Wine Law 101: What’s In a Name?

In today’s edition of Wine Law: 101, we’ll look at specific naming of wines and the laws/trademarks that protect their overuse.  This post is in no way all-inclusive, but is simply meant to give you a few examples of wine names that have been protected in one way or another, and to show you how/when the names may be used for a wine.

The first Wine Law: 101 post introduced some of the laws regarding the labeling of French wines, and the various requirements regarding what can be put on a label and when.  The post also introduced the term INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine), an organization dedicated to regulating agricultural products (in this case, wine), and ensuring that the products are labeled properly according to their quality level.

The naming of wines is regulated in similar fashion to the products regulated under the INAO, however in this case, they are further regulated by the Protected Geographical Status framework.  This framework, which was enacted into law in the European Union in 1992, is further subdivided into smaller regimes; including the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), and the Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) regime.  This parts together work to ensure that only those products that are legitimately originating in a particular region can be defined and named as such.  This allows the region to maintain a certain quality standard and reputation, without being harmed by potential “knock-offs”.

Some specific examples….

“Why is this called ‘Sparkling Wine’?  Looks and tastes like Champagne to me!”


If you didn’t think we had enough regulatory groups in charge, you’re in luck!  Champagne wine, which is protected by the INAO and subdivisions therein, is further regulated by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne regulations.  The law dates back all the way to 1891, when the Treaty of Madrid was signed.  It stated that the term “champagne” can be used exclusively ONLY to those sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France.  Most countries around the world respect this law, and abide by it (though they cannot be forced to).  In the United States, sparking wines may not be labeled as “Champagne”, unless they had approval to use the term before 2006, in which case, they may continue to use the term “Champagne” on their sparkling wines.

The grapes used in Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier.  Champagne is produced using the traditional method or Methode Champenoise.  After the first fermentation is complete and the wines bottled, a secondary fermentation occurs after the addition of yeasts and sugars.  In order to get the residual yeast particles out of the finished product, the bottles are riddled (i.e. rumuage) by turning the bottles slightly over a 1.5-2 year time frame.  At the end of this riddling process, the residue is in the neck of the bottle, where it is then frozen.  After removing the cap, the pressure inside of the bottle forces the frozen portion out of the bottle and is then immediately corked, ultimately removing all of the dead yeasts and other residue, and leaving a quality Champagne wine.

Side note:  Did you know the only reason why you see bubbles at all in Champagne/Sparkling Wine is due to imperfections in the glass?  If you had a perfectly smooth glass with absolutely no imperfections, you would never see bubbles in the glass (though they would be there when you tasted it!).  Crazy!

How about a little night cap?:  Port


Port (a.k.a. Vinho do Porto or Porto) is a sweet, brandy-fortified wine that is great for dessert, accompanying a cigar, or as a night cap.  The laws surrounding the usage of the Port name is very similar to those for Champagne.  Like Champagne, Port is protected by the European Unions’ Protected Designation of Origin guidelines.  In the European Union, Port may only come from the Douro Valley region in the northern Portugal. 

All over the word, the following terms have been recognized as strictly coming from Portugal, and no place else:  “Dão”, “Oporto”, “Porto”, and “Vinho do Porto”.  Surprisingly, the word “Port” is not such a word.  Any wine from anywhere in the world may be called “Port”, even if it did not originate from Portugal.  In the United States and elsewhere, we are not obligated to follow these rules explicitly, though some have made great efforts to retain the origins of the wine within the name.

There are many different grapes that may be legally used in Port wine, though the most common are Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (a.k.a. Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Naçional.  For white port, the grapes that are most commonly used are Donzelinho Branco, Esgana-Cão, Folgasão, Gouveio, Malvasia Fina, Rabigato, and Viosinho.  Due to its high sugar and high alcohol contents, they make great dessert wines, and have great aging potentials.  I always crave Port wines in the dead of winter, since it helps warm me right up!

How about on this side of the pond?

The main wine in the United States that is protected/copyrighted is the term Meritage.  It’s basically the United States version of a Bordeaux (and since the grapes aren’t coming from the region of Bordeaux in France, we don’t call it Bordeaux!).  The term is a relatively new one, and only came into existence in the late 1980s. 

The Meritage Association (now called the Meritage Alliance), a Napa-Valley group which governs the usage of the term, was created in 1988 to try and come up with a term to embody a quality Bordeaux-style blend in the United States.  They decided to hold a contest to try and come up with the name, and after nearly 6,000 entries, the word Meritage (a combination of the words “merit” and “heritage”) was born.

Unlike the naming regimes of European wines, there is a fee associated with using the term “Meritage”.  If a winery wants to name their Bordeaux-style blend, “Meritage”, they are required to obtain a license and pay for the name on a per case basis.  Specific rules for getting approval for a license is that they use grapes found in the Bordeaux region of France, and that the wine seeking approval is the most expensive and highest quality blend available at the winery.  The case production cannot exceed 25,000. 

For a red “Meritage”, the wine must be a blend of at least two of the following grapes, and no one grape may make up more than 90% of the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, St. Macaire, Gros Verdot, and Carmenere.  For a white “Meritage”, the grapes must include two of the following (and not exceed 90% for one grape): Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Muscadelle.

Side Note:  Meritage is pronounced like Heritage, without “Frenching” it up on the end.

Labeling and naming schemes may be complicated, but if you get a basic understanding of the types of things that you’ve learned today and last week in Wine Law: 101, you should be on your way to being able to pick up a bottle of wine, know exactly what’s in it, and have a general sense of the overall quality of that wine without having to even taste it.


I am not a health professional, nor do I pretend to be. Please consult your doctor before altering your alcohol consumption habits. Do not consume alcohol if you are under the age of 21. Do not drink and drive. Enjoy responsibly!