Think of some of the names you’ve seen on bottles: Pinot Gris, Bordeaux, Cabernet, Champagne. While those are all common types of wine, the confusing part is that some of those are grapes and some of those are not. You can thank Europe for the added complexity.
In the “New World” (the Americas, New Zealand, Australia), wines are generally labeled for what grape makes up the majority of the wine. You’ll see varietal wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Viognier or Grenache. A varietal, not to be confused with a grape variety, is a type of wine that is primarily composed of the labeled grape. In the United States, at least 75 percent of the grape in the bottle must be the labeled variety, though that differs regionally and some areas on the West Coast require 95 percent.
But Europe, as usual, likes to put a lot of emphasis on where things are from so that they can put it in the face of others. The “Old World,” as it’s called, is comprised of most of the European wine-growing regions. Usually when you see a bottle from Europe, especially a nicer one, it won’t identify a grape variety. Rather, it’ll be labeled a Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja or Chianti.
These names describe where the wine — or, more accurately, the grapes — are from. Where a wine’s grapes are from is called its “appellation” and is taken very seriously worldwide. Appellation gains its importance from the microclimate, topography and soil of the designated area, conditions summarized in the French word “terroir.” It turns out that minor differences in terroir make large differences in what grapes grow best and what the resulting wine tastes like — making appellation a predictor of wine style, grape variety and quality.
Wines from anywhere in the world will have an appellation label, which is usually very strictly controlled, especially in Europe. France has been producing wine for an incredibly long time. Turns out that’s part of why they have a rather large name in vin. Over the centuries, they’ve figured out what regions grow which grapes the best and what wine styles complement the grapes the best. That knowledge has become institutionalized. Many designations, like Bordeaux (a coastal region in southwestern France), require that vintners use certain combinations of grapes, and Beaujolais (an appellation in central France) requires specific fermentation techniques. Oftentimes, the appellation of a wine will be the very village it’s from.
Wines from the old world will generally be a blend of multiple varieties that will not be listed on the bottle. But just because a region is associated with red doesn’t mean all of its wines are red. For example, nearly 60 percent of grapes grown in the Burgundy region are white varieties and the region produces renowned white wines such as those from Chablis. So, Burgundy isn’t necessarily red.
Perhaps the most prominent distinction is that of Champagne. While you may frequently refer to any old bottle of bubbly as Champagne, Champagne is not a style of wine; Champagne is a region east of Paris. And for the most part, only wines produced in that region can be called Champagne. The protection of the designation was established in the 1891 Treaty of Madrid and is so important that it was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versaille following World War I. Spain has a similar designation of Cava, which pertains to sparkling produced in the Penedès region of Catalonia on the southeastern Spanish coast. But if it’s not from one of those regions, it’s sparkling wine, not Champagne. Be careful with the usage — the French take it very seriously and might mime their discontent until they lose a war.
An important variant in the Old World is Germany. A country that prides itself on being all work and no play, they’ve put a more factual and scientific emphasis on wine labeling. There, more frequently varieties are labeled, but are accompanied by an intricate and strict quality-labeling system. In a few cases, wines do take on an appellation name in place of variety.
Understanding appellation is paramount to choosing good wine and to enjoying it. Every wine will mention where it’s from (though some cheap wines may simply say “California” — throw them away). It’s worth knowing something about the appellation you’re purchasing from. For example, the colder, wetter climate of California’s North Coast makes appellations like Russian River Valley prime for Pinot Noir. And indeed, many of the most coveted and expensive Pinots come from the Sonoma Coast area.
Ultimately, wine is a product of its upbringing. Every vineyard is different and the difference can be tasted even if the plots are side-by-side. So while you’re exploring different varieties and styles, be sure to taste the location too.