Chapter 3: Types and Labeling of Wine

Chapter 3: Types and Labeling of Wine

From 1970 to the present, the wine market in the U.S. has enjoyed explosive growth. Sales of California wine have increased dramatically, but so have imported wines as well as those from other states.

Australia  is now the largest exporter of wine into the United States. Australian wine sales in the Unites States doubled from 2000 to 2001. Germany has seen the next largest increase in imports to this country followed by Italy and France. Large inroads by New Zealand and South Africa have also been made.

Argentina may have the greatest potential of all emerging wine producing countries in the world. Its soil and climate are exceptional. The only down side is the uncertain political and economical climate. If things stabilize, it could usher in a new era of very high quality wines, not just in Argentina, but all of South America.

South Africa was a major exporter of fine wines to the United States until the early 1970s. The political situation basically ceased all trade with that country. As things begin to ease up, more South African wines are becoming available and consumers will begin to experience some of the treasures that this country has to offer.

California wineries now ship over 300 million cases of wine, whereas in 1970 the total shipments were under 82 million cases. A major difference is in the type of wine sold; almost 95% of all California wines sold in 2003 were dry Table Wines, compared to under 60% in 1970 when much of the wine was of dessert types. Because of the ever-increasing demand for dry white wines, well over half of California's table wine sales are white wines. Since the French Paradox syndrome however, red wines have enjoyed an increase in market share unlike any other segment in the brief history of wine consumption in the United States.

Studies have shown that 35% of the adult American population can be described as a "regular user" of wine. The adult per capita consumption of wine in the United States is just less than 3 gallons per adult per year or about 1.2 bottles a month. For comparison, in both France and Italy, the adult per capital consumption is close to 20 gallons of wine per year or about a bottle every four days. However, both countries have experienced a decrease in consumption over the last 10 years by more than 30%.

It was once thought that by adding up both the statistical studies and forecasts with the modern marketing trends, that the United States would become a nation of wine drinkers rivaling European countries before the end of the last century. Stricter drinking laws coupled with health warnings and an older population base have slowed this potential growth to a standstill from what was once projected in the mid-seventies. More recently, the benefits of moderate wine consumption have been making news especially with regard to heart disease. However, the laws governing labels have yet to allow any such benefits to be stated on the label.


There are basically three ways to label a bottle of wine: 1) by region, 2) by varietal, 3) make something up. Regional labeling is widely practiced in Europe; varietal labeling is widespread in the United States and the New World. Everybody makes up names for wines that don't fit into either category.

Regional names can range from a country (Product of Italy) to a tiny plot of land such as Pauillac in the Bordeaux region of France. In Italy, a wine may be named Chianti, a large region, or Barolo, a smaller one. It could also take its name from a single, small vineyard within Chianti or Barolo. The use of place names on wine labels in the major European districts is carefully regulated by each country's government. The most obvious examples are the French AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) and the Italian DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata); both translate to "The wine in this bottle comes from a controlled place of origin and must conform to certain laws regarding grape production, yields and processing."  The Italians have added another tier, DOCG, with the "G" standing for "Guarantita" and comes with a guarantee of quality, having been approved by a revue board that actually tastes the wine.

In varietal labeling the wine is named after the predominant grape used. Each country has its own specific laws regarding what percentage of the named grape on the label must be in the bottle. For instance, an American wine labeled "Chardonnay" must contain at least 75% of Chardonnay grapes in it. In certain parts of France where wines are labeled with the grape name, such as in Alsace and occasionally Burgundy, it must be made from 100% of the stated varietal.

Fortunately the use of European place names Chablis, Burgundy, Champagne, Chianti, Rhine and others, on wines made outside of those regions, is now a rarity in California. It was common practice in the 1970s and into the 1980s. These names refer to proper, geographic areas. Inherent in the names are the grapes used to make the wine. All white Burgundy is made from Chardonnay grapes; all red Burgundy from Pinot Noir grapes. It's the law!  The same goes for wines from Barolo and Barbaresco, which must be made from Nebbiolo grapes.

Wineries in the United States and in other non-European countries freely use these place names for their generic wines. In most instances they are offering wines made from a potpourri of grapes that are similar only in color to the European originals. A "California Rhine" or "Australian Rhine" is just a white wine, usually the least expensive. The EEC has agreed not to use the proper names of these geographic locals in the labeling of wines not from these regions. You won't find European wines labeled Chianti or Chablis unless they come from Chianti or Chablis.

Below is a listing of the most common varietals found in the world and a brief description of their flavor characteristics.

One of two "noble" white grapes grown. A medium to full-bodied white wine that often suggests hints of green apples, pears and, sometimes, spice. Known to be one of the most complex, long-lived dry white wines made. In Burgundy, France, Chardonnay reaches its pinnacle of perfection along with its pinnacle of price. While many California, Italian and Australian winemakers use Burgundy as their model, few have been able to attain the components in their wines that send wine connoisseurs into rhapsodic ramblings. Should be served cool, but not too cold.

Occasionally labeled "Johannesburg Riesling."  This misnomer stems from the use of the township where one of the finest Rieslings in the world is grown, Johannesburg, Germany, in the Rheingau. The most typical versions smell like fresh cut flowers, apples and apricot  blossoms. Many are made in a slightly sweet style. Like Chardonnay, it is the other noble white grape and can age for many years. Should be served cool, but not too cold.

Chenin Blanc
A lighter-styled white wine often reminiscent of ripe melons and peaches; occasionally has a slightly herbal aroma. In California this wine can be very dry or very sweet. Most fall in the middle. In Vouvray, France, it takes on totally different flavor profiles of pineapple and spice, along with a gripping acidity, and can be aged for many years. Should be served slightly chilled.

Sauvignon Blanc or Fumé Blanc         
Medium-bodied with a distinctive fresh grassy aroma, sometimes peppery, and also reminiscent of gunflint in character. Fumé Blanc means "white smoke" in French and many describe this wine as "smoky" in character. It is a white  wine to be enjoyed when young or after a few years of aging and is normally very dry. Should be served cool, but not too cold.

Often, in California, a slightly sweet white wine with a unique spicy, musk-oil scent that is assertive. From Alsace, France, and the upper regions of Italy near Tyrol, it can take on more powerful components, age for many years and is normally very dry. Should be served slightly chilled.

Cabernet Sauvignon
One of two "noble" red varieties. More often than not deep, garnet red in color, often with an herbaceous and green-olive aroma and flavor, tannic (astringent) in taste and dry. While California's warm climate ripens Cabernet with very consistent results, Bordeaux's marginal climate forces it to be planted in the Medoc region, near the more temperate Atlantic coast.  Cabernet can be aged for many years and often benefits greatly from it. Should be served at room temperature (approximately 60˚F).

Pinot Noir
The other noble red grape. A medium-bodied dry red wine with an aroma ranging from  peppermint  and spice to cherry, rose petals, violets and truffles. It is enjoyed for its smooth, silky texture and transforms with bottle age into one of the greatest wines produced on earth. It is one of the most difficult grapes to grow and most difficult wines to make. Lukewarm public acceptance, except for the top Burgundies from France, kept its price below Cabernet. Since the early '90s, however, dramatic improvements in quality from California's and Oregon's top producers as well as a strong interest in lighter, more approachable wines to go with lighter foods has seen this grape gain a considerable foothold in the red wine arena. Should be served at room temperature (approximately 60˚F).

A lighter-bodied red wine similar to Pinot Noir in flavor, but with more accented fruit and an aroma like that of raspberries and strawberries. Gamay reaches its pinnacle in the Beaujolais region of France. Should be served at slightly below room temperature (approximately 55˚F).

A distinct, dry, medium to full-bodied red wine with an aroma  similar to plums and cherries with hints of black tea, chocolate and coffee. Its gentle fruit components are often used to soften Cabernet's hard edge. It ripens earlier than Cabernet making it, along with its softer character and different fruit flavors, a perfect addition in the Bordeaux region. Besides being a flavor enhancer, it also provides an insurance policy against inclement weather destroying the Cabernet crop. In those cases, the wine would have more Merlot in it. In California, it is often used to blend with Cabernet as well as standing on its own, occasionally with Cabernet blended in for added body. Should be served at room temperature (approximately 60˚F).

Usually a very dark red wine with aromas of blueberry, earth and tobacco. It reaches its pinnacle in the northern Rhone in the regions of Côte Rotie, Hermitage, St. Joseph and Cornas. Here, the wines generally need 10 years of age from good vintages to round out the rough, animal-like flavors. In California, Australia and South Africa, they tend to be more user friendly, offering large fruit components and soft tannins. Should be served at room temperature (approximately 60˚F).

It's origins were unknown until the early 2000s. It was rightly thought to be the same grape as Southern Italy's Primitivo, which it is. However, it did not originate there, but in Croatia where it is known as Plavac Mali An all-purpose red wine that  is produced in a wide variety of styles. The typical aspect of  the varietal is a berry-like character, similar to raspberries or strawberries. Generally fruity, somewhat spicy in nature. Should be served at room temperature (approximately 60˚F).

Other Varietals
Most other varietals are not  as easy to recognize because they have not been as exposed to the general wine drinking public. They are no less exciting and in many cases can be more appreciated by consumers because of their differences. Among the  white wines offered as varietals, the following are popular,  but can best be described as fruity in nature, and "vinous,"  meaning wine-like: French Colombard, light with gracious flavors of melon and pear; Marsanne, spicy and minerally; Viognier, very spicy and extracted; Pinot Blanc, slight banana and peach flavors; and Semillon, fig and herbal scents. Among the red wines in this mold are several popular wines: Barbera, spicy, but can be astringent; Carignan, soft berry fruit; Cabernet Franc, cranberry and spice; Grenache, minerally and spicy.