Buying wine can be challenging, sometimes even intimidating. The huge variety of labels we face on the shelves and those endless wine lists in restaurants -- they all contain valuable information about what you will find inside the bottle (and ultimately in your glass).
The problem is, how to decode that information. Terms that indicate region, subregion, vineyard, varietal, production method, aging requirements – the more you read, the more you get confused.
The “nightmare” is not the rule, though. New World countries (those in North and South America, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China, and other wine producing countries outside Europe) almost always label their wines with clear information – grape varietal or blend, country, region. “Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia,” “Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa Valley, California, USA.”
Isn’t that easy?
Old World countries -- France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Portugal and other European wine producing countries -- usually do not mention the varietal or blend on their wine labels. Instead, they make reference to the place where the wine was produced. Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Toscana, Piemonte, Rioja, Douro (Alsace, in France, and Germany are some of the exceptions to this rule – they also mention the grape).
They are so proud of, and historically connected to, their traditions that they believe the grape or blend is somehow “implied.” Today, with the advent of laws and regulations, the grape or blend used to produce wine in a “place of origin” is actually rigorously controlled and guaranteed.
Of course, knowing which grape or blend is “behind” Old World wine labels is up to everyone. I’ve met people who love a nice red Rioja or Bourgogne, but don’t really bother knowing that those wines are made of Tempranillo and Pinot Noir respectively. They simply enjoy those styles of wine, and that might be the idea.
But if you want to navigate with confidence in the world of wine, you’ll need good memory and some knowledge of geography. Learning the basics about the major appellation systems and some world-famous blends will help you start to understand what you are drinking. Here are a few tips:
Bordeaux wines (look for Bordeaux, Médoc, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Margaux, Pomerol, Saint-Émilion, Graves, and other subregions on the label) may include grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Carménère, Petit Verdot (for reds), and Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, and Muscadelle (for whites).
Wines from Burgundy (think of Bourgogne, Chablis, Pouilly-Fuissé, Mâcon, Meursault, Mercurey, Santenay, Pommard, Volnay, among others) are made primarily of Chardonnay (whites), with some Aligoté, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc also allowed; and of Pinot Noir (reds), a minor part of Gamay being also permitted.
Reds from the Rhône Valley are made only (or most) of Syrah in the North (Cornas, Côte-Rotie, Hermitage, etc.), and may include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan (among many others) in the South (Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, etc.).
Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and other reds from Tuscany are made primarily of Sangiovese.
Barolo and Barbaresco, from Piedmont, are made of Nebbiolo.
Valpolicella wines are a blend of Corvina, Rondinella and other local grapes from the Veneto.
Reds from Rioja and Ribera del Duero are made mostly of Tempranillo.
It might seem a little confusing, but with some persistency and a lot of practice you will feel more confident bottle after bottle. And when in doubt, do not hesitate to ask for help – wine merchants and sommeliers will love to help improve your wine experience!
Marcella Carneiro is a Certified Specialist of Wine living in Key Biscayne since 2017. She works as a wine educator in the Miami area, and also as a wine consultant for The Golden Hog located in Harbor Plaza, Key Biscayne.
To reach Marcella for questions, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
All the wines listed are available at The Golden Hog