More Wine Labels Demystified

Europeans love to baffle us, especially when it comes to their wines. Half of my wine-loving friends think Burgundy is a grape, like Malbec or Chardonnay. Unless you’ve studied wine regions, you may not know what’s really in that place-name bottle either, so you might leave the bottle on the shelf – and that’s sad, because you’re missing out on some great wine!

When you’re sipping that nice Chianti Classico this weekend, think of this Italian vineyard in Tuscany – specifically in the Chianti region – where they grow Sangiovese, the primary grape (sometimes the only grape) – used in making Chianti.

Tuscany vineyard

[“Vineyard in Tuscany,” courtesy of Jason Parrish via Flickr]

In the Old World, which mostly means Europe, wines usually are identified not by their grapes but by their appellation, a legal term that defines the geographic boundaries of a wine district, the grape varieties permitted there, and the growing and winemaking practices allowed.

Here in America, and in other upstart wine-producing countries such as Australia, we identify wines by grape varieties. You don’t walk into a wine shop and say, “I’d like a bottle of Finger Lakes, please,” or “How ’bout some Clare Valley.” But Europeans, especially the French, expect you to know which grapes grow in which region, so they don’t see the need to elaborate further.

That’s changing ver-r-r-r-y slowly, but in the meantime, let’s eliminate some of the mystery. Here are more European wines I’m sure you’ve seen, but might be reluctant to buy just because you aren’t sure what you’re getting. Feel free to carry this list along the next time you go wine-shopping:

  • Bordeaux – this is a region in France most known for its red blends; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenére are all permitted in a Bordeaux blend. And while 89 percent of grapes grown in the region are red, you’ll also see white blends of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and possibly a touch of floral Muscadelle.
  • Burgundy – if it’s red, it’s probably Pinot Noir. A white Burgundy is likely to be Chardonnay. Other grapes are permitted in small quantities, but most wines produced here are 100 percent of either PN or Chardonnay.
  • Champagne – I’ve mentioned it earlier, but it bears repeating: if the label says it’s “Champagne,” the grapes were grown in the Champagne region of France. Note that even though most Champagne is white, the grapes used are generally Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. If it’s pink, the fruit stayed in contact with the red skins for a short time. Other grapes permitted are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier and Arbane. Some Champagne houses never use the last four varieties, but one, Le Nombre d’Or (“Golden Number”) uses all four.
  • Chablis – a small wine region northwest of Burgundy. The grape is Chardonnay, but it’s more crisp and acidic than the big-body Chardonnays made in the U.S., with lots of minerality.
  • Sauternes – a city in the Graves region of Bordeaux where they produce some of the priciest, most delicious dessert wines anywhere. It’s made mostly of Sémillon, sometimes with a bit of Sauvignon Blanc added.
  • Côtes du Rhône – divided into Northern and Southern Rhône, this reason produces mostly reds. In the North the grape is Syrah, and in the South it can by Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre or Cinsaut. If the wine is white, it’s likely to be Grenache Blanc. The Rhône is especially known for its rosé – heartier and deeper in color than many rosés – though it only accounts for 9 percent of the region’s production.
  • Beaujolais – this is the fruity, strawberry-red wine made from Gamay grapes, that someone inevitably brings to Thanksgiving dinner. You remember, it’s the one that tastes like Uncle Ned just made it in the basement. Released on the third Thursday each November, Beaujolais, named for its own small region inside Burgundy, is intended to be consumed immediately. Don’t keep it; in six months (or less) it will be nasty.
  • Rioja – one of the few Spanish wines sometimes identified by its geographic home, Rioja is Tempranillo. It may contain some Garnacha and Cariñera, too.
  • Madeira – an island about 400 miles off the coast of Morocco where they produce – guess what – Madeira. It’s known as sweet wine, but you can find dry versions as well. The grapes are relatively obscure varieties: Servial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia.

Wine Lingo of the Day: AOC = “appellation d’origins contrôlée,” or “name of controlled origin,” now called AOP – these are the top-quality French wines. An AOC might be the name of a town or collection of villages designated as a regulated wine region, such as Mâcon-Villages, or even a single domaine (winery or producer), such as Château Margaux.

Vino ‘View: When tank-top weather leaves, I want to transition with a fruity dry red. I found two Chiantis for perfect shoulder-season drinking: Castello di Albola Chianti Classico 2013 (13 percent alcohol, avg. price $15) and Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva 2012 (13.5 percent alcohol, avg. price $20).

Chianti bottles

[These wines were submitted to BigSexyReds for review.]

The Zonin family have been making wine since 1821, so they know their craft. The 2013 Classico is medium-bodied, silky, smelling of red berries and a touch of spice; I drank it with a dinner of roast chicken and brown rice pasta. The Riserva was even more elegant – no surprise; Sangiovese for this Riserva grows on steep slopes in a small, high-altitude vineyard. It was aged for two years after the harvest – the law for Chianti Classico Riserva – and bottled at .5 percent more alcohol than nonriserva, also a requirement. You can almost taste the warm sun in this bottle; it’s a deeper garnet color, a little earthier than the Classico, with an aroma of violets and fresh strawberries. By my third sip I was tasting a little licorice, a touch of rhubarb and a lot of earth. Both wines should keep until 2020, but I had to have them now.

Happy sipping!

Mary

 

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Wine Labels 101

This Friday, September 8, is International Literacy Day, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to read wine labels.

But as you stand in front of that wall of bottles at the wine store, do you really know what you’re looking at? Wine labels can be a mystery, even to longtime lovers of the grape, because there’s no consistency. Labeling laws across the globe are all over the place (pun intended) and impossibly complex.

Wine labelsHere’s all you really need to remember: anyone who’s literate can understand enough to know what they’re buying. You just need to identify whether the label is telling you the name of the grape, the winery, the wine region, or a combination of the three.

Take the above photo. The wine on the left is made from Dolcetto (dol-chét-toh) grapes. The name translates, by the way, to “little sweet one,” but all the Dolcetto I’ve tried is big, bold and dry. “D’Alba” means it was produced in or near Alba, a town in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy. (Any version of d’, di, de or a on a label means “of,” so even if it’s an unfamiliar word, you’ll know they’re talking about a place, not a grape.) The winery is Abbazia, shown at the top of the label. So if you’re familiar with Piedmont and specifically Dolcetto, you have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle.

The wine next to it was made by those flashy Ferrari winemakers in the Trentino region of northern Italy – as you can see by their name emblazoned across the gold label. The grape is Perlé, a white grape often grown in Italy, and Trentodoc is essentially the designation for sparkling wines made in Trentino. This bottle also tells you the vintage, 2007, on the front; the Dolcetto’s vintage (2015) is on the back label.

Winemakers often list a vintage (the year the grapes were harvested), or you might see the initials “NV” – non-vintage, a recent BigSexyReds Wine Lingo – meaning the winemaker blended wines from several vintages to get the taste and quality level he or she wanted. A 2016 vintage wine could taste dramatically different from a 2014 or 2015, even if the grapes were picked in the same vineyard.

Sometimes the producers only tell you the region, and they expect you to know what that means: Champagne, for instance, is a region in France. If the label says Champagne, that’s where it’s from; the wine will almost always be a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, with smaller amounts of other grapes, including Pinot Blanc, permitted in the mix. (There is a “Champagne grape,” but it’s not used for making Champagne. Confused yet?) A bottle labeled Burgundy (or Bourgogne), Beaujolais, Chianti or Bordeaux likewise is telling you the region, not the grapes that go into the wine. (**Next week we’ll talk more about those place-name labels, so if you pick up a Chianti you’ll know what to expect in your glass.)

Usually, too, the label will display, sometimes in the tiniest font possible, the alcohol content – ABV, or “alcohol by volume.” Most wines range from about 12 percent ABV to 15 percent, but you can find them lighter or boozier – and you will get more of a buzz from a 15-percent Zin than a 12-percent Pinot Noir.

Some labels list tasting notes on the back. I wouldn’t take those too seriously; just because the winery’s PR people think you should taste cinnamon and plums doesn’t mean you won’t taste black pepper and pecans. Everyone’s palate is different. But you might find hints at why the wine you selected is pricier than others: a label that refers to “low yields on our sun-kissed slopes,” for instance, tells you that the grapes were picked by hand (because tractors don’t work so well on steep hills), so labor costs were higher than if they’d been picked by machine, and the clusters were culled for maximum nutrition and sun exposure.

And don’t even think about learning sugar levels. Sometimes those percentages appear on the label, sometimes not. When you’re not sure if a wine is dry or sweet, ask the wine steward.

Nothing on the label, of course, can guarantee that you’ll like the wine. But with a few essentials you’ll at least be better informed about it.

Wine Lingo of the Day: One of the most headache-inducing wine label words is Montepulciano. You just need to memorize the difference between Montepulciano  d’Abruzzo and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. When you see Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, it means Montepulciano is the grape, and the wine was produced in Abruzzo, in eastern-central Italy. Or, you might buy Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. This wine comes from the village of Montepulciano, and it’s made with Sangiovese grapes. They don’t make wine from Montepulciano grapes in Montepulciano. But don’t stress about it; they’re both delicious Big Sexy Reds.

Vino ‘View:  We had a chance to taste this Piovene Porto Godi Merlot 2015 (14.5 percent alcohol; $25) and it was unlike any Merlot we’ve tasted in years. It was powerful – well, just look at that ABV – and more intense than most Merlot. Produced from three 

Piovene Merlot

Merlot clones, this dark-purple wine spent more than a year in French oak barrels, and  you can taste the oak, along with black cherries and some smoke. And it’s a great bottle for practicing your label-literacy skills: Piovene is the family name and Piovene Porto Godi is the brand. “Frá i Broli” describes the special Merlot medley (“frá” means “among”). The back label adds more information; the winery is in Colli (“hills”) di Berici, a district in the heart of Veneto, near Toara (meaning, “good earth”) di Villaga – the name of the town.

My best label-translating advice: keep your phone handy in the wine store, set to Google.

Happy reading!

Mary

[Piovene Porto Godi was submitted to BigSexyReds.com for review.]