“Why don’t the French put grape names on their wine labels? It’s so confusing.” A familiar comment – and one I heard again at a tasting I ran recently.
I can fully understand the view; grape names (or the 20 or so most popular ones, at least) are recognised by most customers buying wine and they know what to expect when they pick up a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Chardonnay or a Pinot Grigio. But, when they’re faced with a wine labelled ‘Chiroubles’ or ‘Cairanne’, things aren’t so straightforward. Sadly, there’s no easy solution.
These – and many other French (and Italian and Spanish) wines – are labelled after the place they come from, not the grape (or grapes) they’re made from. There’s a good reason for this: in most of the traditional winemaking areas of Europe, there’s a very strong attachment to the land (as anyone who has ever been stuck in a traffic jam behind a French farmers’ protest will confirm!) So, it’s not just the grape variety that is important, it’s the soil, the climate, the slope of the land, the traditions of the area – all contribute to the taste in the bottle. The French call this ‘terroir’. And, given that, why would they single out just the grape name to put on the label when it’s the place and all it offers that makes the wine what it is?
Compare that to much of the New World, where things are very different: particularly in Australia, it’s quite normal to blend grapes grown in different areas, even different States. So, without the same link to a place, why not use the grape name to sell your wine? The fact that it’s easier for customers is simply a bonus – one that’s been the foundation of the great New World wine success story over the last 30 years or so.
It may seem strange, but I can’t see the French changing anytime soon. Terroir is vital to them and so it will remain. For the rest of us, it’s just a case of learning which grapes make which wine (or, sometimes, checking the back label).
(For those who are interested, the Chiroubles I mentioned earlier uses the Gamay grape, whereas the Cairanne is likely to be a mixture including Grenache, Syrah – aka Shiraz – and probably several other local varieties).