Why are French Wines named after the region and not the grape?
Let’s start this off with a quick French lesson! Arguably the most important word to learn in order to answer this question is terroir. In French, terroir is defined as the unique combnation of natural conditions such as climate, altitude, slope, soil, and so forth, in any one location, vineyard, or wine region. Where grapes grow affects the quality and the style of the wine. For this reason, terroir became the foundation of French wine laws when it came to naming. These laws also address that not all terroir’s are equal; some vineyards are more privileged, whereas others are rather ordinary locations. The status of the location a vineyard occupies plays a major role in determining the prestige and price of the wine grown there.
Methods for Naming a Type of Wine in France
Wines are given names to signify something about it, even if certain countries or winemakers decide on different methods. One example contains what was discussed above, which is to be named after region or varietal, which can also be considered the Old World vs. New World method.
Old World Method:
The Old World method reflects the way France named their wines, by relying on regions or locations for the name. French wine producers believing their styles over the centuries, and a grape, or more often a blend of grapes, was eventually found to suit a specific area (or to “express” the area) led them to this naming method. Even if a red wine were to be 80 percent or more Cabernet Sauvignon, the bottle would still be named after the region of France it was produced in.
New World Method:
The New World method on the other hand focuses on the grape varietal and is often used by the United States to give American consumers an idea or expectation of what a wine will taste like. In the 50’s and 60’s in California, winemaker Frank Schoonmaker (of Almaden), began putting the grape varietal names on the bottles wine labels to help wine drinkers who didn’t exactly know what Napa Valley, Russian River, or Paso Robles tasted like, with so many different varietals planted there.
French Wine Classifications:
Another way some wines are named is based on their classification. For example, vin de pays and vin de France. Vin de pays is a French term that means “country wine” and vin de France is the designated term for “table wine”. Vin de pays is classified as a step above vin de France also known as vin de table.
Across the world, wines of all kinds-- red wines, white wines, Rosés-- are all unique combinations of grape varietals. Be sure to do your research when selecting a bottle of wine; just because you may not know the French name it is given, it may be your favorite varietal from a prestigious French region.
You can also check out our International Wine Club for quarterly wine shipments from different regions of the world! We've definitely featured top-of-the-line wines from France as well as Champagne that we import directly for our annual Champagne Special Feature. Cheers!