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Understanding Wine Labels (Part 5)

Wines named for the majority grape variety from which they are made are known as varietal wines. Varietal labeling began as a way for quality California producers to get away from generic labeling and still give credence to their efforts to create wines that would compete in quality with the finest in the world.


Mayacamas Chardonnay label.

For more than three decades following American Prohibition, most of the wine made in the United States was dessert wine, fortified by the addition of distilled alcohol to increase its strength.1 The majority of wine grape vineyards had been replanted to grape types that ship well (to supply the still-legal "home winemaking" demand) and the best vinifera types were scarce. The demand for fine table wine could be readily supplied by European imports. American table wine, made from the best wine grapes, was a rare find in the 1930s and 40s.

Justin Cabernet label.Many American soldiers returning from World War II had been introduced to fine wine in Europe. Demand began to increase. Table wines from serious American producers attempting to enter the market had no track record to speak of and there was little basis or support for geographic appellations. The labeling choices were to either emulate the Europeans (generic) or work to establish their own identities, through either proprietary labeling or varietal labeling. Louis M. Martini and Inglenook were the earliest to adopt varietal labels in the modern era.2 The public was slow to embrace these unfamiliar names and new packaging.

Frank Schoonmaker, a prominent and influential wine writer who later became an importer and merchant, despised and condemned generic labeling in the 1950s and 60s. As an alternative, inspired by Alsatian wines, he wanted to promote the idea of varietal labeling. Almaden Winery hired Schoonmaker as a marketing consultant. In this capacity he was responsible for introducing and promoting Grenache Rosé to Americans. It became one of Almaden's first, most popular, and longest-lived product successes.

Rochioli Pinot Noir label.

The idea of varietal labels began to catch on with the public in the "wine boom" of the 1970s. During the 1980s, low-priced Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon became known as (improperly3) "The Fighting Varietals" which waged an economic war on the generic wines. The consumer embraced the varietal nomenclature, as much simpler and easier to remember and identify: a dozen or two grape types versus thousands of geographic appellations and vineyards. By the mid-1990s, "Merlot" and "Chardonnay" replaced California "Burgundy" and "Chablis," as the respective consumer buzzwords for red wine and white wine. Generic labels have virtually disappeared from the wine marketplace.

Varietal labeling is also the predominant method of identifying wine types in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and most all other wine-producing countries of the New World. It is much easier for the public to learn a dozen or so grape names than it is to learn hundreds of appellations as well as what grape varieties each grows.

Appellation Controleé system of wine identification is the bread-and-butter of French wine. The whole premise of AC is that terroir, the site selection and ecology of the vineyard, has more to do with the flavor and character of the wine than does whichever grape variety is used. The regulatory agency INAO has always strongly discouraged any label references to grape variety and publicly stated in the 1990s that they planned to eventually eliminate any varietal labeling of AC wines, even those of Alsace, where varietal labeling was practically invented.

Mixed varieties of vines exist in many vineyards throughout France. The historical tendency to use aliases and local names for types adds to the confusion. Repeated anecdotal episodes that indicate the superiority of certain vineyards, relative to neighboring ones, makes wine lovers question, "Why?" The growers offer a self-serving and simplistic logic. Where both vineyard treatments and wine making methods are similar, climate identical, grapes not distinguishably different, it must, by default, be the vineyard and therefore, the soil. The concept of terroir seems to justify commercial variations without explaining or even allowing inquiry into scientific ones.

Advances in ampelography, using techniques such as DNA "fingerprinting", have greatly improved the ability to distinguish between and identify grapevine species and clones. This should lead to improvements in both selection and verification of varieties throughout the wine growing world.

The community of growers and regional marketers have overly-emphasized the contribution of soil composition as a factor to wine flavor, often presenting it a paramount when it is merely contributory. There are even attempts to equate flavors with soil types: chalky taste from chalky soil, flinty flavor from flinty soil, etc. This traditional view began centuries before Pasteur explained the science of fermentation and the awareness of, let alone the ability to recognize and differentiate grape variety was in its infancy.

Soil composition impacts the smell and taste of wine far less than grape variety and probably less than many processes and decisions of wine making, such as fruit processing and yeast selection. It is not the mineral content of soil that influences wine flavor so much as a particular soil's capacity for water retention and drainage and, moreover, how the grower uses that knowledge to manage the quantity and timing of getting water to the vines.

Ongoing research in Australia, California, and Europe points to varietal (and clonal) selection as the prime flavor factors in grapes and wine.

According to the Federal labeling laws set by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, a wine must be made from a minimum of 75% of a particular grape variety to use that grape name on the wine. The wine must also qualify for and use an approved appellation of origin, whether foreign or one of the American Viticultural Appellations.

The minimum content requirement was increased in 1973, from 51% to 75% varietal content. This change has been a mixed blessing for both consumers and producers. Are wines that have more varietal authenticity also better tasting? On one hand, the change dictates increased purity in wines made from delicate-flavored grape varieties like Chardonnay. On the other, this somewhat ties the hands of wine makers who excel at blending as a method to render more complex wines. This restriction has led to the creation of Proprietary branding, such as used by the Meritage Associates cooperative and on the individual labels of the "Rhône Rangers."


Popular Name-

-Last Date *Legal
to Bottle/Use-

-Legal Replacement Name


Pineau de la Loire

January 1, 1997

Chenin blanc


Pinot Chardonnay

January 1, 1997



Grey Riesling

January 1, 1999

Trousseau Gris


Muscat Frontignan

January 1, 1999

Muscat Blanc


Muscat Pantelleria

January 1, 1999

Muscat of Alexandria


Napa Gamay

January 1, 1999



Pinot Saint George

January 1, 1999



Sauvignon Vert

January 1, 1999


Johannisberg Riesling
*January 1, 2006
White Riesling or Riesling
  *Legalities change: for example, the change to Riesling was originally supposed to be implemented on 1/1/1999 ...lobbyists have managed to get extensions and California wines labeled "Johannisberg Riesling 2010" may be found on market shelves, although only on brands with several vintages of historical usage.

There is a very large list of varietal grape names of which the BATF approves for use on wine labels, although many are yet to attain commercial significance. Some semi-varietal names or names with seemingly varietal significance have had their credentials pulled and will no longer be seen on wines produced in America.

"Gamay Beaujolais" has been confusing to the public for a long time. While the couplet is easy for non-French-speaking Americans to pronounce and seems both poetic and romantic, there is no wine grape variety by this name. The grape required by the French AC to be grown in the Beaujolais region is the Gamay Noir variety.

Ampelographers have determined that the variety grown in California and thought previously to be Gamay Noir is actually Valdiguié. Adding to the confusing mire, clones of Pinot Noir that produced light-flavored fruit were formerly allowed, in California, to be labeled "Gamay Beaujolais". Although given an extension for the present, no wines bearing the name "Gamay Beaujolais" may be bottled after April 9, 2007. Until that time, the name may be used, but only if the wine is made from at least 75% Pinot Noir and/or Valdiguié grapes and a statement to this effect must also be printed on either the front or back label.

Worldwide trends in wine labeling are taking two directions simultaneously. One is toward more "branding" of appellations, wine producing estates, and vineyard names. This method protects the exclusivity of the producers, favors pricing limited only by demand, and requires more knowledge and awareness on the part of the consumer.

The other direction points toward increased use of varietal labeling. This makes for more competition among brands, popular pricing, and greater appeal to a generally less knowledgeable consumer. Both methods will probably continue to grow in usage and, in time, may eventually meld so that all wine labels will then reveal both the vineyard location and the grape varieties used.

Jim LaMar

1. Production of dry table wine in the United States did not surpass sweet fortified wine volume until 1967. RETURN

2. American wines do have a history of varietal labeling that goes back to the late 1800s, but the public did not know what to make of them and were more familiar with "generic" labels featuring famous names like Burgundy, Chablis, Chianti, Claret, and Rhine. RETURN

3. Preferred use of the word "varietal" is as an adjective (examples throughout this article); although popular usage of the word as a noun began circa 1983-85, this usage should only refer to qualified wine, never to grapes. The noun "variety" should always be used to reference grapes; e.g., In the market place, varietals often compete with proprietary blends, made from mixed varieties. RETURN

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Page created December 23, 2000; last updated August 28, 2011
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All rights reserved under the DMCA of 1998. © by Jim LaMar.