Chianti is a red grape…right? If you’ve ever sipped a luscious red from the Tuscany region of Italy that was labeled Chianti, you’d be tempted to say, “of course!” But you’d be wrong. As American wine drinkers, we’re used to our wines being named after the grapes that are in the bottle – like Chardonnay and Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. Makes sense.
But sometimes wines are named after the place where they’re produced…as is the case of Chianti, which comes from (you guessed it) Chianti.
Europeans learned, through centuries of experimentation, which grapes grew best where. Different regions became known for using certain grapes in their wines. Before long, people came to associate a region with a particular type of wine. They didn’t need no stinkin’ label to tell them what grapes were inside the bottle.
But heaven help the rest of us who aren’t familiar with those regional differences. Here are some of the more famous place-name wines you’re likely to run into on a wine list.
Beaujolais has gained fame as a fun, light, frivolous quaff (although it does have a serious side too). It’s a fresh, fruity, light-bodied red that’s meant to be drunk young.
Bordeaux wines come in red and white – although it’s the reds that have garnered all the acclaim. Made mostly from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, they can be very tannic until they’ve acquired some age.
Chablis does not come in big jugs. In days of yore, large bottles of who-knows-what were labeled as Chablis and sold for a couple of dollars. No, real Chablis is actually unoaked Chardonnay from France.
Chianti is a blend of grape varieties, with Sangiovese being the dominant one. The best quality wines come from a district inside Chianti called Classico. That’s what “Chianti Classico” on the label means.
Rioja wines come from northern Spain. Most of them are red and are made from the Tempranillo grape. Historically, the wines were aged for years in small oak barrels which produced…well, wines that tasted like oak. Contemporary winemaking techniques produce fresher, fruitier wines.
The next time you see one of these place names on a wine list, we hope you’ll give one a try.
Barbara and Beverly