Why We Can't Get Along (when it comes to naming wines)

The wine world offers a glut of choices.  There are so many styles of wine from practically every country and, to make any sense of it, it must be categorized.  One common way to do this is along Old World and New World lines.  Old World refers to any of the significant winemaking countries in Europe, the big ones being France, Italy, Germany, and Spain.  The New World is everywhere else, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and all of South America.  This distinction is a very Eurocentric one, but wine’s roots burrow deeply in Europe’s history, so it is understandable that Europe is regarded as a benchmark.

This geographical divide can become a bit of an ideological divide as well.  In the Old World, there is the underlying belief that where a person is from informs who they are.  This is partly why so many European names, both wine and family, are derivations of places.  As a result, the Old World is critical of the New for its flippant attitude toward history and culture.

For its part, the New World views the rigidity of the Old World as unnecessary and arcane.  So many of the people now inhabiting the New World ended up there because they rejected the idea that destiny is a function of origin.   And this understanding manifests itself as a greater focus on individuality.

When the New World perspective is applied to wine, the natural result is to start with learning about the grapes.  What qualities of this variety make it unique?  Ah, Cabernet Sauvignon is like this, Chardonnay like that, Pinot Noir something else altogether.  There is no need to fence in expectations.  New World winemakers explore different expressions of the grapes, experimenting with everything from new techniques to mystery blends.

But any interest in wine will invariably lead to curiosity about its prototypical expression.  The New Worlder’s first venture into the Old’s wine yields an incomprehensible morass of unpronounceable names and cryptic designations.  Wouldn’t it be so much simpler to just call the wine by the name of the grape?  Perhaps this is true now, but roots of vines and history can be difficult to untangle.

In the Old World, all of the famous vineyard areas (with the notable exception of Bordeaux) were established by the Romans, prior to the fourth century AD.  Let this sink in for a moment, as it is truly incredible.  Even back then, people noticed that wines had different flavors, and they wanted a way to identify what the wine would taste like before drinking it.  One way to do this was to describe the grape that made the wine.  For instance, Pinot, is a variant of a French word meaning pine, and Noir means black.  This refers to the grape clusters, which are black, tightly bunched, and shaped like pine cones.  However, as grapes look largely the same, misidentification was a real problem, so a second, more sensical, option was to identify a wine by its provenance. And this is what they did.

With the collapse of the Roman empire and the advent of the Dark Ages, trade dwindled and communities became more insular.  The Catholic Church, needing wine for the celebration of mass, took a leading role in the vineyard, and monks systematically and painstakingly developed many techniques that are still in use today.  Each winemaking area developed traditions that were unique, making the geographic origin of wine even more meaningful.  Finally, as trade resumed starting with the Renaissance, the place names for wines became cemented in the consciousness of the Old World.

So, while it may be a challenge to remember that Hermitage is made from Syrah, it helps to recall the hundreds of generations that toiled in the vineyards, selecting the best plants to replant the vineyard with, and learned, through trial and error, the best techniques to make that particular wine.  That bottle may contain Syrah, but it is Hermitage.