How are wines labeled or classified?

This still confuses me, but here is the general rule: Typically, wines are classified either by region (“appellation”) such as Chianti, or by the grape variety such as a Merlot. A wine labeled Merlot is called a varietal. What’s the difference between varietal and variety? More on that later.

Normally, in the classic (“Old World”) wine growing areas such as France or Italy, a wine is classified by the region. Thus, in France, a white Burgundy (“Bourgogne Blanc”) is actually a wine made of (usually) Chardonnay grapes grown in the Burgundy region of France. (There’s also a red Burgundy-“Bourgogne Rouge”-just in case you’re wondering). However, the bottle won’t say Chardonnay and often won’t even identify itself as Bourgogne. Rather, it will be labeled by the appellation (the specifically defined area within a region).

For example, one type of white Burgundy is Chablis, which is a region (appellation) in the northwest section of Burgundy, France.

“Aha!” You say, “I think I’m catching on!”

But wait. The kicker is, if you see a bottle labeled “Chablis” it may not be a bottle of Chardonnay grapes from the Chablis region of France. What it might be is a bottle of Chardonnay grapes from another country. This is because the Chablis region of France has produced wine so delicious and revered, that other wine makers across the world have sought to emulate it. In this effort, wines have often been labeled Chablis-and it probably is made of Chardonnay grapes-but it won’t be from Chablis France. Thus, it most likely will not have the same characteristics as a wine from Chablis France would have because it won’t have the same soil, weather, topography, etc., –all which effect the texture and flavor of a wine. If you want the real deal Chablis, then you’ll have to look on the label to see if it is identified as Chablis and it comes from France. If it does, you’ve scored yourself a genuine bottle of French Chablis.

To make matters even more complicated, let’s look at another appellation of Burgundy that produces white wines: Chablis’ neighbor-Cote d’Or. Now, Cote d’Or also makes white Burgundies from the Chardonnay grape, but, unlike the Chablis region, it does not identify its wines as “Cote d’ Or”. Also, unlike the Chablis region, the Cote d’ Or region doesn’t just grow Chardonnay. Cote d’ Or also grows other grapes such as the Pinot Noir. If, however, you are intent on finding a white Burgundy Chardonnay varietal from the Cote d’ Or region, you will have to find a wine with a label that indicates an even more specific appellation, such as “St. Aubin” or “Puligny-Montrachet”. Even then, when you find your bottle of white Burgundy from St. Aubin, look at the label. If it doesn’t state any other types of wine on the label, then you know its made of Chardonnay. Otherwise, it may have other grapes added to it for added flavor, texture, etc. If so, the grapes will be printed on the label.

Whew. I think I need a glass of wine now.

Now, to be fair, there actually is a reason why older wine growing areas don’t identify their wines by the type of grape. From what I can gather, the main reason is that the type of grape isn’t the defining factor of the wine. Rather, the combining elements such as soil, weather, region (these are all factors that define an appellation) together with various types of grapes, are what define a style. Vineyards have been around so long, and the soil and techniques are so unique to each, that even the same grape in the same general region (such as Burgundy) can have hundreds of distinct styles.

In newer wine growing areas such as the USA or Australia, wines are classified by the type of grape. In other words, if I want a Cabernet Sauvignon, I can go to my grocery store and pick out a bottle by identifying that type on the label.

Sensible, right? It is, and there is another reason for it as well. Unlike vineyards in Burgundy for example, wine making areas in the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, etc., are relatively new. Vintners are still trying to determine what types of grapes produce the best types of wine in their areas. By identifying their wines by the type of grape, it helps establish the specific character and expectation for that brand of wine.

That said, not all wine in Europe is identified by the appellation. For example, in Italy, wines made from the Pinot Grigio (also know as Pinot Gris) grape are labeled both by the grape type and the region it was grown in. So, if you hanker for an Italian Pinot Grigio, just look at the label (i.e., “Gabbiano Delle Venezie Pinot Grigio”). Countries such as Austria or Germany also (normally) label their wines by region and grape.

If all this is a bit overwhelming, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. There is a reason that books and websites are devoted to parsing this stuff out. The main thing is, to enjoy the wine you want to drink. If you want to find out more about a particular region, no problem. You can google it or buy some books. Become an expert on it if you like. That’s the cool thing about wine: It can be as simple and fun loving, as intriguing and convoluted, or as academic and scientific as you want it to be. It can even be all three at once! The important thing to remember is that wine is meant for you to enjoy. In other words, don’t let snobbery and other people’s nostril flaring intimidate you or make you think you should be approaching wine their way. Wine was meant for you.

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