Real Names of Wine

By Ray Isle Posted December 05, 2012
© Kathryn Rathke

© Kathryn Rathke

This year Herbert Lom died. Now, some of you may be wondering who Herbert Lom was, and what the hell he has to do with wine. The answer to the first part is that he was a longtime character actor, probably best known for playing Peter Sellers’s boss in the Pink Panther movies. The answer to the second—a somewhat oblique answer—is that Herbert Lom’s given name was Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru.

For some reason, this rather surprising fact made me think about grapes (it also made me think that any actor with a name like Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru would do well to change it as soon as humanly possible if he hopes to be cast in anything). The truth about wine grapes is that they rarely have one name—Pinot Noir, for instance, may be Pinot Noir to you and me (and to the French), but to the Austrians it’s Blauburgunder, to the Italians it’s Pinot Nero and to the Croatians it’s either Burgundac Crni or Modra Klevanyka, though I’m a bit vague on why it’s sometimes one and sometimes the other.

In any case, here’s a handy guide to some of the more common of wine’s identical twins:

Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio
In France it’s Pinot Gris, in Italy it’s Pinot Grigio and everywhere else in the world it’s whichever you want to call it—but winemakers usually pick one or the other based on the style of their wine. Pinot Gris tends to imply a richer, more luscious character, based on the wines of France’s Alsace region; light, sprightly (and occasionally anonymous) Pinot Grigios take their cue from the wines of Italy’s Friuli, Veneto and Alto Adige regions.

Basically everyone on the planet calls this grape Syrah except the Australians, who refer to it as Shiraz (a stubborn bunch, the Aussies, albeit great fun to hang out with). The latter name is a nod to the grape’s supposed origins near the city of Shiraz, in Persia, a tale that is unfortunately not the case, but that doesn’t mean the Aussies aren’t sticking with it. But then they’ve also stuck with Vegemite, which as far as I can tell from the one time I tasted it means they’re all as mad as hatters anyway.

Yes, Zinfandel and Primitivo are exactly the same grape. But both of them are really Crljenak, a Croatian grape that came to our shores in the early 1800s, and to the vineyards of Puglia a bit before that. Now, it’s easy to understand why Crljenak lost out in the name sweepstakes—lean across the bar and say “I’ll have a glass of the Crljenak” and the bartender will think you sneezed on him. On the other hand, in the late 1800s, Zinfandel was also sometimes known as Black St. Peters, which sounds to me like something Wyatt Earp would lean across a bar and ask for, i.e., cool. It was a sad day when the grape-naming potentates retired that one.

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