Varietal versus Appellation Labeling
BY PAUL GREGUTT
Learning how to read a wine label like a pro takes practice. But this at-a-glance guide will help you decipher simple and uuuuh-inducing labels in no time.
Let's start with Europe. Throughout Europe, wines are classified by vineyard, village and/or region in which they are made. This appellation system is based on precisely defined wine regions, some as small as a single vineyard.
Outside of Europe, grape (varietal) names have become the primary method of labeling wines. The introduction of varietal wines in California in the decades following Prohibition was a great leap forward because it provided consumers with specific information about the grape or grapes in each bottle of wine. A California “Hearty Burgundy” can be made from anything, including Concord grapes, but a wine labeled “Pinot Noir” or “Chardonnay” must be made up of at least 75 percent of the named grape. The rest of the blend can be anything the winemaker chooses.
Today, California-style varietal labeling has become so popular that many European wines are using it as well. Most of the every day wines you see on retail shelves are varietal wines. So it is helpful to learn to identify the generally accepted baseline flavors and aromas of each of the principal grapes. When you read that a wine is “varietally true” it means that it shows the scents and flavors associated with the named grape.
Of course, the same grape grown in different places will reveal different sides of its personality, and winemakers may enhance the natural grape flavors with special yeasts and by storing them in barrels. But each of the world’s major, important grapes has its own distinctive varietal characteristics.
Speaking of varietal characteristics, don't miss our Red Wine Basics guide, which breaks down the flavor profiles of the most common red varieties, while our White Wine Basics cheat sheet teaches you everything you need to know about the world's most common white grape varieties.