How to Understand Wine Names, a Layman’s Guide

Wine Grapes

It can be hard to figure out what exactly you’re buying or ordering based solely on the name of a wine. For instance, you might not expect that a Burgundy and a Pinot Noir would be made from the same grape. But in fact they are—the Pinot Noir grape. This confusion exists because European wines are named according to different rules from those used for wines made anywhere else.

New World: Wines Named for Grapes
Most of the wines grown in the United States, South America, and Australia are varietals,  which means that they’re named after the variety of grape they contain. Varietal wine naming makes sense, since the greatest determining factor of a wine’s characteristics is the type of grape from which it’s made. With varietals, you know what you’re getting: if you’re buying a Pinot Noir, you know it contains Pinot Noir grapes.

Sole Grapes and Principal Grapes
If a wine is made from just one grape, it’s named after that sole grape. But some varietal wines are blends of a few different grapes. In blends, the varietal is named after its principal grape—the grape that makes up the largest part of the blend—as long as that grape exceeds a certain percentage of the entire wine. The rules for naming a wine after a principal grape differ slightly by region. In California, a varietal must contain at least 75% of the grape for which it’s named. In Oregon, the requirement is 90%. If a wine contains no one grape that exceeds the necessary percentage, then the wine can’t be named after a grape.

But there’s no rule forcing a wine company to tell you whether a varietal is made from just one grape or a blend. So when you’re drinking your next Pinot Noir, it may be only 75% Pinot, not 100%. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: varietal blends can be better than the 100% “pure” varietals that go by the same name.

Europe: Wines Named for Places
The best European wines are named after the place where they’re made rather than the grapes from which they’re made.

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Wine has been made in Europe for so long that winemakers now know where each grape grows best. This knowledge has been codified into law: in order for a wine to be named after a place, that wine must be made from the grapes that grow best in that place and must meet rigorous standards for quality and taste upheld by regional wine officials. A place name on a European wine, therefore, represents both high quality and the type of grapes used to make that wine. A Burgundy, for example, must be made from Pinot Noir grapes.

Other Wine Names

  • Proprietary names: In recent years the number of wines with fancy, meaningless names like “Opus” or “Phantom” has increased. Usually, wines are given these names when their specific blends of grapes are ineligible for varietal names. Though wines with proprietary names may seem gimmicky, some actually are high quality.
  • Generic names: In the early years of winemaking in the United States and Canada, winemakers often named their wines after famous foreign wines such as Burgundy and Chablis even if their wines tasted nothing like Burgundy or Chablis. Even today, the U.S. and Canadian governments allow wine companies to use generic names that have no connection to the taste or quality of the wine. The most common generic names used in the United States and Canada are Burgundy, Chianti, Chablis, Champagne, Sherry, Port, Rhine, and Sauterne. If you’re buying one of these wines, check where it’s made—it’s the real thing only if it’s from Europe.
  • Brand names: The brand name identifies the company that makes a particular wine. Most wine labels contain both a wine name and a brand name. If you come across a wine that has only a brand name, beware: these are usually low-quality European wines that failed to win the right to use a place name.