Jan. 4 2012 12:00 AM

To understand exactly what you're drinking, learn what's behind your wine's label

American wine consumers tend to make consumption decisions by looking for the grape variety: “I’ll have a glass of Chardonnay, please.” But in many countries, labeling wine by grape variety is a foreign concept — and may even be illegal.

In this country, if a bottle is labeled “Cabernet Sauvignon” the consumer can be confident the wine contains at least 75 percent Cabernet. But it could contain up to 25 percent unnamed grape varieties.

In some countries, both labeling and the grape variety that can be grown in a specific region are strictly controlled. Understanding some of these rules may expand one’s comfort zone about ordering foreign wines. 

France is the most prototypical example of strict growing and labeling regulations, which also simplifies ordering French wine once the rules are understood. While France has literally hundreds of geographically limited appellations — and the specific sub-appellation will be reflected on a label — in most cases the broadest region designation will define the grape or grapes in the bottle.

Enamored with Pinot Noir? Then French wine from Burgundy is for you. If it is red, it is Pinot Noir. The exception is if the wine comes from Beaujolais, technically a part of Burgundy. In that case the wine is made from the Gamay grape, typically a light, fruity, quaffable wine, and the source of Beaujolais Nouveau.

If the Burgundy wine you see is white, then it is Chardonnay. Some of the most affordable white Burgundy comes from the Chablis region, not to be confused with cheap American box wine labeled as such for years. Grown in chalky, flinty soils, Chablis tends to be crisp, minerally and sharply focused, a great food wine.

Fans of German wine should seek out the wines from the Alsace region of France. Unlike most other regions of France, Alsatian wines typically list the grape variety on the label. Dominant grape varieties are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc Gewürztraminer and Muscat. Some of the juice is made in late harvest style, with residual sugar in the finished wine. Alsace is also home to very tasty and frequently reasonably priced sparkling wine known as Crémant d´Alsace.

We’ve all heard of Bordeaux wines. But did you know that a red Bordeaux wine must contain only Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot or Merlot, or any combination of the above? Cabernet Sauvignon frequently dominates in the blend, but if you prefer Merlot, seek out Bordeaux wines from sub-appellations such as Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.

Do you crave mouthwatering New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? For a change of pace, try white Bordeaux, which must be created from Sauvignon Blanc and/or Sémillon. Frequently barrel-aged, it is likely to be a fuller, rounder version of wine.

For those seeking intensely sweet dessert wines, Sémillon is likely to be the dominant grape in the wines from Barsac, Sauternes and Cérons regions of Bordeaux.

Grown in one of the northernmost regions of France, which facilitates the development of crisply acidic grapes, Champagne must consist of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Champagne wines labeled “Blanc de Blanc” (white from white) will be all Chardonnay and likely will be a lighter style than Champagne. If the Champagne has a vintage year designation on the bottle, that should be an indicator of higher quality. Most Champagne wines are non-vintage, a blend of juice from different growing years, and typically lower priced than vintage Champagnes from the same producer.

In the far south of France, broader rules predominate. The Rhone Valley of France consists of numerous sub-appellations, some of which may allow only a single grape variety such as Syrah. The broadest designation, Côtes du Rhône, allows inclusion of up to 21 different grape varieties. Wines labeled Côtes du Rhône can be terrific bargains, and the red wines likely will include a heavy dose of Grenache, which frequently makes higher-alcohol (but not intensely tannic) red-berry-flavored wines. Grenache is also the dominant grape in the blended wines from the Châteauneuf-du-Pape region of the Rhone, where up to 13 grape varieties can be grown, and Grenache usually is combined with other grapes such as Mourvèdre and Syrah.

Those seeking out a purer expression of Syrah, but with a meatier, gamier, smokier presentation than, for example, Australian Shiraz (the same grape), should try wines from the northern Rhone sub-appellations of Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph. Some of the Syrah-based wines from these regions, especially Hermitage, can age for decades if properly stored. White wines from the region may consist of varieties such as Rousanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche and Viognier.

Adjacent to the Rhone in the south of France is the largest, but not best known, wine region, Languedoc-Roussillon. This region produces vast quantities of wine from grape varieties similar to those allowed in the Rhone, but also Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Much of the wine is “Vin de Pays,” or “country wine,” which is created with looser vineyard and production restrictions than the wines made in accordance with the stricter Appellation d´Origine Contrôlée regulations. That being said, freedom from bureaucratic restraint gives some growers and winemakers great autonomy to create mouth-watering wines, perhaps at bargainbasement pricing. So don’t discount the Vin de Pays designation.

Perhaps a New Year resolution should be to expand vinous horizons by sampling wines from across the pond. Remember, if you are confused by what is on a wine list, you can always pull out that smartphone and Google, or prepare in advance by downloading a wine app, such as Hello Vino or Wine Guru. 

Happy New Year!

In Vino Veritas