Vino & Veritas: You’ve probably heard of Burgundy and Chablis, but do you know what they are? Justin Dillon will fill you in.

BY JUSTIN DILLON

Trademark law provides that when the name of a product becomes sufficiently generic — becomes so widely used as to stand for a kind of product and not just the product itself — it may lose trademark protection. That’s what happened to aspirin and cellophane, for example; both were once the names of specific products. The same has come close to happening for Band-Aids and Xerox, but both of those have managed to hang on to their protected status.

(One wonders if the same principles could be applied to HLS. Getting a C or a D from a visiting professor who doesn’t seen to understand her own subject could be called “getting Zoltek-Jicked.” And if after getting Jicked over, you dull the pain perhaps more than you should, you could say, “Man, last night I got so Nessoned.”)

Over time, some wine terms have also become almost generic. Burgundy and Chablis, for example, are French regions that produce excellent wines. But when California winemakers slapped those names on cheap jug wine in the 1970s and ’80s, for many American consumers they became synonymous with, well, cheap jug wine.

Although such practices are now illegal — only wines made in Burgundy and Chablis can be called Burgundy and Chablis — that hasn’t made learning about wine regions any less confusing. Which names stand for grapes, and which for regions? I remember, back when I first started learning about wine, asking my wine-guru uncle what the difference was between merlot and Bordeaux. These are the kinds of “simple” questions that a lot of people are afraid to ask, worried that somehow they should just “know” it. Nonsense. If you think you’re just supposed to intuit the fact that that Bordeaux is a region, not a grape, and that merlot is a grape, not a region, then you probably get Nessoned more than you should.

One helpful rule of thumb is that French and Italian winemakers usually name their wines according to region, not grape, whereas most American and Australian winemakers name their wines according to grape, not region. The list that follows should provide a little guidance next time you check out a wine label or pick up a wine list.

Wine grapes: barbera, cabernet sauvignon, carignan, chardonnay, chenin blanc, dolcetto, gamay, gewürztraminer, grenache/garnacha (same thing), gruner veltliner, malbec, merlot, mourvedre, nebbiolo, petite sirah, pinot blanc, pinot gris/pinot grigio (same thing), pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon; syrah/shiraz (same thing), tempranillo, viognier, zinfandel.

Wine regions (dominant grapes in parentheses): Alsace (riesling and gewürztraminer); Barolo (nebbiolo); Beaujolais (Gamay); Burgundy (red: pinot noir; white: chardonnay); Bordeaux (red: cabernet sauvignon and/or merlot; white: sauvignon blanc and semillon); Chablis (chardonnay); Champagne (pinot noir or chardonnay); Chateauneuf du Pape (grenache, carignan and syrah); Chianti (sangiovese); Cotes du Rhone (grenache, carignan and syrah); Rioja (tempranillo); Sancerre (sauvignon blanc); Sauternes (semillon); Valpolicella (corvina).

Tasting notes

To kick it off, a couple of Chateauneuf du Papes — one of the greatest wines in the world — that are usually out of my price range. But hey, it was New Year’s. One of the undisputed best of its kind is Chateau de Beaucastel; if you see this, buy it. I tasted the 1997, which I bought on sale for $32.99 (a steal!) at Marty’s, and it was fantastic. Ripe and wonderful, it smelled of jam, wet stones and licorice and had a finish as long as my arm. If you are curious about this type of wine and want a classic example of it, buy this. Now. I mean it.

Another very good Chateauneuf is the Domaine de Relagnes 1998, which I got at Marty’s for $19.99. 1998 was one of the best vintages ever in the region, so you probably can’t go wrong with any of them. This one was big and juicy, with cassis fruit; while not as good as the Beaucastel and probably in need of more bottle time, it’s still a very good buy and a good example of the wine.

For a lot less money, check out the phenomenal Mas Carlot Cuvee Tradition 2000, which I bought for $8.99 at Marty’s. My roommate said this was the best wine I’ve brought home in three years. He’s wrong, but not by much — this is a big wine that tastes of roasted plums, kind of like a baby Cote Rotie (which tend to sell for around $30). I would put this wine in the rare “everyone will like this” category.

Another juicy bargain is the Viña Alarba Old Vines Grenache 2000, which I picked up for $5.99 at the Wine & Cheese Cask. It’s rustic — when first opened a bit too much so — but after about an hour, it opened up to reveal a depth of fruit that’s uncanny for the price.

If you’ve never had barbera, which Wine Avenger Willie Gluckstern considers one of the best wines for food, check out the Barbera d’Asti Icardi Pierino 2000 ($11.99 at Marty’s). It tastes of strawberry jam and is sufficiently light and acidic to, indeed, go with most foods.

The Tres Picos Borsao Garnacha, which I bought at Marty’s for $10.99, is a straightforwardly juicy wine that’s a pretty good buy, but the Viña Alarba would be better bang for your grenache buck. And despite an odd recommendation from the Wine & Cheese Cask, which sells it for $6.99, stay away from the Chateau Viranel 1999. It’s tart and rough, with hard edges and insufficient fruit.

Now to some very good whites. If you like riesling (or are willing to try it, which I hope you will be), try the Wittman Halbtrocken Riesling 1999, which I got at Marty’s for $11.99. My notes at the time tell the story: “Wow! Granny Smith apples. Great!” An excellent introduction to the manifold joys of riesling.

Another classic expression of the varietal can be found in the Willm Gewurztraminer 1999, which was $11.99 at Marty’s. A near-perfect expression of this rose-petals-and-lychee wine, which most people either love or hate, it has a fragrant nose and a loooong finish. (I think it’s wonderful; my roommate thinks it tastes like gasoline.)

Two other good white bargains are the Kammerner Gruner Veltliner 2000 ($10.99 at Marty’s) and, even better, the Buena Vista Sauvignon Blanc 2000 ($6.99 at Marty’s). The former is sweet and light; the latter has the smooth grassiness that it should have and would be great with food, particularly any kind of seafood.

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