What’s in a Name: What you CANNOT call a wine in the USA

Many US  wineries producing traditional styled wines are a (legal verbiage) loss when naming their wines in a manner in which wine consumers can easily recognize the type or style of wine  produced.

This is due to restrictions that wine labeling regulations place on wine grape products, and their bottle labels, and illustrations.  One of My pet peeves is Dessert Wine (What’s that?!?! many US consumers ask) has been named various alternative nautical terms such as starboard, larboard, seeking alternatives to the prohibited “port”.

Port (left) and Starboard (right) nautical lamps

The root of the problem is the “Standards of Identity” agreement between the U.S. and the European Union governing the use of  “semi-generic” wine names such as Port, Chablis, Champagne.

Did I mention that our winery is (ironically) located on “Chablis Road” if I listed our address instead of website on the labels the Feds would probably prohibit “Chablis.”

Wineries that used the restricted product prior to the standards of identity agreements are “grandfathered” (may continue to use the names) but wineries offering products after the agreement implementation dates are out of luck.

The agreement signed by the United States and the European Community (EC) on March 10, 2006 changed the legal status of 17 designations of wine.

What are some of the restricted names?

Along with Claret, 16 other semi-generic wine names are covered under the standards agreement: Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne, Chianti, Hock, Malaga, Marsala, Madeira, Moselle, Port, Retsina, Rhine wine, Sauterne, Haut Sauterne, Sherry and Tokay.

Again, a  “grandfather” provision allows wineries already using the terms before the 2006 date,  e.g.  Claret, to continue to do so, but the naming must must now conform to “the trade understanding of such class and type” and any Johnny-come-lately wineries are simply out of luck…

Shared below from Wikipedia provides additional  information on  wine classification.

Classification of wine

By vinification methods

Wines may be classified by vinification methods. These include classifications such as sparkling, still, fortified, rosé, and blush. The color of wine is not determined by the juice of the grape, which is almost always clear, but rather by the presence or absence of the grape skin during fermentation.  Red wine is made from red (or black) grapes, but its red color is bestowed by the skin being left in contact with the juice during fermentation. White wine can be made from any color of grape as the skin is separated from the juice during fermentation. A white wine made from a very dark grape may appear pink or ‘blush’. Rosé wines are a compromise between reds and whites — the skin of red grapes is left in for a short time during fermentation.

Sparkling wines, such as champagne, are those with carbon dioxide, either from fermentation or added later. They vary from just a slight bubbliness to the classic Champagne. To have this effect, the wine is fermented twice, once in an open container to allow the carbon dioxide to escape into the air, and a second time in a sealed container, where the gas is caught and remains in the wine. Wines that gain their carbonation from the traditional method of bottle fermentation are called Méthode Traditionnelle wines in France. Other international denominations of sparkling wine include Sekt or Schaumwein (Germany), Cava (Spain), Spumante or Prosecco (Italy).

Fortified wines are often sweeter, always more alcoholic wines that have had their fermentation process stopped by the addition of a spirit, such as brandy*. They include:

  • Marsala
  • Madeira
  • Sherry
  • Port

* Pointing out a nuance/correction here – Sherry is fortified with brandy after fermentation has been completed. Port may be fortified partway through the fermentation process, leaving and protecting residual sugars.

Brandy is a distilled wine. Grappa is a dry colorless brandy, distilled from fermented grape pomace, the pulpy residue of grapes, stems and seeds that were pressed for the winemaking process.

Uses of wine

A glass of white wine

Wine is a popular and important beverage that accompanies and enhances a wide range of European and Mediterranean-style cuisines, from the simple and traditional to the most sophisticated and complex. Red, white and sparkling wines are the most popular, and are also known as light wines, because they only contain approximately 10-14% alcohol. The aperitif and dessert wines contain 14-20% alcohol, and are fortified to make them richer and sweeter than the light wines. Although there are many classes of dinner wines, they are all used under six specific classes, as follows:

  • aperitif: (or better known as “appetizer wines”): include dry sherry, Madeira, Vermouth, and other flavored wines, made to be consumed before eating a meal.
  • red dinner wines: These wines are usually dry and go extremely well with such main-course dishes as red meats, spaghetti, and highly-seasoned foods. They should be served at a cool room temperature to bring out their aroma. The most popular red dinner wines are claret, Burgundy, Chianti, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Pink dinner wines (also called “rose wines”), a special class of red wines, can be served with almost any dish, but are considered best with cold meats, pork, and curries.
  • white dinner wines: Usually either very dry or rather sweet, these wines should be served chilled, and go well with white meats, seafood, and fowl. They include Rhine wines, Chablis, sauterne, and wine made from different grape varieties such as Chardonnay and White Riesling.
  • sparkling wines: Usually served at any meal with any course, these wines are most frequently served at banquets, formal dinners and weddings. The most common sparking wines are Champagne (white) and sparkling Burgundy (red).
  • table wine: Table wine is not bubbly, although some have a very slight carbonation, the amount of which is not enough to disqualify them as table wines. According to U.S. standards of identity, table wines may have an alcohol content that is no higher than 14 percent. In Europe, light wine must be within 8.5 percent and 14 percent alcohol by volume. As such, unless a wine has more than 14 percent alcohol, or it has bubbles, it is a table wine or a light wine.
  • dessert wines: Ranging from medium-sweet to sweet, these wines are classified under dessert wines only because they are sometimes served with desserts. Among these are port wine, sweet sherry, Tokay, and muscatel.

The labels on certain bottles of wine suggest that they need to be set aside for an hour before drinking (ie. to “breathe”), while other wines are recommended to be drunk as soon as they are opened.

‘Breathing’ means allowing a wine to aerate before drinking. Generally, younger wines benefit from some aeration, while older wines do not. The word, “younger”, refers to the first one third of a wine’s life, which varies from wine type to wine type and from wine to wine. For example, most white wines, “younger” means up to one to two years, while for red wines, they could mean as little as a few months, for a Beaujolais Nouveau, up to ten years for a hearty Barossa Shiraz. “Older”, on the other hand, refers to the last one third of their lives.

During aeration, the exposure of younger wines to air often “relaxes” the flavors and makes them taste slightly smooth and better integrated in aroma, texture, and flavor.

Wines that are older generally fade (lose their character and flavor intensity) with extended aeration. Breathing, however, does not benefit all wines, and should not therefore be taken to the extreme. In general, wine should be tasted as soon as it is opened to determine how long it may be aerated, if at all. It should then be tasted every 15 minutes until the wine is, according to individual preference, ready to drink. As a general rule, younger white wines normally require no more than 15-30 minutes of aeration while younger red wines should be no more than 30-60 minutes. If in doubt, it is better to err on the side of too little aeration than too much.

Others uses

Religious Ceremonial Use

Wine is also used in religious ceremonies in many cultures and the wine trade is of historical importance for many regions. The New Testament even claims that Jesus’ very first miracle was to turn water into wine (John 2:1-11).

Cooking Wines

Some wines are produced commercially as cooking wine, which is considered by many to be extremely salty, and of a much lower grade than even box wine. The salt s added to extend the shelf life oa an occasionally used cooking wine.  Cooking wines are convenient for cooks who use wine as an ingredient for cooking only rarely.

However, they are not widely used by professional chefs, as they believe the added preservative significantly lowers the quality of the wine and subsequently the food made with that wine. Most professional chefs prefer to use inexpensive but drinkable wine for cooking, and this recommendation is given in many professional cooking textbooks as well as general cookbooks. Many chefs believe there is no reason to use a low quality cooking wine, for cooking, when there are quality drinkable wines available at very low prices.


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About Author: Dennis Grimes

7 thoughts on “What’s in a Name: What you CANNOT call a wine in the USA

  1. March 19, 2010 at 21:22

    Hmm, interesting. Is there really a legally binding agreement that prevents wineries from using these restricted names or is it more of gentleman’s agreement. When you say that the U.S. and the E.C. signed an agreement, who did the signing?

    I had this discussion just a few days ago, since where I work falls under the “grandfather” clause and continues to label their sparkling wine, champagne and their dessert wine, port. There was some question as to who and how this agreement would be enforced. Even the TTB doesn’t adhere to this “agreement.”

    CFR27 §4.21.3 states:
    Dessert wines having the taste, aroma and characteristics generally attributed to angelica, madeira, muscatel and port and an alcoholic content, derived in part from added grape brandy or alcohol, of not less than 18 percent by volume, may be designated as “angelica,” “madeira,” “muscatel,” or “port” respectively.

    So if a winery can still get a COLA with “Port” on their label, who is going to slap them on the wrist for using that semi-generic name?

    • Dennis Grimes
      March 19, 2010 at 22:24

      Eric: Take joy in your grandfathered status. Sadly far from a gentleman’s agreement.

      In the case of e.g. Port, a non-grandfathered US winery can’t use the term “Port”, or even “Port-Style” the labels – that is to say can’t get the labels approved by TTB for use. As you know the US Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB, formerly BATF a much cooler name IMO) approves all wine labels, you also know wineries (like yours) using the prohibited terms before the “standards agreement” was signed, are “grandfathered” and can continue to use the terms.

      Re. the wrist slap, it’s my understanding US export wines that do not adhere to the standards agreement will not be allowed into the EU

      Our government policy/regulators let US wineries down badly when they signed away the right to use semi-generic wine names particularly in the case where NO viable alternatives exist.

      Pathetically, US wineries fight over trademarks over Port substitute names like “starboard” and others try using use terms like USB (as in computer PORT – My God! What a stretch) in a desperate attempt to used an alternative to the very useful descriptive descriptive Port term. How can you trademark a universally recognized nautical term such as Starboard or more obscure, Larboard? I guess if you fund a trademark application, and have lawyers to protect your trademark rights, you can use the terms.

      As makers of (award winning) Port-styled wines we find the Port Port-styled restriction quite chafing. Most wine consumers do NOT understand the term “Dessert Wine” very well and generally assume it’s a late harvest semi-sweet or sweet wine e.g. like a Muscat Canelli. We regularly run into confusion at credible wine competitions where staff try to determine how to properly categorize our well made (please excuse the modesty ;-)) Port-style dessert wines when the term does not/per TTB cannot in our case, appear on the label.

      Since we are post standards agreement, and therefore not grandfathered, we have been unsuccessful in getting any Port or Port-Styled label lingo approved by TTB. Of course as you probably know, who you get to review/approve your label application (i.e. TTB bureaucrat) can impact the outcome of your label approval.

      On another topic, but label approval related issue…

      Another chafing point is the prohibition of US flag or military equipment images or artwork on labels. The prohibition against commercializing the US flag on wine labels, well OK maybe. If you’re patriotic, you’re out of luck – I guess.

      Eagles Nest Winery has historically featured area Public Service Organizations in our (beautiful 😉 ) custom label art along with providing wine donations for fund raisers to those same organizations as a public service.

      When we as military veterans, with a special warm spot in our hearts for things military, attempted feature the USS Midway Museum (a beautiful, fabulously successful San Diego Bay icon, but decommissioned (former US Navy ship) in ownership/operation of a non-government organization) on a “Port” (OK Dessert Wine) the TTB refused that label stating we could not have any images/art depicting military hardware on the labels.

      TTB staffers also questioned what the “41” between the carrier’s bow catapults in the artwork meant. Obviously no Navy vets in THAT office… maybe another argument for restoring the Draft? (sigh…)

      As you know when wine is ready for market, labels are a critical part of that process, with approval and printing lead times that the bottling operation does not appreciate. We gave up fighting on the USS Midway label and instead featured our luxury Vacation Villa in artwork, not having the time or legal staff to fight the TTB on that one.

      I’m sure a few cases of donated, medal-winning Ruby Port would have brought smiles to Midway Museum leadership and in a small way, to their bank account – alas, life would be grand not to suffer the insult of uncaring bureaucracies and stupid rules.

      • March 19, 2010 at 23:38

        Wow. Sorry to pour salt into that wound. Obviously, I touched a nerve. But of course, what our government puts into a CFR and what they interpret as the law are often not the same. I wish they would update the CFR, however, according to the TTB website, the provision of that agreement with the E.C. to limit the use of semi-generic names are not yet in effect. And other publications from the TTB confirm that.


        Pending any change to the law, TTB will continue to approve “new” uses of the semi-generic names and Retsina.

        However, if legislation passes that enacts that provision, I assume the label will have to change. Can they make it any more stupid and confusing.

        On a personal note, I had some custom labels made that were made to look like a blood IV bag and it had some funny claims to cause infectious laughter along with Rx Only statement on it. Our label department flagged it, but eventually I talked them into letting me label a few bottles even though any health claims are not allowed on a label. One of the benefits of working for a company that often flies just under the radar.

        • Dennis Grimes
          March 20, 2010 at 06:55

          I wouldn’t say a raw nerve – but one does grow weary of the uncaring, stupid bureaucratic crap businesses have to operate under these days. I wish all politicos and bureaucrats had started and run a successful business at least once in their lives – would alter their perspective. Also our legal system (esp. tort law) is out of control but that’s an other topic 😉

          Drink more fine red wine!!! It may be all you can do…

  2. March 17, 2010 at 09:13

    Very interesting posting. But as far as I know there is a basic difference between Sherry and Port. The former is a fully fermented wine with sterilized juice and alcohol added for the sweet Sherry and only the latter for the dry Sherry. On the other hand, Port is always sweet trough the arresting of the fermentation, like a stopped sweet Mosel Kabinett wine.


    • Dennis Grimes
      March 18, 2010 at 06:30


      Appreciate the comment. The wiki article is possibly too brief WRT the discussion of Port and Sherry, yes they can be considered dessert wines but you point out a very correct nuance. Other fortified wines include Marsala, Vermouth & Madeira.

      Some say Sherry is Spain’s answer to Portugal’s Port. As you say, Sherry is fortified with brandy after fermentation has been completed. Port is fortified partway through the fermentation process, leaving and protecting residual sugars.

      Stopping a robust Port fermentation is sometimes difficult – the drunken yeastie beasties often hang in there for a while.

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