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Understanding Wine Names

by David on June 20, 2009

Varietal, Meritage, proprietary and place names: what does it all mean?

Goosecross Wine BottlesWe can start with the fact that here at Goosecross we make a wine called ÆROS. Other Napa Valley wineries have released wines called Insignia, Opus One, Rubicon and so forth. What do the names have in common? They represent wines of great distinction to be sure. Typically, these bottles contain what the producers consider to be the highest expression of their artistry in the vineyard and the winery – you might call it the cream of the crop. Yet the name doesn’t tell you anything about what’s in the bottle. These are proprietary names, which are a relatively recent phenomenon in California wine history.

Varietal vs. Proprietary

As you know, most of the wines here in California, like other new world wines, are named for the grape variety that makes them, such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. For a long time in California we equated the varietal designation with quality. The emergence of proprietary blends and Meritage-style wines was just a natural part of our maturation as an industry. Following prohibition, it took until the early 1970s for a few pioneers here in the Napa Valley to begin producing proprietary blends– and it came from a desire for artistic freedom on the part of our winemakers.

In America, when we name the wine for a variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, the requirement is a minimum of 75% which gives you a pretty good idea of what’s in there. The federal government, which regulates these things, is interested in truth in labeling. However, from a winemaker’s perspective it can be somewhat limiting. What if the Cabernet Sauvignon tastes better if we blend in 40% Merlot this year? Then we can’t call it Cabernet, but we can create a proprietary name — and that’s exactly what we’ve done with ÆROS and what other producers have done when they develop proprietary labels. Since the name doesn’t identify a grape variety the winemaker has complete artistic license when it comes to blending-as long as he uses grapes, of course!

We tend to identify proprietary names with Cabernet based blends, because that’s the way it all started, but these days many of them aren’t Cabernet based at all. For instance, our Goosecross AmerItal is a blend of primarily Sangiovese with a little Cabernet Sauvignon and Bonny Doon Vineyard makes a Rhone-style blend bottled under the playful name Le Cigare Volant. Even with ÆROS we don’t restrict ourselves to Bordeaux varieties. For us, ÆROS is defined as a wine that’s beyond expectations, whatever the variety or blend. With proprietary names the blend is often indicated on back label, and if not, then the best thing to do is consider the track record or reputation of the producer.

Place Names

Many people are of the opinion that European labels aren’t informative. The European classics like Bordeaux and Burgundy, or Chianti aren’t named for grape varieties but instead for the place of origin. It takes a little more education, but the place names actually give you a good idea of what to expect inside the bottle. This is because the governments of those countries regulate which varieties can be used within the region in order to name the wine for it.

Burgundy is a good example of varietal French wine because the reds are Pinot Noir and the whites, Chardonnay. Sangiovese is the main Chianti grape, and it’s legal to make 100% Sangiovese, but the producers are allowed to add limited amounts of other varieties, including whites, to the blend as well. Bordeaux is the model for Meritage style wines, because in Bordeaux there are several varieties allowed and each producer may blend them as he sees fit. For people who grew up with this system it works well. They don’t necessarily care about the names of the grape varieties that make the wines because they’ve become accustomed to flavor profiles that are typical of the regions.

Just to confuse the issue, you’ll see wines called Burgundy, Chablis or Chianti that aren’t grown or made in those places at all. This was quite common here decades ago, when California was trying to regain attention for its wines after the repeal of prohibition. Using names that were already familiar and comfortable to wine lovers seemed a good way to market them, so they used these famous European names. But in America, when we use a European regional name on the label it has no meaning. We may as well call California Chianti generic “red table wine” or Chablis “white table wine”. Currently, the European Union is seeking to tighten regulations so that these names may only be placed on the labels of wines made in the region and it looks like they’re making headway. Most likely those American wines that have used these European regional names in the past will be “grandfathered in” and allowed to continue under certain conditions. Within the EU, the restrictions are already in place-for instance a producer in Germany can’t name his sparkling wine Champagne, even if it’s made in the traditional Champagne method.

Meritage Wines

The term Meritage (pronounced like “heritage”) is an American term that’s very definitely associated with Bordeaux varieties and so the wines are usually Cabernet or Merlot based blends. The name Meritage is a blend in itself! It combines the words merit and heritage. Since varietal wines had been the standard of excellence here in America, the Meritage Association was created to distinguish hand-crafted, high-quality blends from simple red or white table wines or generic, so-called “jug” wines.

The rule for red Meritage wine is it must be a blend of two or more of the red Bordeaux varieties-you can add Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec to the list of the best known Bordeaux reds-and with no single variety composing more than 90% of the blend.

Meritage whites are less common but the rule is the same: use two or more of the white Bordeaux varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Sauvignon Vert, and no one variety can make up more than 90 percent of the blend. One must be a member of the Meritage Association and adhere to the regulations to put the Meritage designation on the label.

Here at Goosecross our new vineyard presents an opportunity to make either our first Yountville District Cabernet or an estate grown Meritage-style wine. Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, has four red Bordeaux varieties aging separately in barrels and he’ll taste those wines repeatedly and make up many, many trial blends over the next year or so. Eventually he’ll make a decision about how to marry them together in the most delicious possible way. What will we call it? Cabernet Sauvignon? Goosecross Estate Meritage? Will we create a new proprietary name? I have no idea, but I can promise that it will be wonderful.

In this maze of labeling practices, one way you can navigate is to look for producers with a good track record and wines that you’ve liked in the past. You might be more willing to invest in a proprietary blend from a producer you trust than from one unknown to you. But surveys tell us that wine lovers tend to be adventurous and don’t want to drink the same brand all the time. So, how do you make a selection? Of course there are lots of different magazines and newsletters that describe and rate wines and that can be a big help. Look for a publication that seems to be aligned with your own taste, since it’s so subjective.

However, tasting is a lot more fun and beneficial than reading! Try joining a tasting group, or even better, come and see us! As a visitor to Napa Valley or any other wine producing region, you have a remarkable opportunity to sample a great number of wines in a short period of time. It’s the best way to find out what you like, make some new discoveries, ask questions first-hand about what we say on the label and most of all, have fun doing it. Cheers!

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