ask dr. vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs. You can also follow me on Twitter: @AskDrVinny.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

If the Chardonnay grape makes Chardonnay wine, and the Cabernet grape makes Cabernet Sauvignon wine, how does a grape like Nebbiolo make two different kinds of wine (Barolo and Barbaresco) or a grape like Sangiovese make three different types (Chianti, Montepulciano and Brunello)? Am I correct in understanding that it is all in the winemaking process?

—Andrea S., Vancouver

Dear Andrea,

Wow, that’s a great question with a complicated answer. The short answer is that it’s not about the winemaking process, but rather about how the terms are used in various wine regions around the world.

It sounds like you have a pretty good handle on the fact that terms like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese can refer both to grapes and to the wines made from those grapes. That’s a solid start.

In some parts of the world—such as the United States—when vintners make wine from, say, the Sangiovese grape, they can put the word “Sangiovese” on the label (as long as there’s a minimum of 75 percent of that grape in the final blend, under U.S. wine law). That’s what’s considered a “varietal” wine, made from one grape variety.

Let’s say I’m making a wine. I might choose not to have the grape variety listed on the label, and instead call the wine something else—“Vinny’s Red,” for example. By not listing the type of grape, I might be confusing consumers who expect to see it, but it would give me the flexibility to change the types of grapes I used, if I wanted to, without changing the label. I could also blend that Sangiovese with other grapes, and either list the grapes in the blend, or just call it by another name.

In other parts of the winemaking world, though—particularly in Europe—labeling laws are much different. Instead of listing what kinds of grapes are in the bottle, what’s typically listed is the region where the grapes were grown and the wine was made. So, Chianti is an appellation in Italy’s Tuscany region, and wines there are made primarily from the Sangiovese grape.

I know it can seem confusing—if you’re new to wine, you have to learn not only the regions but also what types of grapes grow there. If you’re just starting off, you might not know which is the region and which are the grapes. But the good thing is that regional labeling keeps the idea of “Chianti” pure. You know that no matter what year, no matter what producer, Chiantis are going to come from this one region and they’re going to be Sangiovese-based. As you might imagine, there’s interest in protecting terms like Chianti (and more famously, Champagne) so that they refer only to the wines made in that region, even if similar wines are made elsewhere with the same types of grapes.

Of course, many regions allow blends of grapes, sometimes not even mandating that one particular grape dominate the blend (for example, France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, which has more than a dozen approved grapes). Just as varietal wines can contain a certain percentage of grapes besides the named variety, so regional wines can sometimes contain varying blends of grapes.

To expand on your question, the Chardonnay grape is found not only in bottles labeled Chardonnay, but also in white Burgundy. Cabernet Sauvignon might be called Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s also the base of some red Bordeaux. And even though you know that Nebbiolo in Italy is labeled as Barolo and Barbaresco, you might see a bottle from California or Washington labeled as just Nebbiolo.

—Dr. Vinny

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