We browse the shelves of wine stores all the time, not only to find that perfect bottle for dinner or dinner party, but also to see what's new and on sale. More than ever, we are overwhelmed and stymied by the proliferation of wine labels, varietals, countries, blends, regions, etc...Having this much choice is awesome - or paralyzing - depending on your knowledge of varietals, regions, and foreign languages. This is where feeling comfortable interpreting or decoding the info on wine labels comes in. Every country or region has regulations as to what they must, can, and cannot place on the label. Hopefully I can help remedy or make your life a little easier strolling down the wine aisle.
Most wines you find at wine stores or wine lists at restaurants are named one of two ways - by the grape variety or the place where the grapes were grown. For example, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon is made by Robert Mondavi Winery and named after the Cab Sauv grape. Ruffino Chianti Classico is a wine by the Ruffino Winery and named after that place called Chianti Classico (actually made from Sangiovese grape, but won't that very often due to regs). Certainly that is not enough to make a decision so we will explore other indicators, like producer, wine lingo, language, and regulations governing why they look like that.
Each country (and in the U.S., some states) has laws that stipulate the minimum percentage of the named grape that a wine must contain if that wine wants to call itself by grape name. U.S. regs state the minimum percentage of the grape at 75%. This means that a California Chardonnay can have as much as 25% of other grapes in it. In Australia and in the countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain) that form the European Union (E.U.), the minimum is 85%. They are not required to reveal the other grapes unless it's produced as a blend of grapes, which is required, like Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc - the label must state percentages of each totally 100%.. No law against not having 100% of the grape, which is what you will likely find in the NY Finger Lakes wines, which doesn't falsely advertise. Most California and other U.S. wines carry varietal names (grape names) along with most Australian, South American, and South African wines (New World).
Unlike American wines, most European wines are named for the region where the grapes are grown, but use the same grape varietals as American wines, but don't say it on the label. Instead, they say Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja (places), and so on. Of course, wine connoisseurs, European travelers, and geography majors will know. This European system goes back a long way and is actually intended to provide the consumer more info about the wine and a better understanding of what's in the bottle, then just grape name. Once you know the region location, country, terroir, soil, altitude, aspect, climate conditions, and history, then you can assume or know what grapes are in that bottle (will discuss in Part 2). For example, a Merlot from California (warm to hot climate) will be very different from a Merlot in France (cool to moderate climate), specifically Bordeaux. Note - there are some European wines named after the grape name and location on the label. For example, Barbera d'Alba, which is Barbera grape and Alba (place). Some place the grape name on the label even though it is implicit in the wine name. For example, a white Bourgogne (place name) in Burgundy, France may also have Chardonnay (grape) on the label. The term "White Bourgogne" always means Chardonnay is in the wine because that is the only white grape varietal Burgundy produces.
If you want a decoder for common European place names, just email or message me.
The term "terroir" is heard and said often when talking about the grape environment. Terroir is a french word that translates to "place" or "dirt" or "terre" meaning soil. It's must more complex than this! It describes the entire vineyard environment where grapes grow (see above). No two vineyards in the entire world are exactly the same, which is why the character and style of a wine from the same region, sub-region, district, or commune will be the same.
On New World wine labels (U.S., Australia, South America), it is difficult to find the place name on the label. The place of origin is not the name of the wine. Place names aren't quite as important as in Europe. They can be meaningful because they refer to specific, well defined areas with fairly consistent growing conditions, such as Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, or Willamette Valley, but other places are so large that their name communicates nothing specific, i.e. California, a region that is 30% larger than the country of Italy. Same situation for Australian wines labeled "South Eastern Australia" - an area only slightly smaller than France and Spain combined.
That's all for now! Hope you enjoyed! Look for Part 2 of this post later this week or early next week, which will get a little more specific about wine labels. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out via facebook, email, or message.
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