It’s no coincidence that the same people who say they love Sauvignon Blanc are also satisfied with a Sancerre, or that fans of Pinot Noir also have an affinity for Burgundy. That’s because these wines are actually made from the same grape variety.
In fact, it’s not uncommon to be unaware of which grapes you’re actually enjoying when you order a glass of wine. Inconsistent naming practices across the world of wine constantly stir up confusion, which proves to be one of the greatest barriers to wine education: each country, and sometimes even individual regions, have their own labeling laws.
For example, if you buy a wine from France, it’s typically classified by region under the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) system. Therefore, the most well-known French wines are names of places — Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Sancerre, and so on — not grapes. In the U.S., and other countries outside Europe, the wines are generally labeled by grape variety, some of the most popular being Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. But in countries like Italy, some wines are labeled by region and others by grape, and a few are a combination of both. (Take Dolcetto d’Alba: Dolcetto is the grape, and Alba is the region). When the bottles that line wine shop shelves flip flop between region and grape, it’s no wonder why wine labels are so frequently lost in translation.
Without taking a full-on sommelier certification course, it can be difficult to keep track of all of the varieties and regions you might see on labels out there, so we figured we’d help you out with this easy-to-follow guide. Read on to discover which grapes make up the most iconic wines from around the world.
Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Though it’s tempting to use Champagne as a blanket term for all sparkling wine, this specific type of bubbly can only be made in its namesake region in France. To earn the label of Champagne, the vines need to be grown within the boundaries of the small northern appellation, and made from a certain set of varieties in a specific style. The primary grapes used in Champagne production are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Even though these three varieties make up the majority of Champagnes, there are actually seven grapes permitted in the wine and are used on occasion, with the additional varieties being Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris.
Sancerre: Sauvignon Blanc
Sancerre is a small appellation in the Centre-Loire subsection of France’s Loire Valley. The vineyards in the region surround their namesake town in an area renowned for both wine and goat cheese. The white wines here are made from Sauvignon Blanc and are known for their crisp, acid-driven profiles with notes of citrus and hints of grass. Other small towns that surround Sancerre like Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon are also known for their fresh and flinty styles of Sauvignon Blanc. It’s also worth noting that red wines from Sancerre are made with Pinot Noir, and though they are more difficult to find, they’re delicious.
Muscadet: Melon de Bourgogne
Muscadet is a bit of an outsider when it comes to France’s naming conventions. While French wine labels typically correspond with region, the name Muscadet has nothing to do with the town the grapes are grown in or the grape variety. Muscadet wines come from around the city of Nantes in the Lower Loire Valley near the Atlantic coast, resulting in fresh, mineral-driven wines beloved for their easy-drinking crispness, ability to pair extraordinarily well with seafood, and approachable price tags. The grape used to make these wines is called Melon de Bourgogne, which is rarely found outside the Loire, but there are some examples we love from the U.S.
Vouvray: Chenin Blanc
Vouvray is the most recognizable of several appellations across the Loire Valley known for making wines from the Chenin Blanc grape. This variety is known for its great range, producing wines that can be dry, off-dry, sweet, or even sparkling. If you’re a fan of Vouvray and are looking to explore the Chenin Blanc grape from other regions, you can try other appellations from the Loire Valley like Savennières or Anjou or you can mix it up with a bottle from South Africa, which is also known to produce high-quality Chenin Blanc.
Not to be confused with the cheap California jug wine that, ahem, “borrowed” its name, Chablis is the northernmost subregion of the prestigious Burgundy. It’s known for its cool climate and distinct soils that make it ideal for growing crisp, high-acid expressions of Chardonnay. Compared to other regions farther south in Burgundy or in California, these wines are generally unoaked, so Chablis can even appeal to the most adamant anything-but-Chardonnay drinker.
White Burgundy: Chardonnay
White wines from Burgundy labeled as Bourgogne Blanc or a more specific village name are made from Chardonnay. So yes, even though Chardonnay can get a bad rap in California, it actually makes up some of the most sought-after white wines in the world. The style can vary from village to village, and while many enthusiasts enjoy parsing out the individual differences between each appellation, overall these wines are known to have a bit more richness and oak influence than Chardonnay from Chablis, but still show elegance and restraint.
Red Burgundy: Pinot Noir
Similarly, if a wine is labeled as Bourgogne Rouge or a more specific village name from within Burgundy, this wine is made from Pinot Noir. These wines are known for their light red fruit flavors, earthiness, and complexity. They’re also renowned for their ability to express terroir, or a specific sense of place, and are often labeled according to the exact vineyard area where they are grown, which can make them some of the most expensive bottles in the world. So if you’re a fan of red Burgundy but are looking for a similar wine at a more approachable cost, seek out Pinot Noir from cooler-climate regions like Santa Barbara, the Sonoma Coast, New Zealand, or Germany as good alternatives.
Beaujolais is a region just to the south of Burgundy known for making juicy and easy-drinking red wines from the Gamay grape. At their most basic level, these wines will be labeled as simply Beaujolais, which means the grapes could be sourced from anywhere in the region. If the wine is labeled as Beaujolais-Villages, the grapes have to come from any of the 38 villages specifically designated for quality. But the wines from the 10 most prestigious areas in Beaujolais are known as the “crus” and the names of these areas can be listed on the label. So if you love Beaujolais wines, you could also seek out wines labeled as Morgon, Fleurie, Chiroubles, and so on, as these are also made from Gamay. There are also great expressions of Gamay to be found in the Loire Valley, as well as the U.S.
Côtes du Rhône: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre
Côtes du Rhône wines are great crowd-pleasing reds that can easily be found at an affordable price. Their approachable, medium-bodied, fruit-forward blends are typically composed of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre. Grenache can provide big, jammy fruit characteristics while Syrah and Mourvèdre provide more structure and savory notes, coming together to make a red blend that has something for everyone. Though those three grapes tend to make up the backbone of most of the wines (earning the blend the nickname GSM) small amounts of other local grapes including Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, and Vaccarese are also permitted. The main trio are also the primary grapes used in the more prestigious appellations of the Southern Rhône, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras.
Unlike the blends of the Southern Rhône, the red wines of the Northern Rhône are focused on a single variety: Syrah. The slopes of this region are renowned for their savory, spicy, and elegant expressions. Hermitage is among the most sought-after appellations within the Northern Rhône, along with Côte-Rôtie and Cornas. For slightly more approachable wines, look to the regions of Saint-Joseph or Crozes-Hermitage. Beyond France, there are also great examples of Syrah coming from California and Australia, where it is locally known as Shiraz.
Red Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc
Although the name Bordeaux has become synonymous with a certain style of red blend, it is actually the name of a region in France on the Atlantic coast. The grapes that go into these illustrious blends include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, as well as smaller percentages of Malbec, Petit Verdot, and sometimes Carménère. To combat climate change, four new grapes were recently added to the list of accepted varieties: Touriga Nacional, Marselan, Castets, Arinarnoa. Areas within Bordeaux are known for their different styles: the Left Bank primarily focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon-focused blends and the Right Bank is more Merlot-dominant.
White Bordeaux: Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Muscadelle
White wines from Bordeaux can be labeled as Bordeaux Blanc, or under a few high-quality region names including Pessac-Léognan, Entre-Deux-Mers, or Graves. These wines are often blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon with a touch of Muscadelle. The wines can vary in style depending on if they’re Sauvignon Blanc- or Sémillon-dominant, ranging from light and crisp to more rounded and textured. If you’re a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux is a great region to explore for a great value alternative to Sancerre.
Chianti, the ultimate pasta-and-pizza-pairing wine, is a designation in the beautiful hills of Tuscany. The wines under the Chianti classification must be composed of at least 80 percent Sangiovese — the most planted red grape in Italy — and can have up to 20 percent of other red varieties such as Canaiolo Nero, Ciliegiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Syrah.
Brunello di Montalcino
Brunello di Montalcino, produced from the vineyards surrounding the charming town of Montalcino, is one of the most reputable, and expensive, wines in Italy, and it’s also made of the Sangiovese grape. As opposed to Chianti, wines under the Brunello di Montalcino appellation need to be 100 percent Sangiovese, so no blending is allowed. Further, they need to use the specific Brunello clone of this grape. Therefore, these wines are often revered as the most precise expression of the Sangiovese grape.
Barolo is a hilly region in Piedmont known for making stunning and impressively age-worthy wines from the Nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo is also used in the celebrated wines of Barbaresco, another nearby appellation in northern Italy’s Piedmont region. Since these are small areas, the wines from these designations cost a pretty penny. For a more accessible way to explore the Nebbiolo variety, look for wines labeled as Langhe Nebbiolo, which are made from the same grape but are sourced from the larger, overarching area of the Langhe as opposed to specific high-quality towns.
The red wines of northern region Rioja are some of the most well known in Spain. The Tempranillo grape typically dominates these blends, but a wide variety of grapes are actually permitted to be included, too, including Garnacha, Graciano, Mazuelo, and Maturana Tinta. Tempranillo is also the primary grape of Ribera del Duero, another well-known region in the country.
*Image retrieved from MargJohnsonVA – stock.adobe.com