Where Do Wine Varietal Names Come From?
It’s fun to think about how wine grapes get their names. Some varietals have been around for hundreds of years, others less than century. Check out the origin story for these unique grape varietal names.
How do wines get their names?
Let’s get physical!
Most grape varieties claim their names based on some physical quality of the vine or grape itself. Here are a few examples.
Used in some of the most well-loved wines of the Piemonte region in Italy, Nebbiolo comes from the word nebbia, fog in Italian, a common occurrence during the late fall season in the region. Others claim that the name refers to a fog-like veil that forms over the berries as they mature. Still others contend it refers to the wine itself, being noble.
Most French wine grape names follow the same pattern of claiming a physical trait. Sauvignon Blanc is no exception. This wildly popular varietal is indeed wild. Savvy B traces its name back to central France in the 1500s. Sauvignon is a combination of sauvage (wild) and vigne (vine). Blanc refers to the berry’s colors.
Merlot berries are a deeply pigmented purple. This famous Bordeaux grape was first recorded in the 1700s under the synonym Merlau, thought to be a diminutive form of the local word for blackbird, referring to the grapes’ color.
One of the oldest grapes, Pinot Noir claims a special place in any wine cellar. Pinot comes from the word pinecone and refers to the tightly shaped pinecone-like grape clusters. Noir refers to the black grapes. Pinot Gris, a mutation that carries the same pinecone reference, refers to the gray-like color of the berries. Pinot Blanc has green berries.
The Spanish grape that brings you Rioja is early ripening. Tempranillo is a diminutive form of the Spanish word temprano, meaning early. Tempranillo will be ready to harvest several weeks before other grape varieties.
Inventing Grape Names
Not all grapes carry names link to a physical characteristic. Some more modern varieties were named by their creators.
While not a mainstream grape variety in the United States, Müller-Thurgau plays a key role in high-volume wine production in Germany. This white grape can be grown in a range of climates and soil types and makes low-acid, fruity white wines. Dr. Müller developed the grape through a breeding program in the 1880s. He was from the Swiss canton of Thurgau. So today we have Müller-Thurgau.
The signature black grape of South Africa, Pinotage was created as a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault (locally known as Hermitage) in 1924. Pinotage gets its name as a portmanteau of Pino + tage.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Zinfandel has a more complicated history. In Italian, Zinfandel goes by Primitivo, meaning the first to ripen, or early ripening, referencing the grape’s growing season. How did we go from Primitivo to Zinfandel? The Austrian Hapsburgs once controlled the area around Venice. Their Imperial Nursery collected vines from the Italian peninsula. A shipment of Viennese nursery cuttings to a horticulturalist in the US the early 1800s referenced a German vine called Black Zierfandler; Zierfandler is the local name for Sylvaner, a widely-grown white grape in Germany. Zierfandler shifted to the English word Zinfandel.
In the United States, most wines are varietally labeled, meaning the varietal wine is named after the grape inside the bottle. Producers put the word ‘Merlot’ or ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ on the bottle. In some regions, varietal wine can be named after geographical area, and not a grape. For example, Chablis in France is made from 100% Chardonnay, but carries the name for the region – Chablis.
Everyone Loves a Good Story
If you ever find yourself wondering about a particular grape’s backstory, know that the names of wines could be as simple as a particular physical characteristic, or as complicated as a dynastic occupation. Something to think about while sipping your favorite wine.
You'll find no shortage of grape varietals in any of our 6 Wine Clubs, or at our Wine Store! Take some time to browse and you will see just how many unique stories can be told by a bottle of wine! For our most scarce collection, check our our Garagiste Wine Club, featuring small-scale wineries and low-production wines!
Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly, Certified Specialist of Wine, is a wine writer and educator. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.