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Understanding How Wines are Named

Most of the wine names that you find in your wine shop or on restaurant wine lists are named in one of two basic ways:

  • For their grape variety; or

  • For the place where the grapes grew

That information, plus the name of the producer, becomes the shorthand name often used when talking about the wine. Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is a wine made by Robert Mondavi Winery and named after the Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Fontodi Chianti Classico is a wine made by the Fontodi winery and named after the place called Chianti Classico.

Wines named for their grape variety

A varietal wine is a wine that is named after either the principal or the sole grape variety that makes up the wine. Each country (and in the U.S., some individual states) has laws that dictate the minimum percentage of the named grape that a wine must contain if that wine wants to call itself by a grape name.

U.S. federal regulations fix the legal minimum percentage of the named grape at 75 percent (which means that your favorite California Chardonnay could have as much as 25 percent of some other grape in it). In Oregon, the minimum is 90 percent (except for Cabernet, which can be 75 percent). In Australia, it’s 85 percent. And in the countries that form the European Union (EU), the minimum is 85 percent.

Most of the time, the labels of varietal wines don’t tell you whether other grapes are present in the wine, what those grapes are, or the percentage of the wine that they account for. All you know is that the wine contains at least the minimum legal percentage of the named variety. Some varietal wines are made entirely from the grape variety for which the wine is named.

Wines named after places

Unlike American wines, most European wines are named for the region where their grapes grow rather than for the grape variety itself. Many of these European wines come from precisely the same grape varieties as American wines (like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and so on), but they don’t say so on the label. Instead, the labels say Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sancerre, and so on: the place where those grapes grow.

Why name a wine after a place? Depending on the type of soil, the amount of sunshine, the amount of rain, the slope of the hill, and the many other characteristics that each somewhere has, the grapes will turn out differently. If the grapes are different, the wine is different. Each wine, therefore, reflects the place where its grapes grow.

Terroir (pronounced ter wahr) is a French word that refers to the combination of immutable natural factors — such as topsoil, subsoil, climate (sun, rain, wind, and so on), the slope of the hill, and altitude — that a particular vineyard site has. Chances are that no two vineyards in the entire world have precisely the same combination of these factors. So, terroir is the unique combination of natural factors that a particular vineyard site has.

The principle behind the European concept of naming wines after places is this: The place name connotes which grapes were used to make the wine of that place (because the grapes are dictated by regulations), and the place influences the character of those grapes in its own unique way.

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