Menuism Dining Blog
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Guest Post by Etty Lewensztain

Wine packaging and label design have a much larger influence on your wine purchasing habits than you might think. When it comes to judging a book by its cover, wine-wise, no one makes it easier than the marketing-savvy wineries of the New World, who label almost every bottle they produce according to the wine’s primary grape variety. This practice, known as varietal labeling, is very common among consumer-conscious regions such as Australia, New Zealand, South America (Argentina and Chile) and the US (California, Washington, Oregon and New York). Walk the aisles of any wine store and you’ll see the phrases: Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza Malbec and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc scrawled across rows and rows of bottles. In labeling their wines by grape variety—as opposed to by region alone—these wineries are assuming that you, the consumer, is entirely ignorant and pretty much knows nothing about say, McLaren Vale. Shiraz, on the other hand, is something you can wrap your head around.

This is decidedly not the case with many wineries from the Old World, aka Europe. You’d be hard pressed to find a single bottle of Barolo labeled nebbiolo (the grape used to produce the wines of the Barolo appellation in Italy’s Piedmont) or a bottle of Marsannay labeled pinot noir (the grape used to produce the wines of the Marsannay appellation in France’s Burgundy). Maybe it’s that Euro-centric sense of entitlement that assumes that if you’re drinking a bottle of Priorat, damn you if you don’t know what’s in it, but the majority of European wines are labeled strictly by their appellation, not by their grape(s).

So what’s a wine lover to do when faced with a sexy bottle labeled Chinon? Check out this cheat sheet below for tips on how to decipher what’s actually in the bottle based on the label. Look out for these key European appellations and you’ll be busting out their associated grape varieties in no time.

FRANCE

Where: Bordeaux

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Blaye, Bourg, Fronsac, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Margaux, Médoc, Moulis, Pauillac, Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, St.-Estèphe and St.-Julien
Grapes: cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot (Historically, malbec and carmenere were part of the Bordeaux blend but are seldom used these days.)

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Barsac, Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes
Grapes: muscadelle, sauvignon blanc and semillon

Where: Burgundy

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Chambolle-Musigny, Corton, Gevrey-Chambertin, Marsannay, Mercurey, Morey-Saint-Denis, Nuits-St.-Georges, Pommard, Volnay, Vosne-Romanee and Vougeot
Grapes: pinot noir

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Chablis, Chassagne-Montrachet, Macon, Meursault, Montagny, Puligny-Montrachet and Puilly-Fuisse
Grapes: chardonnay

Where: Loire

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur-Champigny Touraine
Grapes: cabernet franc, gamay, pineau d’aunis and pinot noir

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Anjou, Muscadet, Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, Sancerre, Savennières, Touraine and Vouvray
Grapes: sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and melon de bourgogne

Where: Rhone Valley

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cornas, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Côtes-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas, Hermitage, Lirac, Rasteau, St. Joseph, Tavel and Vacqueyras
Grapes: Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Château-Grillet, Condrieu, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Péray and St. Joseph
Grapes: viognier, marsanne and rousanne

ITALY

Where: Tuscany

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Bolgheri, Carmignano, Chianti, Montalcino and Montepulciano
Grapes: canaiolo, colorino and sangiovese

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Chianti and San Gimignano
Grapes: malvasia, trebbiano and vernaccia

Where: Piedmont

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Alba, Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Dogliani, Gattinara, Ghemme and Langhe
Grapes: barbera, dolcetto and nebbiolo

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Asti, Gavi and Roero
Grapes: arneis, cortese and moscato

Where: Sicily

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Etna
Grapes: frappato, nerello mascalese and nero d’avola

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Etna, Trapani, Marsala
Grapes: carricante, catarratto, grillo and inzolia

Where: Campania

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Taburno, Taurasi, Vesuvio (Lacryma Christi)
Grapes: aglianico, piedirosso

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Avellino, Tufo and Vesuvio (Lacryma Christi)
Grapes: greco, fiano, falanghina

SPAIN

Where: Rioja

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja
Grapes: garnacha, graciano, mazuelo and tempranillo

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Alta, Rioja Baja
Grapes: garnacha blanca, malvasia and viura

Where: Ribera del Duero

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Ribera del Duero (no defined subregions)
Grapes: garnacha and tempranillo (also called tinto fino and tinta del país)

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Ribera del Duero (no defined subregions)
Grapes: albillo

Where: Priorat

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Priorat (no defined subregions)
Grapes: cabernet sauvignon, cariñena, garnacha, merlot and syrah

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Priorat (no defined subregions)
Grapes: chenin blanc, garnacha blanca, macabeo and pedro ximénez

Where: Galicia

What: Reds
Key regions to look for on the label: Ribeira Sacra
Grapes: mencia

What: Whites
Key regions to look for on the label: Rías Baixas, Ribeiro and Valdeorras
Grapes: albariño, godello and treixadura

Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in Etty’s 3-part guest series on “Cracking the Code on Wine Geek Lingo.” Don’t forget to read part 1 (10 esoteric wine descriptors) and part 2 (6 essential geek speak terms).

Posted by on October 6th, 2010

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