The Mountain Times

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Understanding the semi-generic wine names

Gallo can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It is the Italian and Spanish word for 'rooster'; it's also a beer in Guatemala and a Spanish slang word for marijuana. In the United States it's probably most associated with jug wines or inexpensive table wines. Though to their defense, there are also some higher end wines produced by this largest family-owned winery in the US.

Jug wine gets its name from the typical glass jugs it's usually sold in, either in 3 or 5-liter format, but also in 750ml or 1.5L bottles, or the more recent packaging of lined boxes or plastic bags in corrugated fiberboard boxes. As wine became more popular with Americans in the 1960's, jug wine became an inexpensive choice with a reputation for being 'extreme value', bargain-priced 'premium' wine, even if lacking some real quality.

Historically, they are labeled semi-generically, which is a legal term in the US to refer to a specific type of wine designation. Initially these wines were named after well-known European wine regions, as Americans consumers were supposedly not well enough educated in grape varieties or historic wine designations. California producers used these familiar names to suggest particular styles of wines. After European protests, the US introduced regulations that require the semi-generic name to be used only next to the actual place of origin (such as 'California Champagne') and be sold only in the American market.

For the most part the names for these wines can legally refer to any grape wine, but most have become associated with a particular style of wine. For example Gallo's Hearty Burgundy is a generic red wine not listing any of the grapes used, though 'real' red Burgundy would always be Pinot Noir. Or Chablis, sold as generic white wine, has nothing to do with the racy Chardonnay from Chablis, France.

Other generic wine in this category include Chianti (not the Sangiovese based from Chianti, Italy); 'Claret', which is named after the British term for red Bordeaux blends; Moselle or Rhine, generic sweet wine in the style of sweeter Riesling wines from the German Mosel or respectively Rhine regions; Sauterne, deliberately miss-spelt white or pink, dry or more often sweet wine named after the dessert wine from Sauternes, France; Champagne, sparkling wine named after the French region; Malaga, a sherry named after Malaga, Spain; Madeira and Marsala, fortified wines named after the Portuguese and Italian originals; and the same for Port and Sherry, originally from Portugal or Spain respectively.

No wonder, the American wine world can be confusing. But the use of semi-generic wine names is also becoming a problem for domestic wine producers as many American AVA's (Viticultural Areas) are becoming popular around the world because of the high quality they have achieved. They are now seeking the same protection for their names that were originally not afforded to their European counterparts decades ago.

How about a glass of Napa Red from Languedoc, France? No, thanks!

Tagged: Wine Experiments, generic wines