Wine 101 TM_W1_NAMING_FI_001

What’s in a (Wine) Name?

A beginner's guide to the confusing world of wine names from Drink Outside the Box: Wine 101 for the College Crowd


Wine can be a complicated language to understand. Forget about the difficulties of tasting and describing it for just a second. When you first set out to learn a thing or two about wine, the first obstacle is getting past the complicated names listed on a label.

I first learned this lesson in a winery’s tasting room in Asti, which lies at the heart of the Italian Piedmont wine region. As I stared at the many bottles before me, I was admittedly a bit confused. Only a few of the names made any sense at all. The one with chardonnay listed on its label was easy enough to understand — my parents had similar looking ones from Napa Valley in their wine rack at home. And I recognized the word Barolo as a nearby town I had seen earlier on my Google Maps app. I wasn’t entirely sure about the moscato d’Asti and was only able to translate half of its meaning, figuring it was somehow related to the sweet moscato wine that was popular at home.

That’s when Roberto Bava, the winery’s manager and winemaker, noticed the puzzled look on my face. “Ah, you are a bit overwhelmed by all of the different names?” he asked.

I nodded, embarrassed to be giving away how new to the wine scene I was. I couldn’t wrap my head around why none of these names seemed to follow the same formula, and was frustrated I couldn’t find any discernible pattern among them.

“If you want to understand it better, it’s quite easy,” said Roberto, taking a pen and paper in his hand to draw me a guide. “Just remember these three ways.”

Yes, adding to the already vast and confusing world that is wine, there are several different methods alone that are used to name it. In any given wine store, you’ll find wines named a number of ways: by grape variety, by the name of the region it comes from, or a combination of the two.


Drink Outside the Box: Wine 101 for the College Crowd by Shelby Vittek is available now. Get it today at the special launch price of $0.99 with code TABLE, exclusively from the Smart Set Press store. Also available from Amazon.

Here in the States, we first learn to categorize wines by grape. As a rule of thumb, bottles from new world regions like California, Australia, or South America will almost always have names based on the sole or principal grape variety they are made from. To start, you’re more likely to recognize a wine if it’s clearly labeled as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, malbec, merlot, and so on.

But to really get acquainted with wine, you need to study some geography. Because the French naming system is based on the regions where the wine is made, you have no choice but to familiarize yourself with them. Instead of wearing its grape variety, the wine flaunts the name of its home on the label. So it’s helpful to be aware that Burgundy is the name of a place, but also the name of the wine produced there; remember that it will always be pinot noir. Other countries use this naming system, too, like Barolo and Chianti in Italy or Spain’s renowned Rioja. Knowing where to find these places on a map — and the grape varieties each area is allowed to grow — will help your understanding of them immensely.

Then there’s what I like to call the fusion method, which blends a bit of name and place and is most popularly used in Italian regions. That moscato d’Asti from the tasting room should have actually been the easiest for me to understand. It is simply a wine made with moscato grapes that come from Asti. Rosso di Montalcino? A red wine made from red sangiovese grapes grown in the area surrounding the town of Montalcino. Nero d’Avola? Literally the black grape of Avola, a city in Sicily.

Not only are the names of wine confusing, but they can also be very tricky. Just as you begin to feel like you’ve got it all down, another curve ball is thrown your way. No wines are trickier than the ones with the word “Montepulciano” hidden somewhere in their name, like montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Rosso di Montepulciano, and vino Nobile di Montepulciano — all of which are totally different. Is it a grape? A place? Why can’t they all just be labeled as simply, Montepulciano?

If you’ve been following along, you’ll realize that montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a wine made from the montepulciano grape that comes from the Abruzzo region. Rosso di Montepulciano is simply a red wine made in the area around the town of Montepulciano. Its sibling, vino Nobile di Montepulciano also comes from the same area, but strict regulations require it be aged for 18 months longer — hence, the literal “noble wine” translation.

The funny thing is, besides one word, wines made near the town of Montepulciano share nothing in common with those labeled as montepulciano d’Abruzzo. The montepulciano grape makes juicy red wines bursting with dark fruit flavors. Wines from the Montepulciano area have an entirely different taste, because they’re actually red blends of mostly sangiovese and other local varieties, with no traces of the montepulciano grapes in them at all. Instead of plums and other dark fruits, rosso di Montepulciano and vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines are exude cherry aromas and flavors, and almost always have an elegant hint of spice or herbs. Another big difference between the two is their prices: montepulciano d’Abruzzo is a notorious great bargain wine, while the others a bit pricier.

Understanding how the same wine could have three very different names can be confusing. But once you put a little effort into learning a bit about them, wine will never puzzle you again. Well…at least not its name.


Montepulciano d’Abruzzo

Illuminati Ilico Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2010 (13.5% alcohol by volume, $12)
Abruzzo, Italy
Full of dark fruit aromas, with a hint of graphite and pencil shavings on the nose. Ripe plum flavors in the mouth, with silky tannins and a smoky finish.

Villa Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2012 (13%, $7)
Abruzzo, Italy
Dark purple in color, with cherry and plum aromas. Very rich, with an oddly fruity finish. Can’t go wrong with this wine at this price.

Cerulli Spinozzi Torre Migliori Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2007 (14%, $16)
Abruzzo, Italy
Ruby red in color with a complex nose of plums, forest, and baking spices. Concentrated dark fruit flavors in the mouth, with lightly spiced tannins on the finish.

Rosso di Montepulciano

La Braccesca Sabazio Rosso di Montepulciano 2011 (13.5%, $16)
Tuscany, Italy
Fresh cherries on the nose, with a nice chalky minerality that brings vibrancy to the wine. Muted acidity on the palate, with cloves on the finish. Made with 85% prugnolo gentile (the local name for sangiovese), 10% merlot and 5% canaiolo nero.

Maria Caterina Dei Rosso di Montepulciano 2011 (14%, $13)
Tuscany, Italy
Lively and juicy, with richer, darker fruit on the nose. Baked cherries in the mouth, with a lasting finish. A total crowd pleaser. A blend of 80% prugnolo gentile and 20% canaiolo nero.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano

Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano 2011 (14%, $25)
Tuscany, Italy
A beautiful and elegant expression of sangiovese. An earthy nose of dried herbs and sweet spices. Very complex in the mouth, with layers of grilled plums, silky tannins, and hints of menthol on the finish. Spends 18 months in oak.

Illustration by Claire Jelly

Shelby Vittek is an award-winning food, wine, and travel writer. Her food writing has twice won awards from the Association of Food Journalists. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The Smart Set, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Triangle and on and She is currently an MFA candidate at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter: @bigboldreds.


  1. Congratulations for this amazing wine experience! Italian wines are really delicious.

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