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A Wine by Another Name

Posted On October 1, 2019

A brief clarification of wine terms

By JARRETT DEERWESTER, Sommelier

To loosely paraphrase the famous Shakespeare “rose by another name” quote; “What’s in a name? That which we call a Sancerre, by any other name would smell as sweet as a Sauvignon Blanc.” Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc are the same wine. Sancerre is simply Sauvignon Blanc produced in Sancerre, France. But, one would never know that from reading the label on a bottle of a Sancerre. So you can’t fault the average wine drinker if they are a bit confused by the terms used on bottles.

Regrettably, like most serious hobbies, wine is overly complicated by tradition and vocabulary. Sailing is another great example; even though there are dozens of ropes on the deck of every sailboat, I am told you can never call any of them just a rope. Each rope on a sailboat has a traditional term: halyard, sheet, line, or some other silly term. Wine is just as obtuse. Let’s decode a few terms that most wine drinkers are familiar with but perhaps are hesitant to admit they don’t fully understand.

Bordeaux: The name is derived from a city located near the west coast of France, and denotes a red blend. Red blends are the top selling category of wine in the United States; however Bordeaux’s — which are the granddad of red blends barely appear on most wine buyer’s radar. Bordeaux’s come in two basic varieties, left bank and right bank. These terms refer to the left and right banks of the Garonne River as you float though the vineyards towards the Atlantic Ocean. Cabernet Sauvignon happens to grow better in the soils on the left side of the river, and Merlot does better on the right side. When someone refers to a Left Bank Bordeaux, they are simply describing a Cab-based red blend from the region. A Right Bank Bordeaux refers to a Merlot-based red blend. Traditionally, these two main grapes are blended with Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Claret: Before we leave Bordeaux there is a second term that further obscures these red blends. The term Claret is often thought to simply be what the British called red wines from Bordeaux. This is only partially true. What the French never told the British was the Claret they created for export to Britain was blended to be less dry (more sweet) than Bordeaux intended for the domestic French market. But at the end of the day, Claret is just a Bordeaux red blend.

Chablis: Most confusing wine terms originate from France where they place greater importance on the region as compared to the grape varietal. Chablis is no exception. Chablis is a term that was grossly abused in the United States in the 1970’s. The term became synonymous with any cheap white jug wine.  Chablis is a wonderfully elegant Chardonnay grown in the Chablis region of France and typically is leaner and more mineral driven than the fruit forward oaky Chardonnays California is famous for. These are exceptionally good food wines.

Burgundy: Pinot Noir is the top
selling wine in the U.S. but French Burgundy is rarely seen on restaurant wine lists. Red Burgundy is simply Pinot Noir produced in the Burgundy region of France. White Burgundy is a Chardonnay from this region.

Champagne: Technically under French and international law, this is a white sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region, with all fermentation and carbonation occurring “method traditional” in the final bottle. Fail to meet any of these rules and it can’t legally be called Champagne. Meet all of the above requirements but produce the wine just outside of the Champagne district and it is now legally called Cremant. Produce the same wine in Spain and carbonate it in large fermenters prior to bottling and it is now called Cava. Do the same in Italy, and it is now called Prosecco. Any combination of the above in the U.S. is called Sparking Wine.

Chateauneuf du Pape: This bottle is easily recognizable as each bottle produced in the region is embellished with the Catholic Pope’s crest of crossed keys and Papal Mitre. A little-known fact is for much of the 14th Century the Papal seat was located in this region of France rather than Rome. This region is best known for their red blends. Although legally there are 18 varietals that can be grown in the region, most of the wines from this region are referred to in the trade as GSM blends (Grenache noir, Syrah, and Mourvédre). If you enjoy red blends be sure to try a bottle or two. Côtes du Rhone wines are by and large also a similar GSM blend. Like Chablis, the French versions of these red blends are typically a bit drier, more complex, and more mineral driven than similar red blends from the new world.

Hopefully, armed with this vocabulary your next trip to purchase wine will be a bit less confusing and more enjoyable!