At a bad restaurant in Hollywood with an even worse wine list, I was having drinks with some non-wine business colleagues. When someone mentioned they really liked Viognier, I brought up how much I loved French Viognier from the Northern Rhone. A complaint came up about French wines and how you "never know what you're drinking." "Well, of course you know what you're drinking," I replied. "You're drinking a Northern Rhone white wine." "No, but you don't know what type of grape, it's not on the label."
The varietal labeling of wine as we know it is a very modern phenomenon. It was popularized in California by Robert Mondavi in the 1960s. Prior to that -- and even today with inexpensive jug wines -- California wine was usually labeled with a broad moniker like "Burgundy" or "Chablis," meant to vaguely evoke what Old World-style of wine it was (allegedly) similar to.
By labeling his wines by varietal, Mondavi pushed California wine into the fine wine realm as there was now something that wine drinkers could wrap their minds around -- I like Chardonnay more than Sauvignon Blanc, for instance.
And so varietal labeling in the rapidly growing California fine wine business became the norm and much of the New World -- Oregon, Washington, Australia, New Zealand -- followed suit.
But with a few notable exceptions, the Old World doesn't label their wines by grape varietal. Instead, wines are labeled based on regional designations of varying specificity. Each labeling requirement has different specific wine making regulations and in order to label your wine as "Bordeaux," for instance, you have to abide by certain rules that go beyond which varietals are in the wine.
In domestic wine labeling there are basically two requirements: 1, if you label your wine with an American Viticultural Area (AVA) distinction (i.e. Napa Valley AVA), at least 85% of the wine in the bottle must come from that AVA; 2, if you label your wine by varietal (i.e. Chardonnay) the wine must be from at least 75% of that varietal.
But that's it -- there are no requirements on barrel aging, what other grapes can be in the blend, or how long the wine must be held in the bottle before being released to the consumer; just location and varietal. And while convention has resulted in certain varietals being more common in certain AVAs, there is no requirement that a Napa Valley AVA white wine has to be made from Chardonnay. Wine makers can -- and do -- use many different grapes. While there have been some local efforts to come up with more specific regional requirements, these attempts haven't gone far.
The idea behind the Old World model is that if you're making Burgundy or Chianti Classico and you're trading on that name, all the producers in the region have a vested interest in ensuring that all wines produced from that region live up to the region's reputation. Sometimes regulations are determined collectively by the producers within the region, sometimes regulations come from a regional or national authority. A good Cotes du Rhone is more than just certain grapes from a certain place: it's how the wine is made. This way, you don't have wines as disparate as Charles Shaw and Opus One sharing the same appellation.
Different governing bodies have different degrees of rigor in their labeling requirements -- generally the more globally prestigious and historic the designation the more stringent the regulations. Burgundy has more specific labeling requirements than the Languedoc, for instance. Burgundy also has many smaller AOC's (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) within the broader "Bourgogne" AOC which have their own specific requirements.
(The appellation system still allows for wine makers to capitalize on their own reputation too. Francois Villard, for instance, is an excellent French wine maker who makes both AOC wines and varietal-labeled Vin de Pays wines in the Rhone Valley. Many other wine makers across Europe do the same thing.)
Sometimes regional regulatory bodies are too restrictive and maverick wine makers or groups of wine makers will openly flaunt the regulations and make whatever wine they want, opting to produce wine with a broader regional (Vin de Pays) or national (Vin de Table) label.
This motivation spawned a new classification of wine in Italy. "Super Tuscans" are Italian wines which blend Italian and French Varietals. By regulation, these wines could only be called "Table Wines," but because of their unique quality and the efforts of the wine makers they successfully changed the regulations, creating the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) classification. This compromise noted that these wines lacked the regulatory rigor of the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) designation while maintaining a level of quality and regional uniqueness beyond that of a Table Wine. These Super Tuscans are now some of the most expensive wines in Italy. Prominent wine makers in Spain and Portugal have also opted to go with broader regional designations and over time successfully lobbied their DO's and DOC's to change some of their regulations, bringing them back into the fold.
But these exceptions prove the rule and specific regional labeling requirements are a better way to understand fine wine than varietal labeling. Ensuring a consistency of style year-to-year is more important in establishing a reputation for quality than merely trading on something as malleable and capricious as a grape varietal. Although different varietals have different unique flavors, they can also be heavily manipulated.
"Chardonnay" can be rich and heavily oaked or crisp and clean. "Riesling" can be sweet or bone dry. "Sauvignon Blanc" can be elegant and aromatic or smell like sweaty gym socks and cat pee (which is elegant and aromatic to some, I suppose). You have to know the particular wine making style of that producer to ensure that you're getting the style of wine you want.
Of course, by requiring only 75% of a varietal in a wine means that the "Pinot Noir" you're drinking might be 20+% Zinfandel or Syrah.
And if you paid less than $15 for it, it probably is.