered spots around Eastern Europe, including Slovakia, and produces an aromatic and full-bodied white wine reminiscent of Grüner Veltliner. Learn more about Hárslevelü.