What's In a Name?
A "variety" is just a grape, and a "varietal" is a wine made up of 100% of a particular variety of grape. However, United States law allows that a wine may be labeled in the manner of a varietal if it contains 75% of that variety of grape. So, the next time your bottle says Cabernet Sauvignon, check the label. Perhaps your "Cab" also contains something like Merlot, Cabernet Franc or some other grape. (This isn't a bad idea, since you can give a Cabernet a "smoother" quality by blending in "smoother" grapes.)
French wines follow labeling rules which are a bit different. A red Burgundy is made of 100% Pinot Noir, grown in the Burgundy area of France. A French Bordeaux is made with different grapes (see "Meritage," below), but again is grown in the Bordeaux area of France. So your rule for French wines is that they are known by the geographical area of origin (also known as "appellation"), not by grape. Another example is Chablis (which happens to be an area in Burgundy), which is made of 100% Chardonnay. Also, the vintner must follow certain standards and practices in the production of the wine, set out by the Appellation d'Origine Controlee (A.O.C.). The A.O.C. also sets out standards for the quality of wine which range from Vins Delimites de Qualite Superieure (VDQS--the best quality) to Vins de pays ("county wines") to Vins ordinaires (ordinary wine). The A.O.C. system is used throughout Europe.
One note about the A.O.C. Like just about all laws, there are those who must feel that they must be broken. There are the oft repeated rumors that unethical producers will dilute their wine with grapes not in accord with the law. It has been said that much of the impetus to give the southern Rhone communes their own appellations was to put a stop to the practice of illegally blending those wines into Burgundy.
The final word, as always, is that vigilance is required on the part of the government and the consumer.
So a quick summary of these rules are that United States wines are characterized by what goes into them while French wines are characterized by where the grapes are grown.
Winemakers may also put a very specific area from which their grapes are harvested on the label. For example, there are excellent U.S. Pinot Noirs that come from the "Rochiolli vineyard" in Sonoma. A single producer thus might have a line of 4 or 5 Pinot Noirs, perhaps all from Sonoma, but not all from the same vineyard. Often (but not always--to each their own), "better" (or at least more expensive) wine comes form a "better" vineyard. In the United States there are places called "Approved Viticultural Areas" or AVA. If 75% of the wine is grown in that AVA the AVA may be placed on the label.
Other terms may be placed on the bottle which the winemaker used to denote a "better" wine (perhaps based on the style of production, aging, grapes, etc.). One such term is "reserve." You may feel, however, that a non-reserve wine (usually less expensive) tastes better to you than what the winemaker has labeled "reserve."
French Bordeaux is made from a blend of grapes. It might contain, for example, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. The amounts differ (for example, in the Bordeaux appellations St. Emilion and Pomeral, Merlot tends to be the dominant grape, while in the Medoc (Paulliac, St. Esteph, Margaux, and St. Julien), Cabernet Sauvignon is dominant. The important point, is that no matter what the grapes, it is a "blend" of grapes, though it might be that something like Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon will be a very large percentage of the wine.
In the United States, a wine cannot be called by it varietal name unless that grape is at least 75% of the wine. As a merchandising tool, a new name has reached the marketplace. Producers in the United States creating blend wines (usually with less than 75% of any particular grape) have agreed to use the term Meritage to designate a high quality wine using Bordeaux style blends of grape varieties.
While "Meritage" is a blend that is often used to denote an upscale wine, blends (not labeled Meritage) as such can represent a very good value in the purchase of wine. Look for, example, wines denoted "Table Wine" instead of with any particular grape.
We've mentioned some definitions previously, but there are those who like to get into the nitty gritty--especially the United States Treasury Department which is the agency that runs the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobaco and Firearms (now there's quite a mix!). Here are some more definitions more or less specific to the U.S.:
A varietal wine is named for the grape variety or varieties from which it is produced. In order to be named after that one grape, the wine must contain not less than 75% of that specific variety. If two or more grapes are named, the total for each must be printed on the label and the total must equal 100%. The rule follows for Vitis vinifera wines and French-American hybrids only. On the other hand, Vitis labrusca can be labeled as a varietal with only 51%. Of course you might want to know about the State of Oregon which requires that varietals must be 100% of the specific variety.
A semi-generic wine, is a wine named for and made in the style of a European geographic district. Wines like "California Chablis," or "American Burgundy." Since the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) has never defined what "in the style of" means, wineries can make up anything they want.
If the appellation is the nation or a state, 100% of the grapes which go into the wine must come from the United States or the specific state. Now a winery which gets grapes from a neighboring state (for example, a California vintner getting Pinot Noir from Oregon), may label the wine "Oregon." But, if the state is not a neighboring one (for example, a California vintner getting Cabernet from Washington State), the only permitted appellation is "American." That makes sense, doesn't it?
If the appellation is a political designation within a state (say a county such as Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino), not less than 75% of the grapes in the wine must originate from within that political boundary, and it must be tied into the varietal minimum. If the appellation is a geographic designation (for example, an American Viticultural Appellation, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Stag's Leap District, Carneros or the North Fork of Long Island), then not less than 85% of the grapes must originate from within the boundary, and it must be tied into the varietal minimum.
The vintage date is not the year in which the grapes were grown. Rather, it is the year in which the grapes were harvested. So, if you harvest Gamay grapes from Monterey on January 2nd, the vintage is the brand-new, two-day-old year. 95% of the grapes must be from this year.
For an alcohol content of less than 14%, wine may be labeled "Table Wine," or it may give a percentage of alcohol content that is accurate within 1.5% either way. So a wine labeled "12.5% Alcohol by Volume" may legally be anywhere from 11-14%. A wine labeled "13.5% Alcohol" may be as low as 12% but not more than 14%. However, if the wine is 14.01% or greater in alcohol, the precise number must appear on the label and it must be accurate--no leeway. The tax rate on alcohol contents 14% and above changes and the government wants the extra money!