A neighborhood bistro I used to frequent wanted to be sure the sommelier clearly understood the patrons’ requests when ordering from its wine list. A large placard over the bar instructed:
ORDER WINE ONLY BY THE NUMBER:
Time was when those two distinctions pretty much covered the American taste in wine. Today, we have many more choices, but American wine-bibbers tend to be partial to four principal kinds: the red Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the white Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Even though they come from California, Australia, Chile, or even (mon Dieu!) Texas, the names are all French for particular varieties of grape.
Where the names originally came from is a fairly arcane question that most etymological sources are too skittish to answer for sure.
Chardonnay, for example, is the name of a village near Macon in Burgundy, too small to appear on most maps. It is presumably the source of the white (i.e. green), fruity grape from which the French make a number of wines, including Chablis, Meursault, Montrachet, and Champagne. The origin of Chardonnay is hard to pin down, since the village has been there for many centuries. Some say it came from its earlier Latin name, Cardonnacum, or “place of the thistles.” Others speculate it is from the Gaulish proper name Cardus or that it has some connection with the French word jardin (“garden”). The name first appeared in English in 1911, in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Most experts agree that Sauvignon comes from the French word sauvage, meaning “savage” or “wild.” The white Sauvignon grape is found in Bordeaux and the Loire Valley, and is the basis of many wines, including Sauternes and Graves.
Merlot (or “little blackbird”) stems from the Old French word merle and refers to the color of the bird’s feathers, which are a deep reddish-blue, as is the grape of that name. In the Bordeaux region, it is frequently blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cabernet, an English word since 1911, is defined as a variety of black (i.e. dark red) grape. It is a cross between Cabernet franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet’s etymology is problematic, possibly coming from the Latin caput, meaning “head,” for unclear reasons. Others suggest it comes from carbonet, meaning “coal black.”
A fanciful explanation of Cabernet, however, comes from a Scottish blogger, who insists that in antiquity a team of Scottish athletes came to France to challenge the French to a game that combined the Scots’ tossing of a caber (a young tree trunk) with French football. The object was to toss the caber into each other’s nets. Since they were hearty imbibers of the local wine, it was named in honor of this Caber-Net game and given a French pronunciation. Well, it’s a theory, anyway.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, when pressed, calls himself an oenophile; he thinks it has more class than wino.
Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir—
To them all I’m sympathetic
Every time I pour.
Now there is a new wine at my corner bar.
They say that it’s a diuretic.
They call it Pinot More.