Question from Marcia: Why do California wines have French names?
Answer: Hi, Marcia! Thanks for writing! We’re not trying to be pretentious – honest! 😉 In some cases California wineries have adopted French names out of respect for our European mentors, for instance the word “chateau” is a French word for a winemaking house and there are local wineries named Chateau Potelle or Chateau Montelena.
More likely, you’re referring to the wines themselves. In most of the new world the wines are named for the grape variety that makes them, for instance Chardonnay is a grape variety that’s different from Pinot Noir, just like Fuji apples are different from Granny Smith.
All over the world the vast majority of wine is made of grapes of European, or actually Eurasian, origin, called vitis vinifera, so you end up speaking French, Italian, Spanish or German when you’re ordering it. 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 tell us that wine has been around for a very long time. You can figure that wine is as old as man and wild grapes since all you need to make it besides grape juice is yeast, which is everywhere, like bacteria. Imagine early man thinking he had saved some grape juice in a pot and then several days later found something much more interesting!
Wine grapes are good for eating, except for the fact that we’ve been spoiled by modern hybrids that are designed to be big and juicy, and not to annoy us with seeds. When you buy grapes at the grocery store in America, they’re usually seedless hybrids like Thompson seedless or a Native American varieties, such as Concord.
Conversely, you can make wine from Native American varieties and hybrids, but we, as consumers, have rejected most of them over and over again. 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.
There’s no uniformity in the way wines are named around the globe, so it can be confusing. It pretty much boils down to this: 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 of the new world names the wine for the grape variety itself and the minimum percentage is set by the government, for instance in the US to call it Chardonnay, we must use at least 75% Chardonnay grapes. The lines have begun to blur, making it even more confusing. In order to compete in the new world some of the old world producers have begun using varietal names, especially in the Languedoc region in southern France.
So, that’s long answer to a short question! I hope it helps! Cheers! Nancy