As you probably know, wine grapes are not the same as the ones that make our grape juice or that we buy at the grocery store. And, the reason the names of the wines are so hard to pronounce is that they’re made of grapes of European, or actually Eurasian, origin, called vitis vinifera. It seems you need a French, Italian, Spanish or German pronunciation guide when you’re ordering wine! Vitis vinifera is thought to be native to the area south of the Black Sea, in what is now Georgia and Armenia, and eventually traveled west. Of course, Europe takes the credit for making these varieties famous. Wine residues found in 7th century BC containers, called amphorae, confirm that wine is a very ancient beverage. From a practical standpoint you can assume that wine is as old as man and wild grapes. The ingredients needed to make wine are just grape juice and yeast, and since yeast is everywhere, like bacteria, the first wine was certainly a serendipitous accident.
Wine grapes are good for eating, except for the fact that we’ve been spoiled by modern hybrids that are designed to be large, juicy and seedless. There’s a common misconception that wine grapes are sour, probably because most wines aren’t sweet but, in fact, wine grapes are sweeter than most table grapes at harvest time and are quite delicious! Grapes sold at the grocery store in America are nearly always seedless hybrids like Thompson seedless or native American varieties, such as Concord.
Conversely, wine is made from native American varieties and hybrids but we, as consumers, have rejected most of them and they have a very small market niche. We seem to prefer the old-fashioned varieties that have made wine for centuries. American and European varieties are of the same genus, but not the same species, so they’re different in appearance, growing habits and, most importantly, flavor.
Our names for wine are terribly confusing because they’re not uniform, but it generally breaks down into two categories: If the wine is made in Europe it’s most often named for the region it comes from and the local laws regulate which varieties may be used in the region. For instance Pinot Noir is the red grape of Burgundy, but you’ll rarely see a French wine called Pinot Noir. It will simply be called red Burgundy, or Bourgogne rouge, or it may be named for the village it comes from within Burgundy, like Nuits St. George or even the specific vineyard.
Most new-world wine is named for the grape variety that makes it and the minimum percentage is set by the government, for instance to call it Chardonnay, in the U.S. we must use at least 75% Chardonnay grapes. The lines have begun to blur as the old world works to compete in the vast new-world market and you’ll find many wines from the Languedoc region in southern France with varietal names (and also some Alsatian and German wines that have long identified the variety).
Regardless of the name or variety, the vines are propagated by cutting and in most of the world, vitis vinifera is not grown on its own roots due to lack of resistance to certain soil pests, phylloxera in particular. The first harvest is usually three to five years after planting and the economic life of the vine is often 30-40 years (this is extremely variable).
The vineyard has a one-year cycle. The vines bud out in the spring and are harvested in late summer and early fall. After harvest they drop their leaves and go dormant until the next season. There’s more information on planting or managing a vineyard, on our educational articles page and we have numerous podcast episodes that address viticultural issues.