Nowadays wine is the term applied to the beverage made from grapes only, grown, tended, and fermented to produce a wine. Different fruits make good wine too, but when we say wine, we mean grape wine.
It wasn’t always so, of course, and the history of beverages called wine includes many concoctions, additions, dilutions, and boosters, meaning brandy. But happily, today we can be reasonably sure that we are drinking grape wine when we pour that bottle.
In the Old World, meaning Europe, wine grapes were well-established, and always had been. Their names were unimportant for the people drinking the wine. Trust was placed in the land and the people attached to that land making the wine. And if there were three of four grapes making that wine, no matter, as long as it tasted good.
From the beginning, the European colonists in America were disappointed with the taste of the wine made from native American grapes. When their early attempts at planting European varieties failed, this disappointment led to hybridization experiments, and a search for new lands to plant.
European plantings were ultimately most successful in California. There, the vines flourished, and wine was made in large quantities, more than the local market could absorb. It was hoped that the eastern states would replace their imports from Europe with this new California wine.
But what to call it? Usually some combination of the American place, and some European name: blends called California Chablis, California Chianti, Hearty Burgundy, Sherry, Madeira, etc. This sold wine from a land where none was made before, by using trusted European place names.
Then a different tactic was developed to sell wine. It took a major effort of marketing to make names like Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon understood as trusty names to reach for on the shelf. Why this is so today is an insight into the whole place of wine in American society through history.
But are those labels all that clear that we see on the shelf today? Maybe, if you do some studying. Some have grape varietal names, some have place names, some have family producer names, some have fanciful made up names.
No wonder that the shopper might be overwhelmed when they look at the display in front of them. It seems easier to recognize a familiar varietal name, such as Chardonnay, or Pinot Grigio, and reach for that, rather than to try to decipher those foreign labels. But remember that the same variety can be, and is, grown in many places around the world.
Many fun tasting events have this theme, wines made from the same grape but grown in different places. It takes grapes, a place, and people to make wine, and those variables are what makes each wine distinctive.