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Cabernet Sauvignon and Chianti and Merlot Oh My! On Grape Varietals and Wine Regions

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What do Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir and Merlot have in common? They are types of wine grapes.

What do Chianti and Rioja and Bordeaux have in common? They are regions that describe types of wine.

If you have ever confused the two categories, you’re not alone.


Though there are over 10,000 wine grape varieties in the world, very few are known by the average wine drinker, and many folks confuse grapes and regions. Old world wines (European) are historically labeled by region (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Rhone in France, Rioja in Spain, Chianti in Italy) whereas New world wines (Americas, Australia/New Zealand, South Africa) typically label their wines by grape variety (Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon)

Why, you ask? If I were to postulate, the French (who wrote all the rules) prefer to hide the details so they can enhance the mystery and charge more. We Americans like to comparison shop and know what we are buying and our winemakers obliged.


You can research and discover the grapes used in old world wines by looking it up in wine reference books (See The World Atlas of Wine)1, checking an app (like Vivino) or asking your favorite Sommelier or CSW graduate (yours truly). Why would you want to know? So you can define which wines you like by the grapes used in the wine and expand your wine library (and impress your friends but try not to be a wine snob about it)! 


French Lesson (they wrote the book)

Most French wines require/allow a blend of 2+ grape types (and up to 10+ in some cases) to qualify for the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) label in their geographic area. (AOC in France = AVA in US; see our previous blog post on the subject)

Let’s start with Bordeaux (a region in SW France), the granddaddy of French wine. Wines labeled as Bordeaux typically contain 5 grape types: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot, though several more are allowed. In addition to only growing these specific varieties, wine-makers must grow these grapes within a specific region defined by the French authorities. 


Do you like Bordeaux wines? Then you can conclude that you may also like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and/or Merlot wine blends from other parts of the world such as Napa Valley and South Africa, since these are the varieties included under the Bordeaux label.

Do you like Burgundy wines? Then you must be a fan of Pinot Noir, as this varietal is used exclusively in red Burgundy wines. Oregon built its wine industry on creating Pinot Noir wines in the style of Burgundy as its climate and terroir is similar.So if you live around the Willamette Valley, you’re in luck!

Chianti lover? Then look for new world Sangiovese wines, as this is the signature grape of the Italian Chianti region.


Some other region and varietal pairings:


Rhone=Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre (GSM) blends 

Champagne=Chardonnay (Blancs de Blancs) and Pinot Noir (Blancs de Noirs)

Etc, etc – need more examples? Email me!


By contrast, US wines typically headline the grape on the label, and TTB (Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau) regulations insist on at least 75% of the grape varietal to be labeled as such. However Oregon requires you use at least 90% of the stated grape and most Willamette Valley wineries use 100%, especially for estate, reserve, small vineyard batches. Most wineries are happy to share this information so don’t be afraid to ask!


Fun Facts:

  • When Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc had a baby they named it Cabernet Sauvignon, now the most widely planted grape varietal in the world.
  • The most widely planted white wine grape planted in France is Ugni Blanc. Never heard of it? Because it is grown to distill into brandy (Cognac and Armagnac).
  • The first evidence of fermented grapes to make an alcoholic beverage was uncovered in China ~ 7000 BCE. Evidence of the world’s first cultivated vineyards are in the Republic of Georgia ~ 6000 BCE2
  • A mold called Botrytis is responsible for making some of the most expensive (and sweet) wines in the world: Château d’Yquem from Sauternes, France running $500/bottle for new vintages to over $100,000 for hundred year old + vintages. Don’t let anyone tell you sweet wines are only for beginners! 3


The Takeaway

Discover which grapes are behind the wines you love and learn about the regions where they grow. Try new wines you’ve never tried a little more judiciously and increase your odds of finding a winner (no more dartboards!). Ask your wine merchant, winery friends, or restaurant/wine bar sommelier for suggestions and don’t be afraid to ask for wines in your price range-your favorites aren’t always the most $$$.

Next time: History of Wine in a (Hazel)nutshell