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OPINION | BOTTLE SHOTS: The unwieldy nominal history of wine grapes

by Seth Eli Barlow | March 1, 2023 at 2:12 a.m.

With more than 1,000 types of wine grapes worldwide, it's often hard to track them all, let alone their histories, profiles and names. One thing that helps, I think, is learning the story of how a grape got its name. Here's the inside scoop on the name of some of Arkansas' most favorite grapes.


The origin of merlot's name is one of my favorites. It comes from "merlau," the name of a small black bird in Southwestern France that was especially fond of eating merlot grapes.


Hailing from northwestern Italy, nebbiolo gets its name from the Italian word for fog: nebbia. As it's typically the last grape to be harvested each fall, it was common for vineyard workers to pick grapes as they waded through the early morning fog that blanketed the hills of the Piedmont region.


The "blanc" of sauvignon blanc simply refers to the color of the grapes (which are a greenish yellow, not white, but who are we to argue with the French). "Sauvignon" is a portmanteau of the French words for savage and vine: sauvage and vigne.


Cabernet franc is one of the oldest grapes in Bordeaux, but its name comes from a much older source than French. Its name is derived from the Latin word "carbon," meaning black, after the color of its dark red grapes.


Cabernet sauvignon is actually the child of two parent grapes: sauvignon blanc and cabernet franc. Its name naturally combines the mother and father grapes and roughly translates to "black savage vine."


Chardonnay takes its name from the small commune of Chardonnay in eastern France. It's unclear if the village is where chardonnay was first planted. This village's name is derived from the Latin word "Cardonnacum," which meant "the land belonging to Cardus," the owner of the area during the Roman time.


Zinfandel's history is long, convoluted, and probably worth its own column, but its name's story is a little more straightforward. In the early 1820s, the Habsburg empire sent several vines of a grape called "zierfandler" to America. An American botanist studying those vines renamed one "Black Zinfardel of Hungary." Over the years, as the vines were planted and replanted across California, the mashup of "zierfandler" and "zinfardel" evolved into the "zinfandel" we know today.


As you might suspect, "noir," "blanc," and "gris" are the French words for "black," "white," and "gray" and describe the color of each variety's grapes. "Pinot," however, means "pinecone" and comes from the conical shape of the grape cluster that reminded ancient grape growers of pinecones.

As always, you can see what I'm drinking on Instagram at @sethebarlow and send your wine questions and quibbles to [email protected]


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