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What’s in a name?


The outrageous and combustible hotelkeeper Basil Fawlty, with his usual sycophantic arrogance, once told an elitist guest, “Some of these people wouldn’t know the difference between a Bordeaux and Claret (tsk)”.

That line made me stop and think for a while, as I was unsure myself. Then I realised that in Australia, we haven’t used terminology like that for well over a decade.

Claret is an Anglicised version of the French word Clairet, meaning pale, from a dark, Rose-style wine made in Bordeaux. After the 1800s, Bordeaux became known for its more structured reds, with the name Claret sticking.

There is a whole heap of poetic licence that has been used to sell wine.

The French and other Old World producers have bandied together to prevent us upstarts in the infantile New World from cashing in on their heritage.

Take for example Hermitage. I used to love drinking Hermitage for $4 a bottle and, of course, there was Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. The name was generic for any bold, heavy red wine, mainly Shiraz, but could have Grenache in it.  But the chaps on the Rhone decided to put a stop to this, claiming that Hermitage was their heritage. 

Champagne is a classic instance of the practice.

It really is difficult not to call all sparkling wine Champagne, as it is such an entrenched and romantic word.

‘Bubbles’ is a good euphemism, and serious wine producers have been known to refer to refer to their product as Methode Traditionalle, indicating it has been made in the same way as Champagne.

We Aussies stretched the friendship when any lighter style red got the handle of Burgundy, but Wynns Oven Valley Burgundy was a Shiraz. We even cheekily produced sparkling red wine, often Shiraz-based, and called it Sparkling Red Burgundy.

The whites were confusing in Australia.

Houghton’s White Burgundy, a dry table wine, had everything in it but the kitchen sink. Semillon was often called Riesling, Hocks, Chablis or White Burgundy. Hunter River Riesling could contain Semillon, Chardonnay and other varieties, all without any Riesling being present. Tyrrells and Penfolds called this Pinot Riesling.

If your head is spinning, that’s ok. It gives a new appreciation for our current wine nomenclature.

The basics of Australian labelling include grape variety, region and year. At least you know that, if you buy a 2008 Barossa Shiraz, that’s what you will get! Or is it?

In Australia, the maker doesn’t have to declare any added wine if it is less than 15 per cent of the mix.

So, stretching the maths, that Barossa Shiraz could have 14 per cent Cabernet, 14 per cent wine from the Clare Valley, and even 14 per cent of 2001 added to it. So, you are possibly only getting 58 per cent of what you paid for. This is taking it a bit far and good producers nearly always declare their percentages.

For a young wine industry with so many regions and micro climates, I think our labelling system works.

In somewhere like Burgundy, which has been making wine for 1500 years and so is well controlled, their labels allow you to know exactly what style you are getting from a singular grape.

But you have to do the homework to achieve any chance of insight.

This is all too confusing. Just enjoy it. 

Champagne – 2007 Paul Louis Martin Blanc de Blanc: this 100 per cent Chardonnay offers great bread and fresh citrus aromas on a background of yeasty biscuit notes. It has a pleasing full palate with creamy textures, and suits all occasions.

White – 2008 William Fever Grand Cru Chablis Les Preuses: this is classic Chablis, with lemon overtones and an almost funky mineral nose. The fruit excites then decelerates in a mid-palate, but the dry minerality lingers. Overall pleasing. I would drink with sashimi tuna.

Red – 2007 David Franz Alexander’s Reward Barossa Cabernet Shiraz: impressive dark purple colour, with a cornucopia of aromas typified by dark fruit, plums and hints of spice and cloves, with the perennial leathery notes. A gorgeous, supple fruit palate, with well-structured tannins and oak exposure. While drinking well after an hour of decanting, this will cellar 10 to 15 years. I think game-style meats would suit.