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Buzz gets put in his place

Marnie Old explains the significance of appellations on European wines.

Chateau Saint Sulpice Bordeaux (courtesy photo)
Chateau Saint Sulpice Bordeaux (courtesy photo)Read more

BUZZ: Hey, Marnie, my go-to wines are California Chianti and Chablis, but they seem scarce these days. Are those grapes out of fashion?

Marnie: Well, it's true that those styles are a little dated, Buzz, and that's the main reason why they are harder to find. But the explanation has nothing to do with grapes, because Chianti and Chablis aren't grape names at all; they're place names, known as "appellations."

Buzz: I didn't know they made wine in Appalachia. Isn't that moonshine country?

Marnie: No, no, it's appellation, meaning title or formal name, not Appalachian. Wine appellations are regulated statements of geographic origin, specifying where the grapes were grown. All wine labels must display an appellation, such as "California" or "Napa Valley." But, in Europe, wines are traditionally named by appellation alone with no reference to grape varieties. So, for example, Chablis is a French town in Burgundy, not far from Paris, whose wines go by the name Chablis even though they are made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes.

Buzz: Why not just call it a chardonnay then, instead of a Chablis?

Marnie: Historically, a wine's region of origin was its distinguishing feature and point of pride, not its grape variety. A London merchant who bought his casks in the Port of Bordeaux would sell the wine as "Bordeaux" to capitalize on the city's fame as a fine wine source. This eventually led to European labeling regulations based entirely on appellations, a system where famous place names guarantee wines made with traditional local grapes and to strict standards.

Buzz: Kind of like Chateau Luzerne wine being named for 3rd and Luzerne. Man, was that rotgut.

Marnie: We're talking higher standards here, Buzz. For instance, Chianti is an Italian region of Tuscany near Florence that makes red, Sangiovese-based wines. The best come from the smaller "Chianti Classico" zone, an appellation held to even higher quality standards and therefore more sought after.

Buzz: But my favorite Chianti is from California.

Marnie: Confusing, right? Back when the world's best wines were European, American vintners took advantage of lax regulations and named their wines after famous styles, like Chianti and Chablis, Burgundy and Rhine. International laws now discourage such deceptive mislabeling, which is why fewer such "generics" are made.

Buzz: I guess that's good, but nothing could remove paint faster than Chateau Luzerne burgundy.