Here in the U.S., we normally label our wines based on the variety of grape used to make it. Thus, varietal wines labeled cabernet sauvignon, or chardonnay, or pinot noir, are each made from those respective grape varieties. (Note that the grape is a “variety,” while the wine is a “varietal.”) Some wineries choose not to list the varietal content. Possibly there isn’t a high enough percentage of a particular grape in the blend, or they might prefer a proprietary name. Those wines are permitted to use some variation of “White Table Wine” or a proprietary name such as “The Big Red Wine,” and still be within the law.
In Europe, wines are labeled according to where the grapes are grown. For instance, a red wine from France labeled “St. Emilion” will be from the St. Emilion commune of the Bordeaux region. There is likely no reference on the front or back label as to the variety of grapes used to make the wine. While this makes it more difficult for those new to wine to figure out what grape was used, it does represent history and a time-honored tradition. In a recent trend due to globalization, many of the basic “village wines” (from Burgundy, for instance) are now also being labeled with the wine varietal. So now you may see wine labels such as “Bourgogne-Pinot Noir” or “Bourgogne-Chardonnay.”
Europeans in general, and the French in particular, believe that a wine must have a sense of place—a specific geographic and geological location that also takes into account all the aspects of weather, soil, hill slope, farming methods, people, etc.
In French, the term used to describe this concept is terroir (tehr-wha). It is almost unanimously accepted that the identity of a particular grape and the wine made from those grapes are heavily influenced by the terroir, and that excellent quality comes from excellent terroir. This concept or belief has been cultivated over the centuries, as grape vines first planted by the Romans morphed into vineyards farmed by the monks of the Middle Ages and led us to our present day vineyards. This is why some sites/regions are revered for their grapes. It is also why cabernet is not grown in Burgundy, and pinot noir is not grown in Bordeaux.
So, do certain places in the New World have terroir? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Some say it takes centuries to establish this. Others say that we’ve grown grapes for 100 years or so in Napa Valley now, and it has certainly proved its ability to deliver distinctive cabernet. Either way, the next time you’re wondering why the names of European wines don’t sound like familiar varietals, just remember, Old World wines are like real estate—it’s all about location, location, location.