There are more than 5,000 varieties of wine grapes (Vitis vinifera). About 230 are used to make quality wine. Only some 80 varietals account for the bulk of production.
Even so, 80 different grapes—a dizzying assortment. What’s a consumer to do?
Answer came when New World winemakers began identifying wine by the grape or grapes used in production. UC Davis, our country’s premier wine university, refined and championed this practice beginning in 1950s; such labeling gets credit for the wine boom that began in the 1970s and continues today.
The practice is called “varietal labeling,” and it has rules varying from country to country.
In United States, varietal must contain at least 75 percent of grape named on the label. In Australia, it must be 80 percent.
In contrast, Old World labels typically identify the location where the wine was made or grapes grown. If you are a seasoned connoisseur, the Old World method may tell you more about the wine in the bottle, but for the remaining 98.6 percent of us, “sauvignon blanc” tells us more than “Pouilly-Fumé.”
When label has two grape names, such as cabernet sauvignon-merlot, it is a blend and not a varietal.
Varietal labeling gives the average wine drinker a clue about what to expect. Cabernet sauvignon has plum, currant, black cherry flavors. Zinfandel pepper and wild berry flavors. Sauvignon blanc herbal and light and great with food.
The system is far from fail-safe. Chardonnay can be made so many different ways, who knows what the stuff in the bottle tastes like. Until you try. Which is joy of wine, no matter the labeling system.
- Duchman Family Winery Montepulciano 2012: Strikingly great earth, leather nose; black cherry, blackberry; very smooth, silky mouth, mild tannin, politely restrained oak, balancing acidity; delicious; Italian varietal, but this is 100 percent Texas juice. $11 (375 ml)
- Messina Hof Cabernet Franc 2012: Rich, medium body, fruit forward palate pleaser; pepper and vanilla nose; blackberry, plum, cherry, herbal notes, pinch of tobacco; dry, low tannin, some acidity; good finish; nice Texas value. $13
Last round: Stone Age wine pairing: if it tried to eat us, serve red; if it tried to run away, serve white.