There is a lot of information on wine labels. Sometimes deciphering them can be a bit of a challenge. There are strange words that don’t look like they’re in English and it’s probably because they aren’t. I vividly remember walking down the aisles of my local liquor store trying to figure out which wine to buy for dinner and having absolutely no clue about any of them. In this series of articles, I will explore the information behind the labels for wines made in BC.
In general, wines are usually named after 3 things:
- The grape variety or varieties used to make the wine (as in Merlot or Chardonnay)
- A proprietary name (i.e. a name that the winery simply made up, as in Oculus or Nota Bene)
- A place name, usually for the region where the grapes are grown (as in Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Champagne)
If you’ve ever been confused by the things that are written on the labels, perhaps this will help you out when you visit your local wine store or winery. Let’s start with the grape varieties first.
The Grape Variety or Varieties
There are thousands and thousands of grape varieties out there and the ones that we see on wine labels here in BC represents only a small portion of what’s available around the world. There are many families of grapes out there but the one that concerns us the most here is called Vitis Vinifera. Vinifera grapes are the ones that have been the most popular for making wine and some of the names of them will probably be familiar; Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and many others.
Wineries in BC have been making wine from these Vinifera varieties for only the past 25 years, although there were a few intrepid producers who planted Vinifera vines in BC before then. Some wineries make wines using only a single grape variety as the source of juice. This kind of wine usually lists that particular variety clearly on the front label like the Joie Farm Riesling on the right.
Sometimes the wine is a blend of two different varieties, such as Thornhaven’s ever-popular Sauv Blanc / Chardonnay, or Quails’ Gate’s Chasselas Pinot Blanc Pinot Gris. It’s not just whites that get this treatment either. Hester Creek’s perpetual Cabernet Merlot combines the names of the 3 grapes used in the blend (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot).
Sometimes these names get a bit long. So for those wineries interested in brevity, they can use…
These are wine names that have been made up out of the blue: Fandango, Legend, Old Main Red, A Noble Blend, Two Hoots, and Beleza. Usually, but not always, these wines are blended with two or more different grape varieties. Sometimes it does get a little confusing as to which ones are the grape varieties and which ones are the proprietary names. Newer wine tourists should never be afraid to ask how the wine is named because it is not always obvious, especially with rare grape varieties. A wine label with the word “symphony” on it suggests that it is a proprietary name when it could also be a wine made with the grape variety called “symphony“. On Vancouver Island there is also a winery called Symphony Vineyards but thankfully they label everything clearly by variety. It helps to look at all of the labels clearly.
Proprietary names may not be able to tell you a lot about the wine but it’s very likely that the winery has a reason for its name and perhaps a story about it. From my experience, it is easier for people to recall unique proprietary names when shopping for wine the next day. A wine called “The Fifth Element” is far more uniquely named and memorable than a “Chardonnay”.
Unique names almost invite the consumer to look into the wine. They are almost forced to examine the bottle more closely and read the back label more carefully. A merlot is a merlot is a merlot and may not garner any more attentive examination than that. A bottle with “Hypothesis” written on it will likely be examined far more thoroughly.
Wines named after places are much more common in Europe, or as wine people like to call it, the “Old World”. The 3 examples of place names in BC wine that come to mind use the names of the towns only, but only one of them does it directly. “Calona” is a homonymic spelling of “Kelowna” and Oliver Twist Estate Winery was the first to incorporate the town name of Oliver into a winery name, among other meanings. (They cleverly promoted their use of screw caps – i.e. the twist-off, and of course alluded to the novel by Charles Dickens.) Osoyoos-Larose, a blend (not ironically) of the Groupe Taillan’s most prestigious Chateau Gruaud Larose and the town of Osoyoos, also uses the name of the town as part of the name.
A critical difference with all of these examples is that these are the names of the wineries and not of the wines themselves. There is no winery called “Chateau Bordeaux”. There are many chateaux (wineries) near Bordeaux (the city) that make wine and we generically refer to them as “Bordeaux” wines based on that.
It may happen here at some point in the future but it seems unlikely to be any time soon that anyone will sit back and relax with a glass of “Penticton” or “Oliver” the way that we do with a glass of Bordeaux, Chambertin, Beaujolais, or Chablis. The local town names here don’t seem right as the dominant name on the label nor do they roll off the tongue as the European names do. That kind of thing isn’t impossible in the “New World” (aka. not-Europe). If I put a glass of red wine in front of you and told you it was a Napa, what would you assume it was made with? Even for most casual wine lovers, Napa is synonymous with big, rich reds and particularly Cabernet Sauvignon. White wines from Napa (aka Chardonnay) and reds from the Willamette Valley (aka Pinot Noir) are also sewing their place names tighter to the variety or style.
We are pretty lucky here in BC with our labels being relatively easy to read. There aren’t too many obscure-sounding names to mispronounce or any “Chateau This” or too many “Domaines de That”. The wine industry here has grown along with a clean and modern style of branding that really seems to prefer uncluttered, easy to read labels. The same can’t be said of wine labels from the rest of the world and any cruise down a liquor store aisle will tell you that (especially in the German section). Burgundy confused me at first but I think I’m getting a handle on it now (after 10 years).
The issue here in BC is this: Will it even matter? I think it is starting to matter, perhaps more than wineries want to admit. I think that there are differences between the north and south of the Okanagan valley that is quickly becoming apparent. Could that one day be a part of the information on our wine labels? Sub-DVA’s like the forthcoming “Golden Mile Bench” are going to put a spotlight on a smaller piece of land very soon. Why can’t that happen to the Black Sage Bench or West Kelowna? Perhaps we need the divisions to build up first before we see them on labels.
Next time you pop a cork, think of the place where it came from. Enjoy your glass of Osoyoos (Syrah)!