The Name Game

If it seems like the topic of grape names is unnecessarily complex, take heart, you are not alone! Even folks in the wine industry sometimes grumble at the numerous designations given to one single grape variety; and although it may appear that wine snobs relish how easy it is for those intricacies to trip up the uninitiated, there is no master plan to keep casual wine enthusiasts out of the conversation.

The vast majority of the confusion surrounding grape names arises out of the fact that the practice of winemaking has a very long history in many far-flung regions around the world. Over the centuries, as communication and transportation improved, wine lovers were confronted with various regions or countries each having different names for the same grapes. Trying to sort these differences and come to one unifying set of vocabulary has proven nearly impossible as it would require dismantling centuries-old practices that are rooted in culture and, in most cases, are a source of national pride. The nomenclature we have in place today is the hodgepodge result of bridging the gaps between one region’s names and another. Albeit frustrating at times, the wine industry has woven a rich tapestry of synonyms for grape varieties, each with its own sub-plot and storyline. We will explore a few very common examples today, but there are infinitely many more to be uncovered.

Most casual wine enthusiasts are aware that the quintessentially Australian grape, Shiraz, is the same grape indigenous to France known around the rest of the world as Syrah. Although branding the grape as unique due to its characteristic flavor profile turned out to be marketing genius, the initial reasoning behind the advertising windfall was actually a mistake. When the Syrah grape was introduced to the Land Down Under, it was erroneously believed to have originated in the city of Shiraz in Persia, thus the misplaced moniker. Now, this is not to be confused with Petit Sirah, an entirely different grape varietal altogether. Also, useful to note is the spelling of the word ‘Petit’ which is sans ‘e’ unlike the grape, Petite Verdot.

Name confusions are not exclusively a bane of New World wine regions; the thorny issues plague Old World wine areas equally as well. In Italy, for example, one of the most prominent grape varieties grown throughout the central swath of the country is Sangiovese. This international grape variety has its roots in the Chianti-loving wine region of Tuscany; however, it is referred to by numerous designations in the neighboring Italian hamlets. In the town of Montalcino, Sangiovese is called Brunello, hence the wine labels Brunello di Montalcino. Further up the road, in the town of Montalpulciano, Prugnolo Gentile is the preferred term for Sangiovese and makes up a minimum of 70% of the wines labeled Vino Nobile di Montalpulciano. Furthermore, the prolific Sangiovese goes by Morellino in the district of Scansano.

Now, if that seems straightforward enough, please be sure to note, that there is a completely separate grape variety called Montepulciano that is spelled only slightly differently than the aforementioned town of Montalpulciano. This grape, Montepulciano, is the majority stakeholder in the wines grown in the town of Abruzzo opposite of Tuscany, on the central eastern coast of Italy. To further confound the confusion, wines from this region, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo DOCG, can also have a small amount (up to 15%) of Sangiovese grapes included in the wines as well.

So, if all of this seems unnecessarily complicated, take a moment for an exasperated sigh to clear the mind.  Then pour a glass of wine taking heart that while frustrating at times, the reasons behind these complexities are part of humanity’s rich history that is so prominently on display in the wine world.

By: MaryJane Baker Vu