What’s in a Name: Wine Names Explained

Wine Names ExplainedFrance, Italy, Spain, the U.S. and Argentina fill out the top five spots for worldwide wine production. Argentina produces 5.38 percent of the world’s wines, while France tops the list at 16.54 percent. We can’t deny wine’s popularity around the world. Yet, few stop to ask “How does wine get its name?” before pouring a glass.

Have you stopped to think about the history of the wine you enjoy? Have you ever wondered why ice wine is called ice wine? How about how sherry earned its name?

Understanding the Basics About the Types of Wine Names

Before delving into the topic of wine names, it’s important to understand two key points. Most wine names tie to the region where they’re crafted or the grapes used during their production. While exceptions to the rule occur, most wineries stick to these principles.

Most wine names tie to the region where they're crafted or the grapes used.

Wines from countries with a long history of producing wines and strict regulations earn the title “Old World” wines. France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain serve as examples for countries producing Old World wines. Traditionally, the region dictates the different names of wine produced in these countries.

Countries with less of a history in wine making produce “New World” wines. Wines falling in this category come from places like Australia, Chile, South Africa and the U.S. The different names for wine produced in these countries typically come from the variety of grapes used during winemaking.

Exceptions with wine names occur from time to time. Some winemakers skip traditions and create names specific to their winery. Others use creativity to come up with names for their blends. As an example, Michael David Winery in California turned to creativity to draw attention to its wines, with The 7 Deadly Zins Zinfandel. In its first decade after the name change, sales grew to 250,000 cases per year.

Wines Named for Their Region

Old World Wines get their name from the region grapes are grown

Old World wines typically get their name from the region where the grapes grow. Just as there are hundreds of grape varieties, regions producing wines also create an extensive list. We’ve narrowed it to some of the more popular regions and wine names.

Italian and Sicilian Wines:

  • Amarone – Veneto
  • Arneis – Piedmont
  • Asti Spumante – Piedmont
  • Barbaresco – Piedmont
  • Barbera – Veneto
  • Bardolino – Veneto
  • Barolo – Piedmont
  • Brunello di Montalcino – Tuscany
  • Chianti – Tuscany
  • Lambrusco – Northern Italy
  • Marsala – Sicily
  • Valpolicella – Veneto
  • Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – Tuscany

French Wines:

  • Beaujolais – Eastern France
  • Bordeaux – Bordeaux region
  • Burgundy – Burgundy
  • Chablis – Burgundy
  • Champagne – Champagne
  • Chateauneuf-du-Pape – Rhone Valley
  • Chinon – Loire Valley
  • Condrieu – Rhone Valley
  • Cotes du Rhone – Rhone Valley
  • Pouilly-Fuisse – Burgundy
  • Pouilly Fume –  Loire Valley
  • Rhone – Rhone
  • Sancerre – Loire Valley
  • Sauternes – Sauternes
  • Vouvray – Loire Valley

Spanish and Portuguese Wines:

  • Port – Douro Region, Portugal
  • Ribera del Duero – Ribera del Duero, Spain
  • Rioja – Rioja, Spain
  • Sherry – Jerez de la Frontera, Spain

Wines named for regions can be confusing to buyers. Take Champagne as an example. Many people mistakenly believe that Champagne earns its name for the variety of small grapes. In fact, Black Corinth grapes, aka Champagne grapes, come from Greece and these grapes do not go into the famous bubbly wine, but are sold as dried currants. Champagne actually contains three varieties of grapes: Chardonnay, Meunier and Pinot Noir.

There are seven items that form the basis of any Old World wine label:

  1. Producer of the wine
  2. Production year for the wine
  3. Region and subregion
  4. “Bottled at the Estate” terminology
  5. Alcohol by volume
  6. Address of the winery
  7. Volume within the bottle

Old World wines rarely list the exact style of wine. It’s assumed the buyer understands the different types of wines coming out of each region. Understanding the regions can help customers shop for Old World wines.

Wines Named After Grape Varieties

New World Wines are named after the type of grape used within the wine

New world wines are frequently named after the type of grape used within the wine. While there are thousands of grape varieties in the world today, Wine Spectator says approximately 1,300 grape varieties make their way into commercial wines. Of those, only 21 grape varieties regularly appear as types of wine names.

Grapes Typically Used in Red Wines:

  • Cabernet Franc: A parent to Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, Cabernet Franc stands out as it ripens earlier. It’s used commonly in blends.
  • Concord: Popular in jellies and grape juice, Concord grapes also make impressive wines. Concord, Massachusetts, earns praise for being the birthplace of the grapes within the U.S. This grape variety ripens early and produces juice with a deep purple color.
  • Cabernet Sauvignon: Scientists proved through DNA analysis that Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. It became the most popular grape variety in the world in 2010.
  • Grenache: Spain’s Garnacha grapes go into some of the world’s best wines. The popularity stems from the flavors these grapes impart into the wines they create. It’s common for Grenache to bring berries and spices to mind.
  • Malbec: Malbec grapes originated in France. Traditionally used to create Bordeaux wines, the grape does create an intriguing wine on its own. It’s not as common due to the vine’s proclivity to root rot.
  • Merlot: Merlot grapes came from Bordeaux, France. Once used in blends, Merlot’s gained a following as a varietal wine.
  • Pinot Noir: History ties Pinot Noir grapes to the Ancient Romans. It’s a harder grape to grow, as it is particular about the climate. The wines it produces, however, make the efforts worthwhile.

The Sangiovese Grape is Tuscany's signature red grape

  • Sangiovese: Cristina Mariani-May, owner of Castello Banfi, calls the Sangiovese grape, “Tuscany’s signature red grape.” It’s a temperamental grape that produces exceptional red wines. Strict Italian rules also make it a grape that’s often restricted from being part of a blend.
  • Shiraz/Syrah: Scientists tested the DNA of Syrah grapes and found it’s a cross between Dureza and an unknown variety of white grapes. Depending on the region, this grape’s also referred to as Sirah or Shiraz. It’s used in dry red wines.
  • Tempranillo: Originating in Spain, Tempranillo grapes predominately serve as a key ingredient in Spain’s Red Rioja. The grapes ripen early and have their own holiday on November 8th.
  • Zinfandel: Zinfandel grapes share very similar DNA to Italian Primitivo grapes. More research found Zinfandel grapes’ DNA matches Croatian Crljenak Kastelanski grapes. Despite the connection to Primitivo, U.S. laws require Zinfandel wines to be called Zinfandels and never Primitivo.

Grapes Typically Used in White Wines:

  • Chardonnay: Chardonnay grapes reached California in the 1800s, but Prohibition led to the destruction of most plants. Some survived and the grape grew popular in the 1970s. This grape crosses the Gouais Blanc and Pinot Noir.
  • Gewürztraminer: Gewürztraminer grapes gained the name from the German word Gewurz, meaning spicy. The grapes do have a distinctly spicy scent. Gewürztraminer grapes contain high sugar contents and produce high-alcohol wine.

Muscat grapes come in 6 varieties Alexandria, Blanc, Diamond, Gaillo, Orange and Summer

  • Moscato/Muscat: Muscat grapes come in six varieties: Alexandria, Blanc, Diamond, Gaillo, Orange and Summer. The variety helps winemakers produce everything from sparkling wines to dessert wines.
  • Niagara: Niagara grapes frequently make their way into white grape juice. It’s gaining popularity for winemaking due to its high yields. The grapes originated in Niagara County, New York, where a cross of Cassady and Concord grapes led to their creation.
  • Pinot Blanc: Pinot Blanc grapes often carry more sweetness than acidity. As a result, wines made with this grape don’t improve with age. Still, it’s a solid choice for someone looking for an easy-to-drink wine.
  • Pinot Gris: Pinot meaning “pine” pairs with gris meaning “grey” to form the name of these grapes. The grape clusters resemble pinecones. The skin on the grapes is a pinkish grey color.
  • Riesling: Riesling grapes create both dry and sweet wines with floral honey notes. Germany grows the largest number of Riesling grapes.
  • Sauvignon Blanc: Brought to California in the 1800s, Sauvignon Blanc grapes impart herbal citrus notes into wines. The climate and soil quality often impact the overall flavor.
  • Seyval Blanc: Developed in France, Seyval Blanc grapes have lower sugar content than many varieties. As a result, the wines don’t age well. Sparkling wines often contain Seyval Blanc grapes.

With New World wines, labels usually provide more straightforward information than those found on Old World wines. Labels for New World wines include:

  • Winery/Estate name
  • Vintage
  • Where the grapes grew
  • Type of wine
  • Address
  • Volume of wine
  • Alcohol content
  • Health warning
  • Sulfites message

Labels for New World Wines clearly state the wine found within the bottle

Labels for New World wines clearly state the type of wine found within the bottle. This makes it easier for novice wine drinkers to quickly find and identify their favorite varietals.

Exceptions to Wine Names

Bottles for wine blends typically state red, white or rose. When a wine doesn’t contain at least 75 percent of one grape variety, the variety goes unlisted. This explains nondescript labels like “sweet red” or “table white.”

Some wine makers go for puns or spins on common names and phrases, while others tribute favorite celebrities. How about sipping a glass of Marilyn Merlot? Mommy’s Time Out is another wine that makes for a humorous gift for the busy mom.

Wine names can take a personal note for some. Musician Sting, lead singer of the Police, owns a vineyard in Il Palagio, Italy. He names his wines after songs like Message in a Bottle. For Francis Ford Coppola, the award-winning director, his Sofia wines are named after his daughter Sofia.

Unique History of Some Wine Names

Some believe Chardonnay grapes originally gained their name from an area in Jerusalem. In 2012, the co-founder of Gvaot Winery told a tour group that Chardonnay grapes came from Israel. The belief is the name came from the Hebrew phrase “sha’har adonai”, which means “gate of God.” Over time, names for this variety of grapes has changed. Chaudenet, Chardonnet and Chardennet are just a few examples. There’s also a village in France called Chardonnay.

Merlot also has a fun story regarding its name. This grape variety dates back to 1784. A document dated 1784 mentions a “Merlau” grape, popularly believed to be based on the French term for a young blackbird, or “Merle”. Some believe the grape got its name from the bird’s dark color, while others believe the birds took a liking to the grapes.

A document dated 1784 mentions a "Merlau" grape, popularly believed to be based on the French term for a young blackbird or Merle"

Ice wine, a sweeter dessert wine, got its name not based on a type of grape or specific region. Despite popular belief, ice wine does not originate in Iceland. Instead it’s based on how the wine is created, a process that occurs when vineyards hold off harvesting grapes until after freezing weather sets in, and workers harvest the frozen grapes from the vine. These frozen grapes ferment into a very sweet dessert wine with pronounced fruit flavors.

The Malbec grape has experienced several name changes and even countries over the years. It initially earned its place as one of the five key grapes of the Bordeaux region in France, and was known as “Pressac” initially. When Sir Malbek transported the grape vines to Medoc, the vines thrived. To honor him, the name of Pressac grapes changed to Malbec grapes. Popularity of the Malbec grape declined in France, but Michel Pouget was responsible for bringing vines on a journey to Argentina. With Argentina’s dry, hot climate, the grapes flourished, developing fruity and spicy notes that we associate with a traditional Argentinian Malbec Wine. Malbec grapes are still grown in France but offer a distinct flavor and frequently are used in blends.

Main Categories of Wine

Now that you understand the different names of wine, how do you pick your favorites? Don’t let shopping for a wine overwhelm you.

Types of wines created throughout the world fall into one of five main categories:

  • Dessert: Dessert wines break down into five categories: Dried Grape, Fortified, Ice, Late Harvest and Noble Rot. The sugar content in grapes increases as the grapes age. As a result, you get incredibly sweet wines.

Dessert wines break down into 5 categories: dried grape, fortified, ice, late harvest and noble rot

  • Red: Red wines get their color from dark purple, red and black grapes. It’s the skin in particular that gives color to the wine.
  • Rose: Rose earns its pinkish tone from the grape skin. Workers remove the skin in a shorter amount of time to keep the red coloring to a minimum.
  • White: Green grapes or Red grapes without the skin create the range of white wines. The lack of red pigmentation limits these wines to a yellow or golden color.
  • Sparkling: Sparkling wine and Champagne gain their bubbles through a second fermentation stage. During this stage, yeast eats sugar found in the wine to create the carbonation.

These five main categories branch into subcategories. The subcategories breakdown wines by level of sweetness: dry, semi-sweet or sweet.

  • Dry wines occur when fermentation removes all sugars from the grapes
  • Semi-sweet wines occur when fermentation removes most sugars from the grapes
  • Sweet wines occur when fermentation removes very little of the sugars from the grapes

From there, different wines have different notes. Some wines may have herbal or grassy notes, while others showcase a clear fruitiness with berry notes. From time to time, you’ll find wines that don’t fit these categories. Fruit wines are a good example. Plum wine, strawberry wine and rhubarb wine provide examples of wines made without grapes.

How to Find and Pick Out Wine by Name

When you find a wine you enjoy, note the varietal. Look up the grapes used and pinpoint the region. With this information, you’ll be able to shop for Old World and New World wines with ease.

Top 10 Most Popular Wines

Looking for a popular varietal? The Wine Market Council came up with a list of favorite wine varietals based on a survey of 1,072 wine drinkers. Participants came from all 50 states in the U.S. The top 10 most popular wines according to the survey are:

  1. Chardonnay
  2. Merlot
  3. White Zinfandel
  4. Pinot Grigio
  5. Cabernet Sauvignon
  6. Pinot Noir
  7. Riesling
  8. Zinfandel
  9. Sauvignon Blanc
  10. Muscat

In that same poll, 58 percent of the respondents say they prefer fruity wines. Semi-sweet followed closely with 57 percent. Dry wines only appealed to 26 percent. In addition, the Wine Market Council asked participants to list the top reasons for deciding which wine to buy. The top five answers were:

  1. Price of the wine (72 percent)
  2. Brand (67 percent)
  3. Varietal (36 percent)
  4. Country the wine’s made in (35 percent)
  5. Label design and information (24 percent)

Of course, don’t forget that the wine you like, and why you pick it is a completely individual choice. At Marketview Liquor, we’re here to help you navigate all of your wine options. We feature wines from around the world as well as a huge selection of New York wines.

We make it easy for you to buy wine online at great prices and have it shipped directly to your door. Save money on wine while trying a variety of options with mix and match case discounts, and free shipping on select bottles when buying six or more. Need suggestions for an upcoming dinner party or event? Just Ask! Our employees will help you find your favorites whether you are visiting our Rochester NY store or buying online.