Varietals: The Spice of Life
Our quick breakdown of American Viticultural Areas makes wine labels a bit easier to decipher.
New World wines are generally identified by the primary grape (or varietal) that makes the wine. This approach, of course, is fundamentally different from many European traditions, where a bottle of wine tells you where not what. With French wine, for example, you drink Burgundy, not Pinot Noir. And Burgundy is a wine region, not a kind of grape. (If California followed the French tradition, we might say we're drinking "Napa," not Cabernet Sauvignon.)
Why do we go against the grain in the New World? The reason is fairly simple: there are numerous grape varietals grown in the same New World wine areas. In Napa Valley, you will find Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, to name just a few of the reds. By contrast, Pinot Noir is the red wine grape grown in the vineyards of Burgundy. The French wine drinker knows that if you drink a bottle of red wine from Burgundy, you're drinking Pinot Noir. The location tells all.
To "drink the location" in the New World, where regions are not generally identified by a specific grape or two, would be to invite confusion. So to simplify things, New World wineries label their wines primarily by grape varietal.
Even so, the New World is tipping its hat to the Old, as the habit of planting anything anywhere gradually gives way to a more careful consideration of what grapes are best matched to the soil, climate and topography (the terroir, as it were) of a specific spot. In certain areas of the New World, appellations have indeed become widely associated with specific varietals--the Willamette Valley in Oregon with Pinot Noir, Marlborough in New Zealand with Sauvignon Blanc, and Stag's Leap with Cabernet Sauvignon, to name just a few.