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Potentially Confusing Wine Terms

23 January 2013

Wine, like many fields, has its own vocabulary. For some, that’s part of its appeal, and for others, it can feel intimidating. I must admit I use winespeak on this blog not infrequently, with the goal of adding precision to my descriptions. But some of these terms, as my mother recently alerted me, can’t even be found in a typical dictionary.

I thought, therefore, that it would be handy to have a quick glossary of some potentially confusing terms you’re likely to encounter when reading about wine:

Acids: As in citrus fruit, acids can give wine a juicy, mouth-watering quality, and they’re usually very important for making a wine food-friendly. I find they can take on different shapes and colors, like pointy limey acids, or round orangey acids, or bright lemony acids.

Brut/Extra Dry: Ages ago, some marketing genius in deepest France decided it would be smart to use these terms counterintuitively. A brut Champagne (or other sparkling wine) will be dry, and an extra brut Champagne will be even drier. An extra dry Champagne, however, will be on the sweeter side. It’s France — they like to keep us barbarian Americans on our toes.

Cuvée: This word is thrown around willy-nilly these days, and it’s sometimes used just as a synonym for “wine” when wine writers don’t want to use “wine” too often in a single sentence about wine. It usually refers to some specific subset of a wine, perhaps indicating different blends, for example.

Noble Rot: I suppose even a true marketing genius would have trouble making the botrytis fungus sexy. Noble rot can be quite desirable because it creates little holes in the grape skins, drying out and even shriveling the grapes a bit. This concentrates the sugars and flavors in the remaining juice, resulting in (ideally) marvelously deep, rich, sweet and lively wines. Sauternes and Tokai Aszú are two classic examples.

Tannins: In contrast to mouth-watering acids, tannins tend to dry the mouth. If you drink a wine and it sucks the moisture off your tongue, or (in extreme cases) feels like a mouthful of cotton, those are the tannins at work. Wines aged in stainless steel typically have fewer tannins than wines aged in wood, though the amount of tannins tends to be determined more by the grape variety and how much the winery used the stems, skins and seeds in the winemaking process. In any case, tannins help add structure and balance, and help keep a wine intact as it ages in the bottle.

Terroir: More and more, wine drinkers are seeking out cuvées– er, wines, which are expressive of their terroir. This French term doesn’t just refer to the qualities of the soil in which a vineyard is planted. It encompasses the entire microclimate of the vineyard, from soil to sunlight to rainfall to temperatures. Basically, terroir can be anything that gives a wine a sense of place. A single-vineyard wine should theoretically be most expressive of its terroir, as compared to a wine made from grapes grown across an entire region. It matters less whether a wine is a varietal or a blend of different varieties.

Variety/Varietal: Speaking of which, let’s talk about “varietal” versus “varieties.” I admit I confused these terms myself until relatively recently, and you’ll see them used incorrectly in all sorts of prestigious publications. Editors take note! A variety refers to the type of grape, such as Merlot, Chardonnay, or everyone’s favorite, Öküzgözü. A varietal wine is a wine made entirely (or almost entirely) from a single variety, and it should probably express the characteristics of that variety. Although “varietal” is technically an adjective, it’s also common these days to refer to a varietal wine as simply “a varietal.”

My goodness, well that’s enough vocabulary for me. Does anyone happen to have a glass of tannic terroir-focused extra-dry varietal something or other?

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