Americans have it easy. Most of our wine is labeled by grape variety, so
"merlot" on the bottle means merlot in the bottle. The same is generally
true for wines from
Chile, Argentina, Canada,
Germany, and Austria, where varietal wines (those that carry the name
of their principal grape) predominate.
Fuissé or chardonnay?
Putting grapes in their place
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
In most of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal, however, wines tend to be named
after a place
rather than a grape. Such a place is called an
Deciphering an appellation-based wine label can be confusing, which is why so
many Americans tend to stick to wine labeled by variety. But most of the
world's greatest wines are made from just a few varieties of grapes, and
knowing that is the key to understanding the sometimes overwhelming list of
for instance, is a grape planted in the US,
New Zealand, Germany (where it's known as spätburgunder), Italy
(as pinot nero), and elsewhere, despite being notoriously difficult to grow and
vinify. But winemakers endure the problems for one reason: it's the sole grape
of red Burgundy, frequently described as the world's greatest wine. Like
the best grapes of France and Italy have been transplanted all over the
world in an attempt to replicate the greatness
they achieve in their
for instance, is the sole grape of white Burgundy, which
shares the throne with its red counterpart -- and where isn't
grown these days?
Bordeaux, France's other legendary winemaking region, produces mostly blends
of several grapes. The reds are made principally from cabernet sauvignon and
merlot (cabernet sauvignon dominates everywhere but the
St-Emilion and Pomerol), occasionally with small amounts of other grapes --
cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec -- blended in. Cabernet franc shines
by itself in wines from Chinon and Bourgueil, in the Loire Valley, while malbec
is a solo star in Argentina.
Bordeaux's white wines are made from sauvignon blanc and sémillon,
which are also responsible for the decadently
sweet Sauternes and Barsac.
Bordeaux's reputation is such that US winemakers have invented a name for
domestic blends (red and white) that use the same grapes: Meritage. (Although
wines made from Bordeaux-style blends usually eschew this label in favor of
proprietary names that differ from producer to producer.)
As you can see, once you understand what grapes a few of the major
grow, a whole world of wine suddenly becomes comprehensible.
There's no getting around the fact that some memorization will eventually be
required, but many major winemaking regions aren't difficult to figure out.
Chianti, for instance, is vinified mostly from sangiovese, a grape whose name
you've probably noticed on bottles from California. And France's Rhône
Valley -- with its appellations of Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Condrieu,
Gigondas, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes-du-Rhône, and others --
makes wine largely composed of two red grapes: syrah, also known as
Australia, and grenache. The white wines from the Rhône Valley are made
primarily from the grapes roussanne, marsanne, and viognier -- all of which
you'll see on wines from other regions and countries.
Sometimes, however, the appellations
can be confusing. Pouilly-Fuissé,
for instance, is a white Burgundy (and thus made from the
Pouilly-Fumé, on the other hand, is from the Loire Valley and made from
sauvignon blanc. And grapes can have similar names, too; the white grapes pinot
gris (pinot grigio in Italy) and pinot blanc (pinot bianco in Italy) are very
different from the red grape
Here are a few examples of wines that seem different on the label, but share
either grapes or names (all of them white):
1995 Chateau Reynella Chardonnay (McLaren Vale) ($12.99). An Aussie
with the large-scale orange and apple
typical of New World examples of
the grape, but a nutmeg and clove spiciness that suggests the winemaker was
trying to emulate Burgundian techniques. Perfect with roast chicken.
1993 Verget Pouilly-Fuissé ($17). Verget is one of Burgundy's
outstanding modern producers, and makes high-quality wine in all price ranges.
This is one of the least expensive examples, showing tart citrus flavors and a
slight earthy component characteristic of
chardonnay grown in this region, plus
a relatively subdued layer of buttered toast (which comes from the oak in which
it was aged). Serve it with pork in a Dijon mustard sauce.
1995 Célestin Blondeau Pouilly-Fumé Les Rabichottes ($13.95). A
sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley, with trademark
wet rock and lemon-lime
qualities supported by bracing
This one has a bit more body than most,
and would go really well with a vegetable tart.
1996 Domaine Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Les Vonne Bouches ($15.99). Another Loire
Valley take on sauvignon blanc, but with even higher
acidity than the
Pouilly-Fumé, mushroom and moss on the palate, and an apple/peach
finish. Needs high-acid food like whitefish in a tomato sauce.
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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