Cabernet is a Grape?

Question from Mark: Sorry to bother you again, but from what you said it sounds like the names on the bottles are the names of the grape – is that right? 

Reply: Hi, Mark. You’re not bothering me – I love getting your questions! When you shop for new-world wine (not from Europe), most of the time it’s named for the grape variety that made it and the country or region set minimum requirements in terms of percentage. For, instance a bottle of American Chardonnay must be made from at least 75% Chardonnay grapes. 

So, yes, Chardonnay is a grape variety that’s different from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec… There are thousands of grape varieties, but a relative handful make most of the world’s wine. They’re members of a family called vitis vinifera – vitis is the genus and vinifera is the species. Over centuries we’ve voted with our pocket books. Select varieties within the species make wine that tastes good to us! 

So, you can drink Pinot Noir from its homeland in France or enjoy one from New Zealand.

I’ve noticed that the concept of different varieties is confusing to a lot of people. I like to think of myself at the produce market, choosing apples. Do I want Pink Ladies or Granny Smith? Same deal with wine varieties – they’re all a little different and we all have our personal preferences. 

Wine grapes are good for eating, but they’re rarely sold that way. The reason today’s table grapes are so nice and juicy and don’t bother us with seeds is because they’re hybrids, such as Thompson Seedless. Hybrids for wine are available, but they have a tiny market niche. Most of them were developed in New York to tolerate the difficult climate. Since every single state makes wine now, those hybrids are valuable in places like Minnesota too!  

When you shop for European wines, you’ll occasionally run into examples that name the grape variety, but most of the time there’s a regional name instead, such as Burgundy or Chianti. Within those regions they regulate the approved varieties, methods and so forth. In some regions, they make varietal wine (wine with  a dominant grape variety). Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir; white Burgundy is Chardonnay. In others they blend. Traditionally, Chianti is a blend of several grapes, but today they also permit varietal wine production. 

If you think all this sounds confusing, you’re absolutely right! But, it’s the way it is. Enjoy the wines that taste good to you and please ask a question whenever you have one! Cheers!  

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