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Understanding Wine Labels (Part 3)

Wines named after their color or after famous wine places in Europe are known as generic wines. This second general category of wine labeling is virtually nonexistent outside the United States. Although generic designations are increasingly falling into disuse even here, this category has an interesting history.

Commercial demand for French wines gave rise to a system of appellations long before any specified or enforced regulations. As non-French regions began emulating the most famous and successful French wines, they also began appropriating the names of the best French vineyards. Although not alone, California has been especially guilty of this, partly because of the influx of European émigrés during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. The states of .

Some of these immigrants brought vine cuttings from their home vineyards in Europe with them to California. When they turned from prospecting to winemaking, they had no local reference or government agency to guide them, so they called the wines after their ancestral homelands.

Eventually, use of these knockoff wine names, which had little to do with the originals, was continued out of sheer economic envy and a desire for consumer recognition. The copies almost never followed the varietal requirements, viticultural methods, production limits, nor winemaking techniques of the originals.

This chart shows each of the most popular European Appellations (followed by the English or American generic term). Generics became accepted wine terms following many decades of, and to the citizens and purveyors of the originals, irritatingly tiresome, usage in the American market. The number of planted acres and the approved or traditional grape varieties are also noted.


Appellation (Generic Term)


Grape Varietals (legally approved or traditional)


Bordeaux (Claret)


RED: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Verdot, Gros Verdot


Sauternes (Haut Sauterne)
*genuine always ends in "s"


WHITE: Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle


Bourgogne (Burgundy)


RED: Pinot Noir
WHITE: Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc


Chablis (Chablis)


WHITE: Chardonnay


Champagne (Champagne)


RED: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
WHITE: Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc


Rhein (Rhine) / Mosel (Moselle)


WHITE: White Riesling


Chianti (Chianti)


RED: Sangiovese, Canaiolo, Colorino (traditional)
WHITE: Trebbiano (traditional)


Jerez (Sherry)


WHITE: Palomino


Oporto (Port)


RED: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Barroca, Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Temperanillo), Tintà Cào, Souzào, Tinta Amarela, Mourisco (traditional)

In Europe, wines that do not qualify for appellation labeling by using the restricted varieties, sourcing grapes from within the boundaries, and conforming to maximum standards and levels of production must use the country-specific designated generic identification: vin blanc, vin rosé, vin rouge, vin de table, or vin ordinaire in France; vino bianco or vino rosso in Italy, etc. Although most often these wines are less pleasing and lower in price, in occasional vintages of both quality and abundance, generic European wines can be both excellent character and great value.

California's "Burgundy", "Chablis", "Rhine", or "Champagne" were the most popular labels on vast majority of the Golden State's wines throughout most of the 20th Century. Although some wineries began extending their product lines using grape variety names on labels in the 1950s, it wasn't until the mid-1980s, that varietals began to overtake and replace generics by consumer demand. In the dawn of the 21st Century, it is rare to find these generic knock-offs in the U.S. marketplace; most have been replaced by wines labeled with proprietary names or simply use "white table wine" or "red table wine".

The only remaining entrenched generic is the one that most galls the Gauls: "Champagne". This is one of the ironies of wine marketing. The French, producers of true Champagne, have historically done such an outstanding job promoting their beverage for celebrations that no American bride even considers leaving bubbles out of her wedding reception, although few fathers of the bride are willing to "pop"1 for the real thing without some reluctance.

Two primary factors have led to the overall gradual decline of generic labeling on American wines. Increased consumer demand for varietals is first and foremost. The general public understands and relates fairly easily to the flavor profile of varietal grape types. It is much more of a challenge for them to understand, let alone remember, the flavors of appellations. Generic flavor profiles are completely unreliable and even a P.T. Barnum would have difficulty selling generic wines in this millennium.

The other factor is the expansion of the commercial wine trade throughout the world. While some wine references soft pedal the use of generic labeling, suggesting it as a form of "tribute", the essence of the practice is just plain fraud, shamelessly claiming historical efforts and traditions to which the perpetrators are not entitled, in order to gain commercial advantage. Wine producers need to respect the unique traditions and practices of wine-producing countries, for these are not simply competitors, they are also, more often than not, wine-consuming countries and therefore potential export markets.2

Jim LaMar

1. The author is not too shy to point out that a triple-entendre is the literary equivalent of a "hole-in-one" in golf in that both require skill, context, and a certain amount of dumb luck... ("pop" is American slang for "spend" and also for "father", and also for "the sound of a sparkling wine cork being removed".) RETURN

2. On March 10, 2006, the U.S. signed a trade agreement with the European Union that generic labels will not be allowed on future wine and food products made in the U.S. The disallowed list includes Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Chianti, Claret, Haute Sauterne, Hock, Madeira, Malaga, Marsala, Moselle, Port, Retsina, Rhine, Sauterne, Sherry, and Tokay. (The "Catch 22" is that products with long commercial history will be "grandfathered" until the producers accept their folly and conform on their own. This probably will require many episodes of embarrassments and penalties; e.g., this 2008 story, Belgian Customs Agency Destroys Shipment of American Sparkling Wine Mislabeled Champagne, from Reuters News Service.

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Article created December 23, 2000; last updated September 16, 2011
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