History of Wine – Modern Wine Regions

Tuscany Italy wine

Wine production has a long history, as we discussed in our previous posts (The Beginning, The Medieval, The Modern Era). We saw how viticulture and wine production came from the east to Ancient Greece and Rome, spread to other European countries and was then brought to the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

During this long journey, wine regions emerged and disappeared and finally lead to the modern wine map that we know today.

The main winemaking regions are in Europe, North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The biggest wine producing country in 2014 based on volumes was France, followed by Italy, Spain, USA and Argentina (source OIV, 2014).


In Europe, we have some of the most ancient winemaking regions, many of which are still leading in terms of quality and quantity. There are many wine producing countries in Europe, with the most significant among them being France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, as well as high quality winemaking in Hungary and Germany.


France is one of the largest wine producers in the word with 40-50 million hectolitres per year. France’s winemaking history dates back to the 6th century BC with the introduction of Greek settlers’ viticulture. It was influenced by the Greeks and Romans, but France’s monks had an incredible impact on winemaking in the Middle Ages by preserving winemaking knowledge during this ‘dark’ period in European history.

France had a huge impact on the worldwide dissemination of winemaking practices and styles and grape varieties (including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah).

In the 19th century, mildew and phylloxera ravaged most of the vineyards throughout Europe, and France was not spared either. Later, due to an economic downturn and two world wars, the French wine industry stopped for several decades. However, thanks to significant investments and the economic upturn after World War II, French winemaking re-emerged, leading France to become the leading country in terms of wine.

In France there are many wine regions, the most significant being Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne.

The most popular grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.




Italy and France are the biggest wine producers in the world in terms of volume (40-50 million hectolitres per year). Italy has some of the oldest winemaking regions in the world.

As we discussed in our previous post, ‘History of Wine’, the biggest influencers on winemaking on the Italian peninsula before the Romans were the Ancient Greeks, the Etruscans and Carthaginians. Since those times, the Italian peninsula has been one of the most significant winemaking regions.

Thanks to the favourable climate, grapes are grown throughout Italy, with more than one million cultivated vineyards. We can find excellent wine almost everywhere, but Tuscany, Piedmont and Veneto are the most significant in terms of quality and quantity. All regions have their own specialities, like Chianti, Brunello and Vino Nobilem in Tuscany; Moscato d’Asti and Barbaresco in Piedmont; and Prosecco, Soave and Amarone della Valpolicella in Veneto.

The best known Italian grapes are Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Montepulciano and Pinot Grigio.


Spain is the 3rd largest wine producer in the world in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014).

Earliest grape cultivation on the Iberian Peninsula dates back sometime between 4,000 and 3,000 BC. Later, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and then the Romans significantly influenced viticulture here.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Spain was invaded by barbarian tribes, which lead to a decline in Spanish wine production.

However, winemaking began to develop again following the Spanish Reconquista, as did Spanish wine exports.

After the Reconquista, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World under the name of the Spanish crown, and this opened more export markets and wine production possibilities. Spanish conquistadors and missionaries colonised the new lands, brought grape wines and began winemaking. Later, wine production became so successful in some counties, such as Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina, that it posed a threat to Spanish wine production and exports. Consequently, the Spanish Crown banned the establishment of new vineyards in the Americas, but the order was ignored in some countries.

In the 17th-18th century, Spanish wine started to become more and more popular, and they had a major turning point in the mid 19th century when phylloxera struck the European vineyards, mostly those in France. Due to the lack of French wines, Spanish wine exports grew significantly.

The Spanish wine industry had its ups and downs in the 20th century, but Spanish wine has today become one of the world leaders in terms of quantity and quality thanks to the modernisation in the 1970s and 1980s and subsequent development.

Due to the favourable climatic conditions, almost every region in Spain produces wine, but the most significant ones are Rioja, Galicia, Catalonia, Andalucía and Castilla y Leon.

The most important Spanish red wine varieties are Tempranillo, Bobal, Garnacha and Monastrell, and for white wines are Airen, Macabeo, Palomino and Albarino.


 Portugal is the 11th biggest winemaker in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014).

Wine production has existed on the Iberian Peninsula since around 2,000 BC. Since those times, the Phoenicians, Ancient Greeks, Celts and Romans have had a significant influence on Portuguese winemaking.

One significant impact on the development of wine production and trade has been Portugal’s relationship with England. As the weather was very unfavourable for viticulture, England was always forced to import wine. Due to their fragile political and military situation with France, they had to find other wine sources. Consequently, the import of Portuguese wine began in the 12th century and the relationship between the two counties in terms of the wine trade has continued since then. The most popular fortified wines in England have been Port and Madira.

Later on, exports to the Portuguese colonies in South America and West Africa also proved significant.

Unfortunately the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century devastated the vineyards in Portugal as in most of Europe.

During the 20th century, Portugal experienced a slump, but Portuguese wine has been rising again in the 21st century, mostly due to dry red wines from Duoro and Dao.

Today, the most important Portuguese wine regions are beyond Duoro and Dao and include Bairrada, Alentejo, Ribatejo and Estremandura.


Germany is the 10th biggest worldwide wine producer in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014), while German wine has a mixed reputation regarding quality. However, the country’s wine is certainly well known, primarily for its excellent Riesling produced in the Mosel region.

German viticulture dates back to the Ancient Roman times. The oldest plantations were established along the river Rhine in the west Germany. During the Medieval era, churches and monasteries played a significant role in viticulture.

The most important grape variety, Riesling, was documented in 1435, and it subsequently became the most important variety in Germany.

In the 18th and 19th century, German wine was famous and highly valued, but it lost its way in quality terms in the 20th century. Germany faced many difficulties, as did other European counties, but it also started to produce and export lower quality white wine, which lessened its reputation.

However, later in the 20th century significant efforts were made to re-gain Germany’s former glory, and to concentrate more on quality rather then quantity.

Germany has 13 wine regions, with the most famous being the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region and the Rheingau region.



Tokaj Hungary

Hungary is around the 15th biggest wine producer in the world in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014).

Today Hungary is best known for its sweet wines produced in the Tokaj region.

Wine culture in this region dates back to Ancient Roman times or possibly even to the Ancient Greeks. By the Middle Ages, Hungarian wine and winemaking was known in the area.

Hungarian viticulture has survived many political and religious challenges, such as Islamic Turkish rules, communism and, along with the rest of Europa, the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century.

Today, 20 years after the collapse of communism, Hungarian winemakers have recovered the traditions and skills that existed before collectivisation, so Hungarian wine is regaining its reputation.

The most important wine regions area are Tokaj, Eger, Villány and Szekszárd.

North America


The USA is the 4th biggest wine producer worldwide in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014). There is some wine production in many states of the USA, but 88.5% of all US wine is produced in California.

As we discussed in one of our previous blogpost ‘History of Wine – The Modern Era’, settlers in the New World first began serious winemaking in South America, mainly in Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina.

The earliest winemaking on the territory that is now the United States dates back to the 2nd part of the 16th century in Florida.

The first vineyard and winery in California was established by Junipero Serra, a Franciscan missionary at the end of the 18th century.

In 1830, the first commercially successful winery was founded by Nicholas Longworth near Cincinnati, Ohio.

However, American winemaking faced difficulties as phylloxera, which ultimately reached the US, and prohibition, the ban on the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.

As a result, American wine production needed a few decades to reach the reputation that it has today. Research by universities and seminars (University of California and in other state universities in New York) on viticulture and winemaking techniques certainly helped in this process. From the 1970s, Californian wine became more well known and recognised. The big turning point was in 1976 in the famous ‘Judgment of Paris’, when French wine experts scored more Californian wine higher than the top Bordeaux and white Burgundy on blind testing.

California accounts for 88.5% of US wine production, followed by New York, Washington and Oregon.

South America


Argentina is the 5th largest wine producer in the world and the largest in South America (OIV, 2014).

Viticulture was brought to Argentina during the Spanish colonisation. The first vineyard was established in 1556 by Father Juan Cedron on the territory that is now the San Juan and Mendoza wine region.

Around 1557, the first commercial vineyard was established at Santiago del Estero, which was soon followed by the expansion of the vineyards in Medoza and San Juan.

Around this time, the French agronomist, Miguel Aime Pouget, brought the first Malbec grapevine cutting from Bordeaux, which is now the grape of Argentina’s most famous wines.

Argentina’s wine production remained slow until the 1800s, and it only increased a little after Malbec’s introduction to Europe in the early 1900s. However, it remained stagnant throughout the century.

The first wave of European immigrants arrived in the 19th century, many of whom were Italian and brought their expertise and winemaking knowledge with them.

However, until recently, Argentinian wines were only sold domestically; there was no focus on exporting.

The past 20 years has seen had an incredible growth in the Argentinian wine industry, with the quality level being increased and the international export market consolidated, so that now Argentina is among the 5 biggest wine producing countries in the world.

The most important wine regions are Mendoza and San Juan.


Chile is the 7th biggest wine producer worldwide in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014).

As in case of other New World countries, Vitis vinifera vines were brought by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors around the 16th century. Viticulture only began to expand in Chile in the 19th century.

Chilean winemaking has been profoundly influenced by the French, mostly by Bordeaux winemaking. Before the phylloxera epidemic, many Chilean landowners made visits to France and began to import French vines to plant. After the epidemic, many French winemakers travelled to Chile, bringing their winemaking techniques and experiences.

Up to the 20th century, Chilean wine was limited to the domestic market, but they ventured into the international market following progress in quality.

In the past decade, cheap prices as well as foreign influence and expertise have transformed Chile into one of the most important wine producing countries in South America, and one of the biggest wine exporters in the word.

In Chile, there are 14 wine regions throughout the country.

South Africa


South Africa is the 8th biggest winemaker in quantity (OIV, 2014).

As we discussed in our previous blog post ‘History of wine: The Modern Era’, South African wine dates back to the middle of the 17th century, when the first vines were planted by Dutch settlers.

The first wine estate was in Constantia, where the ‘Vin de Constance’ dessert wine is produced. The other historic region is Stellerbosch where the first vineyards were planted in the 1690s.

South African wine production faced many difficulties in the 19th and 20th century. In 1860, phylloxera reached the country, killing nearly all production of Vin de Constance.

South African wine only began to be recognised worldwide around the end of the 20th century when Apartheid ended. Today it is among the 10 largest wine producers and is one of the most prominent in terms of quality.

Most of the wine regions, and the country’s two most famous wine regions, Stellenbosch and Paarl, are located in the Western Cape region.

Australia, New Zealand

Australia is the 6th largest wine producer in terms of quantity (OIV, 2014).

As we discussed in the blogpost ‘History of wine: Modern Era’, Australian viticulture began at the end of the 18th century and the first available domestic wine dates back to the early 19th century.

The Australian wine industry received a big push with the arrival of European settlers who established many of Australia’s best winemaking regions, and Australian wine began to receive more and more recognition as a result. Since then, Australia has become one of the world leaders in terms quantity and quality, with its particular emphasis on biodynamic wines.

Wine is produced in every state, 60 wine regions in all, but the best wine regions are mainly in the southern parts of the country.

Wine production in New Zealand dates back to the middle of the 19th century, but wine production was mostly consumed locally until the end of the 20th century.

Since 1970, the New Zealand wines have been exported.

Wine is produced in 10 regions in New Zealand, with the most important being Marlborough.



Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine

Phillips, A Short History of Wine

Johnson, Vintage: The Story of Wine


Tuscany, Italy

Tuscany, Italy

Tokaj, Hungary

Stellenbosch, South Africa

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