Decoding Wine Names

Several weeks ago, the Rotary Club that I belong to held its 18th annual Fine Wine and Food Festival. We had a record turnout and everyone who attended seemed to have a lot of fun.

I was working one of the tables, talking about the wines while I poured them. While there were some number of attendees who were clearly knowledgeable about wines, the people I really enjoyed were the people I talked to who were taking their first plunge into tasting wines.

It was these wine “newbies” who made my evening with their intense interest, curiosity and openness to the newness of the experience. We should all be like that in life, and particularly in the world of wines.

As we spoke that evening, I was reminded that much of the knowledge that we take for granted is actually the result of learning and experience, so I thought I’d address one of the basic questions that attendees raised at the wine festival.

The names of wines – Merlot, Bordeaux, Côtes du Rhône, Shiraz, Syrah, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chianti – what do these words mean and how do they describe the wines I am tasting and shopping for?

OK, this is confusing … Let’s try to make it a little simpler. Let’s start in Europe.

Traditionally, European wines were named after the regions where they were made. So, Bordeaux wines come from the west-central region of Bordeaux, France, and they make both red and white wines there, so there can be both red and white Bordeaux wines.

Côtes du Rhône is an area along the “coast” or riverbank of the Rhone River, in eastern France. And, again, they produce both red and white wines. Champagne is another region, in central France, which produces the famed French bubbly that, while white in colour, is actually made from a variety of different grapes, sometimes including the Pinot Noir and may also include the Pinot Meunier grapes that are usually used to make red wines.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a wine region in eastern France and translates as “the new chateau of the Pope”, referring to a time in French history when the Pope was effectively kidnapped from the Vatican and moved to a “new chateau” in France, to end Italian influence on the Catholic church.

The pope eventually returned to Italy, but the region is still known as the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region and, to this day, wines from there have the Pope’s symbol of the crossed keys of St. Peters molded onto the bottles.

Italian wines, too, are referred to by their regions of origin; Chianti, Barberra, Brunello, Barolo and Barbaresco, to name a few. Spanish wines were traditionally named for their regions, but are increasingly marketed by their grape names, now, at least in North America.

I think German wines are also often named for their regions, but I need to do some more research on that now that fondue season is upon us.

Generally speaking, wines from Europe will be referred to by the regions where they are made, and since most of those regions grow both red and white grapes and a number of different types of grapes, these wines are, more often than not, a blend of juice from different grapes.

So a red Bordeaux wine characteristically is a blend of juice from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, but may also include juice from other types of grapes including Cabernet Franc, Petit verdot and even Malbec and Carménère. The last two you may be more familiar with as the signature wine grapes of Argentina and Chile, respectively, where they were transplanted to (from the Bordeaux region) in the 19th century.

In contrast, new world wines (those from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, Chile and South Africa) are generally named after the grape that is their primary or sole ingredient. Hence an Australian “Shiraz” is made from the juice of the Shiraz (also known as the Syrah) grape.

California cabernet sauvignons are made from the grape of the same name, which was transplanted from the Bordeaux region of France in the middle of the 1800s, to both California, as well as Chile and Argentina.

Merlot is the same story … another Bordeaux-region transplant. So, a California wine labelled Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot would be a Bordeaux – style wine made with those two grapes.

Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Petite Syrah, Gamay, Sangiovese, Grenache and Mourvèdre are all names found on California, and in some cases Washington State, Oregon, as well as B.C. and Ontario wines.

All refer to the grape names that provide the juice. Shiraz (called Syrah, in Europe) is made from that grape and is the signature red wine of Australia, but is also grown in South Africa and the U.S., as well as in Europe.

Interestingly, the success of Californian and Australian wines, worldwide, has driven many French, Italian and Spanish winemakers to begin to label their wines (at least those being shipped to North America) by their constituent grape(s) rather than by the region they are from. So, today, you can go to the Yukon Liquor Corporation and buy a French Fat Bastard Shiraz ($18.10) or a very tasty Italian Zonin Primo Amore Sangiovese Merlot ($14.85).

So look for wines from a European region that you like, and do a little research to find out what grapes are used to make the wine. This will then allow you to look for “New World” wines made with the same grapes that you might also favour. Or, go in reverse: if you like Australian or Californian merlots or cabernet sauvignons, you might enjoy a Bordeaux wine.

I hope this information will help you to explore more wines, just as the enthusiastic newbies did at the recent wine festival.


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