More Confusing Wine Names

More Confusing Wine Names
They’re not exactly homonyms but they are wines that sound alike and cause confusion, so if you want to know Pouilly Fumé from Pouilly Fuisse, Syrah from Petit Sirah and Variety from Varietal read on.

Among hundreds of French wine names the two famous white Pouilly’s — Fumé and Fuisse – are frequently and understandably confused.

The first part of the name refers to the village around which the grapes are grown. Problem is that there are several villages named Pouilly. One Pouilly is located in the Fuisse commune of Burgundy. The great white grape of Burgundy is Chardonnay and so when you order Pouilly-Fuisse you’ll get a steely dry crisp unoaked Chardonnay.

The other village named Pouilly is on the banks of the Loire river and its full name — to distinguish it from the one in Burgundy — is Pouilly-sur-Loire. Here Sauvignon Blanc is grown on limestone soil which gives wines a gunflint or smoky edge and so the wines are called Fumé meaning smoke.

In the 1960’s shortly after Robert Mondavi established his own winery in California’s Napa Valley a grower sold him a consignment of Sauvignon Blanc. The grapes made an exceptionally beautiful dry wine but Mondavi knew that he’d be unable to sell it as Sauvignon Blanc because at the time the variety was unfashionable in America and was usually sold as a flabby off-dry cheap wine. He recalled the Pouilly Fumés he’d enjoyed in France and so labelled his wine as Fumé Blanc. The wine and the name was a success, so much so that Fumé Blanc is now legally recognised in the USA as a synonym for Sauvignon Blanc.

Almost every item you read about South African wines will tell you that Steen is the name used there for Chenin Blanc. So well has this ‘fact’ been circulated that now the giant KWV winery exports its Chenin to the USA labelled as Steen although they don’t use the name in South Africa.

The truth is that when Steen was finally identified as being Chenin Blanc in 1964 winemakers quickly adopted the correct name and the only wine I saw in South Africa using the name was Mulderbosch. They make two Chenins, distinguishing their oaked one with a subtitle of ‘Steen op Hout’, meaning steen with wood.

But there is a wine named Stein in South Africa which is an inexpensive medium sweet wine made from a blend of grapes, usually including Chenin.

Syrah and Petit Sirah are two different grape varieties, although science has recently shown that Syrah is one parent of Petit Sirah (along with the obscure French Peloursin). Petit Sirah is grown mostly in California and South America although those same scientists have shown that is identical to the Durif variety grown in Australia. Dr Durif was the French viticulturist who bred the grape in the1880’s but the variety has now all but vanished from France.

Unfortunately in the past few years the useful differences between variety and varietal have been blurred. Variety is an individual type of grape vine within a species. Thus Merlot and Chardonnay are vinifera varieties. Varietal refers to a wine made from a single named grape variety, as opposed to a blend. Thus a Bordeaux wine made from Cabernet and Merlot varieties isn’t a varietal but a Napa Cabernet is. Originally varietal was used to describe wines labelled with a grape name rather than the geographical names used in Europe.

Just one letter separates them. The first is to do with growing grapes, the second to do with turning grapes into wine.

Are you confused with any wine name or terms? Ask questions and talk about wine on our forum.

Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available as an eBook for the Kindle, iPad and Nook.

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A Treatise on Viticulture is now available in hardback and softback.

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