Wine is simple, yet a great mystery. It’s grape juice, but oh so much more.
Often in a dark bottle. No matter, most of what we can really see is the label. And wineries go to great lengths to get our eye on an increasingly crowded shelf with colorful designs and catchy names.
How about a look at what’s in the name when it comes to wine? Now we can’t peep at them all or we’ll take up the whole food section.
Go back a number of years and if you wanted white wine, you asked for a glass of Chablis. Sure, it was white wine, but it was not Chablis - a wine made in the Chablis area of Burgundy in France.
This was a time when California wine makers attached names like Chablis and Burgundy to their wines to add appeal. These were also a grade above mountain white and red.
Treading on Chablis is mostly a mistake of the past. Yet we can still buy a box of Peter Vella Chablis today.
Champagne is likely the most misused wine name these days. Many of us refer to any sparkling wine as Champagne even though it’s not. Champagne is a wine made in the Champagne region of France. Not made there? Not Champagne. There’s lots sparkling wine made in France that’s not Champagne.
There are great sparkling wines made all over. French wineries operate in California. Lots of bubbles come from New York State. None are Champagne, however. So, when somebody says, “I’ll bring the Champagne,” that’s probably not what you are getting.
Zinfandel is a dark red-purple grape that makes a rich red wine. Yet when many of us ask for a glass of Zinfandel, we expect a slightly sweet pink wine.
Its creation was finding a way to use the abundance of those grapes. Getting the juice off the skins made the wine pink and finishing it differently produced the sweetness. The name White Zinfandel was born.
Especially in this country, White Zin has given Rosé an undeserved bad name. Many assume one to be sweet and shallow. But not true. These wines are complex dry creations that have abundant fruit and are wonderful for summer. Think picnic and tailgate.
Chardonnay is now our “go to” white wine. In fact, “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay” simply means pour me some white wine – not necessarily Chardonnay.
Fine examples of this wine are made worldwide. It is the white grape of Burgundy. All those famous white wines are made from Chardonnay. Think Pouilly Fuissé. Sauvignon Blanc is now being requested as a white of choice.
Merlot has slipped in favor. Asking for a glass of Merlot will probably get you just some red wine. Same can be true for Cabernet. Yet that one may get you a better pour.
Pinot Noir has gained in favor. This lighter red is very food friendly. Say pee-know nuh-wah. BTW, this is the red grape of Burgundy.
Blends are popular these days. Marketed as something new, they are far from it. In fact, many wines are blends and always have been. Think Bordeaux. The Rhones of France are blends.
Specific varietals, single vineyards and the like are mostly new. Apothic Red is an easy-drinking red blend. Conundrum Red had much more body and interest. Both have a white version too. There’s even an Apothic Rosé, Crush and Inferno. The Gallo marketing team at work.
What’s a prisoner? It’s the name of another popular wine – a red blend. Used to be a wine with a name was something special. Wines like Insignia and Opus One were and still are special. Now many wines have names basically to get our attention and make them appear different.
The Australian wineries are masters of names. Yes, Grange was and still is special. Many of the Australian names have a history, but are mostly marketing these days. Think 19 Crimes.
Traditionally French and Italian wines rarely mentioned the grapes. They are named for the place the grapes are grown and the wine is made.
Chianti is a place. So is Beaujolais. Same for all the Chateaus of Bordeaux, and so on. The name tells us where, and we assume the local grape is used – like Sangiovese for Chianti.
Wine – what’s in a name? Looks like there’s a good bit and always more to come.
Jim Sikes is an Opelika resident, a food, wine and restaurant consultant, and a columnist for the Opelika-Auburn News. Contact him on Facebook at In the Kitchen with Chef Jim.