What’s in a name?

The name of a grape variety will undoubtedly tell you something about what you’re drinking.  In its simplest form this could be as straight-forward as “I like Chardonnay, I’ve had Chardonnay before”, or it could be as intuitive as a name like Feteasca Neagra, which may highlight that it’s likely to be from an Eastern European country.

The names of many common varieties actually contain hidden clues as to their history or as to how they are grown and, whilst it is highly likely that it won’t affect the pleasure of drinking the wine, if you’re interested in deepening your wine knowledge these simple hints can help you to understand the wine a little more.  It can even give you hints about other facets of the wine (for example, whether a grape is thick or thin skinned).

Here’s my top 5.

Spain – Tempranillo – Spain’s premier red grape has a few synonyms, but is commonly referred to as Tempranillo.  The first part of the name (Temp) derives from the Spanish word for ‘early’ (Temprano), therefore highlighting that it is an early ripening variety.  The French word Temps means ‘time’ which is also a signpost that time is a critical factor when growing this variety.  What this means in terms of the final wine is one that is lower in alcohol due to less grape (ergo sugar) ripening time, and higher in acidity (when balanced against the unconverted sugars).

Italy – Primitivo – Like Tempranillo, this variety has other synonyms (Originally known as Tribidrag in Croatia, and well known as Zinfandel in the US), but the Italian grape name refers to Primo, which means ‘First’ in that language.  This again refers to the fact that this variety is one of the first to ripen, and will develop characteristics based on sun exposure.  More technically the Latin word primativus means ‘first to ripen’ and so Primitivo is almost a direct translation.

South America – Tannat – Well at home in the south of France, and now ‘the’ grape in Uruguay, it is thought that the name of this grape comes from the word tanat, a local French dialect meaning ‘coloured like tan’.  It is therefore quite coincidental that the berry is known to produce austere wines deeply coloured and, similar to its name, very high in tannins.  This one fact allows you to draw several further conclusions about the grape, including that it is a thick skinned variety that gives a lot of its character to the finished product.  This in turn tells you that it is better suited to a warmer climate in order to allow the grapes to ripen fully, and that it makes a better blending partner rather than being served up as a single variety wine.

France – Cabernet Sauvignon – OK, so it doesn’t really tell you much about the finished product, but with this variety name-checking other grapes varieties, it does indeed hint to it’s history and parentage.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, although these lighter characteristics will not tend to show themselves in the final wine.

South Africa – Pinotage – A bit more oblique than the fairly obvious parentage mentioned above, but South African grape Pinotage is a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (which was then known in the country as Hermitage).  The warmer SA climate needs to be taken in to account, giving a wine that is fresh as well as fragrant, and Pinotage seems to have inherited the fussy growing issues of Pinot Noir, ensuring that it is a troublesome variety to grow.

There’s obviously plenty more references out there if you look – from anything ending ‘Noir’ telling you that it is a red grape (never take anything for granted!!), to Gewurztraminer speaking of its north Italian origins.

Have fun looking!

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