Grape and ground

In simplistic terms, Old World (European) wine labels feature wine-making place, while New World (not European) wine labels feature wine-making grape.

That may make fathoming New World wine labels easier, but grape varietal labeling also means you may know less about what to expect from the bottle.

Chardonnay is a chameleonic creation. Oak or stainless steel or a combination? Malolactic fermentation or not or some? Cool fermentation? Lees stirring? All combine to produce different chards.

Various places in Burgundy produce distinctive wines using chardonnay grapes, and—following strict laws—they do so consistently so you know Pouilly-Fuissé is chardonnay made a specific way from grapes grown in the Pouilly-Fuissé appellation (geographic delimitation) of the Mâconnais district.

The village (commune) or chateau on the label tells you even more about what to expect, even if vintage variations can affect taste.

In contrast, California chardonnay makers can make several styles of chardonnay and label all chardonnay. Legally, the wine can include up to 25 percent of juice from grapes that are not chardonnay, and—with some restrictions—the grapes can come from anywhere. Phooey on terroir.

It may take a wine-drinking lifetime to sort all this out, but below are some grape varietals and their  Old World region and appellation names. Be brave. Find an Old World effort and compare with its New World rendition.

  • Chardonnay. Burgundy: Bourgogne, Chablis, Mâconnais, Côte d’Or, Côte de Beaune.
  • Pinot noir. Burgundy: Bourgogne, Côte de Nuits, Côte d’Or, Côte de Beaune.
  • Sauvignon blanc. Loire Valley: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Cheverny.
  • Sangiovese. Tuscany: Chianti, Umbria.
  • Syrah. Rhône Valley: Côte-Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas.

Tasting notes:

  • Baron de Montfort Chateau de Monbadon Côtes de Bordeaux 2011: Rustic red, black cherry; dry; puckering tannin; affordable example of Bordeaux merlot-cab right-bank blend. $14
  • Roland Lavantureux Chablis 2011: Lilting, light citrus, lemon; cleansing acidity; balanced, pure expression of Burgundy chardonnay. $29
  • Olivier Hillaire Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012: Full-body, rich, textured power; raspberry, red currant, spice; layers of flavors & finesse; every wine lover should experience this grenache-syrah-mourvèdre blend. $56

Last round: I just joined a terrific reading club. We only read wine labels.