What’s in a Name? A Guide to Wine Names
We’re accustomed to identifying Australian wines according to the grape variety. But on the local wine list of yesteryear there was not a Shiraz or Semillon to be seen. Instead, you’d find Hock, Burgundy and Moselle. So what changed?
A 1987 advertisement from winemaker Angove’s proclaimed “Wine names – like hock – are forever changing. Yesterday’s hock is today’s Chablis.” Now yesterday’s Chablis is today’s unoaked Chardonnay. It seems that even up to the late 1980s we were still appropriating the wine names that properly belonged to European wine regions and slapping them on our local drops. That all changed for good in 1992, thanks to a new trade agreement with the European Union.
Even Australia’s premier red wine could have been accused of false pretences. Penfold’s Grange was originally released as Grange Hermitage and kept that name until the 1989 vintage. In fact, Hermitage is a French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée from a tiny section of the Rhone wine region south of Lyon. The reds from the area, based on Syrah (Shiraz), are long-aging and intense, no doubt what Max Schubert had in mind when he made the first Grange in 1951.
The most famous wines produced in the Burgundy region of France are dry red wines made from Pinot Noir grapes and white wines made from Chardonnay grapes. For decades, Australian wine-makers blithely labelled their Pinot, Shiraz, or a blend of the two, as Burgundy. They also attached the label to sparkling Burgundy (usually sparkling Shiraz), infamous in the past for its supposed role in seduction. Perhaps the best known White Burgundy, from Houghton’s, wasn’t Chardonnay at all but a blend of grape varieties. It’s now known simply as “Dry White”.
Claret is not a wine region, but a term coined (and still used) in Britain for red wines from the Bordeaux region in France. Bordeaux reds are generally blended and the main grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. In Australia, “Claret” often referred to a blend of Cabernet and Shiraz, although Penfold’s famous St. Henri Claret was pure Shiraz.
Hock is not a region either, although the name is derived from a town in Germany called Hochheim. It’s another name that evolved in Britain. Originally referring to Riesling from the middle Rhine region, it was eventually applied to any white wine from Germany, much of which was of inferior quality. In Australia, hock could be any dry white blend. Quelltaler Hock, made by Buring and Sobel from Riesling grapes, was the first Australian wine to be served in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons.
The Chablis district lies in the north of the Burgundy region of France and its wines are produced from Chardonnay grapes. Often unoaked, the wines are known for their purity of aroma and taste and are often described as “steely” or “flinty”. Until the French began objecting, the name was adopted by white wine makers all over the world. But there was no guarantee that all those wines were made from Chardonnay.
Back in the 1970s, Australians drank a lot of Ben Ean Moselle. This wine, developed in the mid-1950s, had very little to do with the white wines mainly produced from the Müller-Thurgau and Riesling grapes in areas along Europe’s Moselle River. Ben Ean was originally a blend of Hunter Semillon and Verdelho and was semi-sweet, designed for the female drinker. Lindeman’s stopped making it in 2009.
Australian makers can no longer use the terms “Champagne” or “methode champenoise” for their bottle-fermented sparklings. Now it’s “traditional method”. There was no such restriction when the Victorian Champagne Company was formed in the early 1880s, employing a French wine-maker to create a local version of the famous fizz.
Sherry, Port and Tokay
Australian fortified wines can hold their own with any in the world. However, a change to the Wine Australia Corporation Act in 2011 decreed they could no longer use names the Europeans held to be region-specific. Sherry (now Apera in Australia) is an Anglicised version of Jerez, the sherry-producing region in Spain. Port (now Australian Tawny or Vintage Fortified) is a drink defined by its origin in northern Portugal. And Tokay (locallyTopaque) can only be used for wines from Hungary.
There’s an ongoing debate about this one. Prosecco was originally a grape variety, named after a town in north-eastern Italy. But in 2009 the Italians changed the name of the grape to Glera and registered Prosecco as a geographical indication, like Champagne. Australian producers are resisting, but negotiations for a new free trade agreement with the EU could force a name change.