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What's in a Name: Regionals, Varietals, Generics and Proprietary Wines?

The way that wines are named can be confusing. Sometimes they are named for the area in which they are produced (i.e. - Champagne, Pouilly Fuisse), others are named for the grapes from which they are made (i.e.- Chardonnay, Merlot), some are named for distant, better known production areas which produce wines that are at least slightly similar (i.e.- Chablis, Burgundy or Champagne produced in the United States), and finally, there are wines that have 'made up' brand names applied to them (i.e. - Mateus, Blue Nun). The decision to name a wine in a certain way is influenced by local laws or traditions and marketing forces.

Regional Wines: In countries (mostly European) that have a long history of wine production, regulations have been developed that require certain varieties of grapes, viticultural practices and winemaking to be applied to wines from individual regions. These laws are based on centuries of experience with different grapes and methods and a resulting knowledge of what works best for that particular location. Most of the better French, Italian and Portuguese wines fall into this category. Examples of a few Regional names include: Bordeaux, Chablis, Chianti, Burgundy, Beaujolais and Champagne.

Varietal Wines: These wines are named for the grape variety from which they are produced. Almost every country now allows wines to be labeled this way although knowledge of local laws is beneficial because variations do exist. In California, only 75% of a particular grape is required for a wine to be labeled with that varietal name. In France, a wine designated with a grape varietal name must contain 100% of that particular variety. In general, 'new world' countries are more likely to label their better and best wines with varietal names while 'old world' countries relegate varietal naming to wines of the everyday table wine category. Some examples of Varietal names are: Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Gris and Sangiovese.

Generic Wines: This particular category of wines is more common in the United States than in most other countries and is almost non-existent in European countries. These are wines that have no content or origin requirements that are named for distant and famous wine producing regions. It is a marketing practice that was especially common in the United States when the modern wine business was developing. If an American winery produced a sparkling wine, it was labeled as a 'Champagne' even though true Champagne can only be produced in the Champagne region of France. Similarly, if a wine was white and dry, it might be labeled 'Chablis' even though it bore little resemblance to a true French Chablis. Some examples of Generic names include: Chablis, Burgundy, Champagne, Sherry and Port. Most countries have treaty agreements that protect the names of important wine regions. You'll never see a sparkling wine produced in Europe outside of the Champagne region of France that is labeled as Champagne. Sparkling wines from Italy are Spumante and those from Germany are called Sekt. In the United States and any other countries that allow generic naming, consumers become easily confused and often fail to appreciate the true quality of the real regions whose names are used to market inexpensive and inferior wines.

Proprietary Wines: These are wines that may qualify for varietal or regional naming but for marketing reasons have been given unique trademarked names. If is usually harder to establish a proprietary brand, but if it is done successfully, the result can be much more profitable. Imagine if the Sutter Home winery had trademarked the "White Zinfandel" name that they gave to their Zinfandel Rose. Had they done so, they would be the only White Zinfandel on the market. Instead they face challengers from Beringer, Mondavi, Gallo and nearly every other large winery in California. On the other hand, if they were the only winery promoting White Zinfandel, you have to wonder if that wine would ever have become so popular in the United States. While most proprietary named wines are mass market wines, the use of a proprietary name is not necessarily an indication of quality. Some examples of Proprietary names include: Blue Nun, Grange, Opus 1, Dominus and Soleo.