You're likely to have heard of Chablis, and maybe you even know that Chablis refers to a wine and a place, but it's not a grape variety. You may even have an inkling that "1er Cru" means "Premier Cru," and that means that this version of Chablis is probably of a higher quality than just plain Chablis. But that fancifully scripted Vaucoupin? No chance.

The purpose of this post is to set out what you should expect to find when you grab a bottle off a shelf label-wise. The label is a very, very important piece of the wine puzzle, and the bad news for consumers is that there isn't a whole lot of uniformity when it comes to satisfying each governing body's labeling requirements.

Don't be fooled by the bucolic setting. Each of these wines (three French, one Californian) illustrate how differently the legally mandated information can be exhibited.

That's not entirely true, because each one, whether it's the TTB (that ours in the United States), the French, Italian, Spanish, Argentine, etc., etc., etc. equivalents mandate that a handful of things be placed on the label. But after that, there are all sorts of other non-regulated entries that can be found on front and back labels, ensuring generally that consumers will have no idea what's fact and what's puffery.

It makes sense that at the very least, the label ought to tell you who made the wine, what the wine is and where it's from. And all labels do. However, they seem to all go about it in different ways.

In some appellations (a long word that essentially means a legally demarcated place where a certain wine comes from; there will be a post on appellations later, but for now it'll suffice to use Chablis and Napa Valley as examples of appellations), the wine's name is always in larger type than the producer's. In others, it's the opposite. And in still others, it can be either.

So what, you say? Well, it matters a whole lot if you don't happen to be familiar with a particular bottle. Imagine how silly it sounds to ask for the bottle made by Chablis. Maybe it doesn't to those of you who have actually ordered the wine made by Chablis, but had you been better informed, you would have simply asked for the Chablis made by so-and-so. I could list dozens of examples of wines that seem to read more like producers and vice-versa. Or even worse. Don't believe me? Did you know that Château Grillet is a wine, a producer and an appellation? How unfair is that? (For those who care, Château Grillet is a tiny appellation in the Northern Rhône area of France. The wine from there goes by the same name, as does the producer of that wine. It's made with viognier.)

Let's assume, however, that for the most part, most of us will be able to figure out who makes the bottle we're holding. The next question is, well, what is it? Wines are named in several ways. The easiest to understand is when the grape (or grapes) are the name of the wine, like the Far Niente Chardonnay in the photos.


Another very common way for a wine to be identified is by where it's from. The bottle bearing the cursive "Côte-Rôtie" is one such example. It is also an example of the hybrid naming system. Côte-Rôtie is both a wine (as in, "I'll have the Côte-Rôtie, please.") and an appellation ("What do you carry from Côte-Rôtie?"). Côte-Rôtie is an excellent red made with syrah and viognier, which is, of course, not even a red grape, and isn't actually always included in the wine anymore. The appellation where this wine comes from is in the Northern Rhône, not too far from Château Grillet as the crow flies. Chianti is another well-known example of this naming style.

Then there are the wines that are named for the place and the grape. This is a very Italian way of classifying wines. Fiano di Avellino is a lovely, fullish-bodied alternative to chardonnay that is made with the fiano grape in an area near the important Campanian town of Avellino, hence the "di" in between the two words. Brunello di Montalcino is a more obscurely, if similarly, named wine. Montalcino is a place in Tuscany. Brunello is dialect in those parts for a certain "strain" of the sangiovese grape, Italy's most commonly employed red variety.

Life -- or at least the part dealing with the selection of wine -- would be a whole lot easier if the back label on bottles actually contained some useful information. Such as, something about the person who made it, what it is he or she made it with and where it's from. Most back labels offer little more than the government-mandated warning. Most of those that offer more than this end up defeating the purpose of even having a back label because they typically claim that the person/company/whatever that made the wine is "passionate" and that the fruit of their considerable labor (and make no mistake, making wine is very hard work) goes well in just about any setting and with just about any food known to mankind. 

Some back labels are useful (he wrote modestly, while looking at the uploaded image of one of his own wines and the back label he designed and wrote himself). So, after all of this, you really have two choices (three, if you include the one where you simply don't bother buying a bottle of wine). Either study really, really hard until you're as familiar with producers, appellations, styles, etc. as the experts, thus obviating the need to even read a back label. Or hope that the back label on that bottle that you next pick up, and invariably turn around, clears up any confusion or apprehension you might have.

Oh, right. There is a fourth option. Read the upcoming entries in this section of the blog. And by the way, Vaucoupin is indeed a premier cru vineyard, and it is found to the east (and a little south) of the village of Chablis.





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