When a reader asked if Beaune was the name of a grape, I was reminded of the time I ordered a glass of zinfandel from a restaurant wine list, only to be served a pinkish, slightly fizzy beverage.
The reader s question and my restaurant experience show that the wine world s nomenclature is not always clear to everyone. An important trade and production center (Beaune) is not a grape, for example, and a jazzy mock-up of what is almost California s signature wine (zinfandel) is not the respectable varietal it parodies.
A basic wine vocabulary is in need of review, and wine names are a start.
Beaune ( bone ) is the wine capital of Burgundy, a region that has been cultivating fine winegrapes and making wine since the Greeks, maybe the Phoenicians, and the Romans were hanging around the mouth of the Rhone River.
Burgundy is in turn something of an oddity, the key to an entire category of important names, because tradition and law dictate that every burgundy wine, white or red, must be made of two principal grapes, Pinot noir and Chardonnay.
There are also two second-tier grapes, the Aligote ( alley-go-tay ), of which a pleasant white wine is made, and the Gamay, the source of beaujolais (boh-zhou-lay) wine. But if a French label (American wineries get away with swiping several names, which is misleading) says burgundy or beaujolais, that s what is in the bottle. You now know the meaning of many names of world-class grapes and the wines made of them. Most labels will have some other names as well, but don t be intimidated; burgundy and beaujolais are enough for starters.
Partway between Beaune and the sea, another major wine region follows the River Rhone, and so is named Rhone, ( rone ). With rare exceptions, wines of this region are blended of several grapes, far too many to learn at one sitting. Just one, however, is familiar in two similar forms, and worth knowing. In the Rhone, its native home, it is the Syrah; in Australia, where it has adjusted splendidly to its new home, the name is Shiraz. By either spelling, a blend, it is one of the world s great winegrapes.
And what of champagne? In varying measure one grape is red (even if the wine is to be white), the Pinot noir. The other grapes are Chardonnay, and a minor ingredient the Pinot meunier. The trick of the champagne makers is to trap in the bottle the carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation.
In southwest France, a large clutch of similar grapes, five of which may be used in making red wine, are a counterpoise to Burgundy and Rhone. Known collectively as Bordeaux after the once-great port city that is the capital of a global wine commerce, their wines with few exceptions are named after the estates where the grapes are cultivated and, generally, where the wines are made. (If there is a working winery on the property it is called a chateau ; otherwise, it is known as an estate or property.)
Though for more than a century the red wines of this region were almost all considered varieties of Cabernet sauvignon (the grape and the wine); a word to commit to memory, blended with some or all of four lesser varieties: Merlot, Cabernet franc, Petit verdot, and Malbec. For economic and agricultural reasons the proportions of the blend, capped by cabernet sauvignon, are being reconsidered. Petit verdot is used less often, malbec and cabernet franc raised elsewhere are winning fans, while an explosion of merlot is rapidly replacing cabernet sauvignon as top dog.