Last week I talked about the basics of how grapes get turned into wine. This week, let’s talk about grapes.
As I mentioned last time, almost all commercially produced wine is made from Vitis vinifera grapes. There are, however, a huge number of varieties within this species. The technical name of for these are cultivars, but you’ll usually heard these referred to as varieties or varietals. You’ve probably heard of some of them: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel. Figuring these out, having a sense of what flavors these tend to produce, is for me the first step to understanding wine.
So how to do you know what varietals are in a bottle of wine? That depends on where the wine is from. In most New World wine — wine from North and South America, or from Australia — the varietal will be listed right on the label, so that helps. In the US, labeling laws vary from state to state, but usually a wine must be composed of at least 75% of a varietal to be labeled that way. So if you get a bottle of Zinfandel from California, at least 75% of the wine in there comes from Zinfandel grapes.
Sometimes you’ll encounter what’s called a “proprietary blend” which has no single grape that makes up the minimum required percentage. For example, in my cellar I’ve got several bottles of the Foothils Reserve from Foxen Vineyard. This is a blend of Cabernet Franc (44%), Merlot (41%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (15%). The producer doesn’t have to disclose these percentages, but more and more are putting them on the back labels or in tasting notes as consumers become more savvy.
And then you get European wines, which often have no names of grape varietals at all on the bottle. That’s because most European wine labeling laws operate on the basis of geography. In order for a wine to be labeled with the name of a region, it has to be made with a certain grape or blend of grapes determined by what was historically grown there. Chianti, for example, is a region in Tuscany (Toscano). In order to be labeled Chianti, a wine must be made with grapes grown there, at least 80% of which are Sangiovese grapes. If the grapes are grown in the region but are not Sangiovese, you can’t call it Chianti. Most regions, however, are nested inside of other regions with less restrictive rules. So a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Chianti must be declassified and labeled as a Toscano. Depending on the region, the producer may or may not put the grape varietals on the label. In fact, until recently it was illegal for producers of Bourgogne Blanc — that is, white Burgundy — to put Chardonnay on the front label, even though these wines were 100% Chardonnay. You just had to know that white Burgundy was Chardonnay.
This gets further down the whole “how do I read a wine label” road than intended, but it’s a useful preview of a topic I’m going to come back to. Next time I’ll get into the major varietals and what seeing them on a label should tip you off to. But in the meantime: What are varietals are you drinking?
UpdateFitness: Rest day (and waiting for new running shoes)
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