In the video, “Interpreting Labels,” I mentioned briefly that wines from much of Europe are labeled by their location rather than by varietal. This can present some challenges when trying to sell in the international marketplace, particularly to new buyers, so why do they do it? Essentially, the answer is that you can get even MORE information about a wine than just varietal through these regional labels. Not only do laws dictate what varietals can be grown in a region but some areas control things such as maximum vineyard yields, when grapes are harvested, how much juice can be extracted, oak aging, or even the shape of the bottle.
Furthermore, each region is known for (and exists because of) “terroir”. Terroir (tare-wah) is a French word and while there is no direct translation into English, the concept is how the environment affects the grapes and thus the wine.
The environment includes the soil, elevation, typography, microorganisms and climate—encompassing rainfall, wind velocity, humidity, tendency to fog, hours of sunshine, average temperatures and temperature swings, and so on. The combination of the environment is critical to the quality of the grapes and through this quality, it is possible to identify the origin of the wine. This sense of place is one of the key reasons why wine is so intriguing. The next step is familiarity with the grapes themselves. Factors such as the root growth, density of grapes in a cluster, thickness of grape skins, and vine vigor will dance with the environment. Some partnerships would be disastrous while others waltz like soulmates. Some grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are highly adaptable and grow in nearly every wine region. Others, like Sangiovese are highly specialized in their local areas and are rarely seen outside of it.
The grounding of all wine education is in the concept of terroir. Many of the laws that govern the vineyards and wineries do so largely to preserve the authenticity of the region’s terroir so it is learnable. Once you learn the regions and the typical profiles of the wines that come from that area, you can predict how a wine will taste. This makes it easier to choose a wine from a shelf or a restaurant’s list.
Burgundy is perhaps the quintessential example of terrior. While most red Burgundy is Pinot Noir, and most white Burgundy is Chardonnay, there are infinitesimal differences from village to village, domain to domain, even plot to plot. A minerally Chablis (sha-blee) with its laser acidity is worlds away from a rich Puligny-Montrachet (ready for this one? Pu-lee-nee mohnt-ra-shay). If you saw a Chablis, a Montrachet, and a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay together on the shelf, the Montrachet is a sure bet to go with your Maine lobster! It takes some study to learn terroir and varietal typicity but remember: this is the fun part! Seek out wines that show a sense of place, take notes, do some comparison tastings, and in no time, you’ll be able to predict a wine’s profile by the label alone!