The following is how I taught myself to understand noble grapes and where they come from.
In the 1970s, the marketing efforts of Robert Mondavi resulted in Americans understanding wine by grape varietal. Most Europeans understand wine by the name of a region or village the wine is from.
When I tell readers I’m classically trained, this refers to first understanding how old world wines are vinified and the geography, or terrior, that coincides with their production—and more specifically, France.
French wines are labeled by the area which they come from, which generally implies a certain wine style, grape or blend. The French government has a system called Appellation d’origine Controlee (AOC) which regulates what grapes can be grown where. There are derivatives of this system in each respective AOC which are constantly changing and evolving.
I first learned by breaking France into the following 6 regions: Loire Valley, Bordeaux, Rhone Valley, Burgundy, Alsace, and Champagne. I then learned which major grapes grow in each major AOC or legally defined geographic area.
Loire Valley—Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc
Bordeaux—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon
Rhone Valley—Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Roussanne
Burgundy—Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay
Alsace—Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris
Champagne—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
There are many other grapes and exceptions to the AOC rules, but these are the major grapes and styles that are exported to the American market. It is a good guide to begin understanding French wine labels at your next trip to the local wine shop.