Reading the Label

If I were teaching an Introduction to Wine course rather than spending my days tasting until my tongue turned blue, this would be Lesson One: New World wines are usually labeled by grape variety (chardonnay, pinot noir); European wines are labeled by appellation, or place name (Côte-Rôtie, Gevrey-Chambertin Clos Saint-Jacques).  This sounds simple enough, but the differences between the two approaches are philosophical and profound.

In Europe, where winemaking goes back millennia, the distinctive character of soil and site are paramount.  Over the centuries, wine farmers from Portugal to Hungary have figured out what grape variety (or blend of varieties) is capable of most clearly expressing the unique attributes of their parcel of land.  Thus what goes on the label is where the wine comes from rather than what grapes went into the bottle.  Many European consumers have learned, for example, that Côte-Rôtie is made from syrah, and sometimes includes a bit of the white grape viognier.

Meantime, in the Americas, we're still figuring out which grapes do well where. Most New World winemakers are perfectly happy to make bold, varietally accurate, clean wines from thoroughly ripe fruit.  From a commercial standpoint it's hard to argue with that approach.  Most American wine drinkers are more comfortable buying varietally labeled wines because we sort of know what chardonnay, or pinot noir, or cabernet sauvignon means, whereas world geography has never been our strong suit.

Still, this approach to wine-buying puts American consumers at a disadvantage. Unless they've had a specific wine recommended by a friend, critic or wine merchant, Americans are unlikely to pick a Minervois or Jumilla blind off the shelf, even though these wines are good and cheap alternatives to rich reds from California.  Instead, they're apt to buy commercial-grade 'sauvignon blanc' from countries known for inexpensive wines, or to spend much more than they need to for a cabernet from California.

I'm not saying you have to take an intensive French or Italian course to find real wines at affordable prices.  But it's a good idea to learn some key place names and what they mean, especially in France, Spain and Italy, where $15 bottles can compare favorably in flavor interest and complexity to West Coast wines selling for two to five times the price.