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Making Sense of Winespeak

An Opinionated Glossary

March 12, 1997|MATT KRAMER | Kramer is the author of several books, including "Making Sense of Wine" (Morrow, 1992)

In 1879, the British biologist T.H. Huxley (grandfather of Aldous) was asked by unscientific sorts why scientists cannot be content with "plain English." He replied, "I would suggest to such an objector to open a conversation with a carpenter, or an engineer, or still better, with a sailor, and try how far plain English will go.

"Every calling has its technical terminology," he continued. "And every artisan uses terms of art, which sound like gibberish to those who know nothing of the art, but are exceedingly convenient to those who practice it."

I thought of Huxley's sensible words while reading various comments on an Internet wine chat line. One contributor complained, in a good-natured fashion, that he simply didn't grasp the significance of some of the jargon tossed around by wine writers and other geeks.

It's true that winespeak can use cleaning up, or at least explication, but in fairness, it's got nothing to be ashamed of, compared, say, to computer jargon. Wine jargon is at least a bit closer to the vaunted plain English or not-so-plain French. (Take heart: The average French drinker doesn't understand the French wine-tasting terminology either.)

Still, many of the wine words tossed around today cannot be given brief, handy definitions. They are shorthand "terms of art" that imply broader meanings.

Examples: the "leesy complexity" a wine writer finds in a French Chablis or a red wine's "saturated" color or a Barbaresco's quality of being "exotic and modern, clearly a barrique-style wine." Knowing the implications or politics of a wine term can help you decipher a taster's prejudices or perspective.

What follows is one reader's decoding of the hidden meanings of wine terms frequently found in tasting notes, newspaper and magazine articles, wine books and, not least, the spew of passionate, unedited words on various Internet wine chat lines.

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* Barrique: French (pronounced bah-REEK) for a small oak barrel, typically 60 gallons. Oddly, the word gained international currency not in France but in Italy. Starting in the 1980s, ambitious Italian winegrowers avidly pursued aging their wines in small new French oak barrels. All sorts of wines were proclaimed to be "barrique-aged." This signified not merely the presence of (usually excessive) oakiness, but often a whole new way of making a traditional wine such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti, among many others. For Italian wine fans, "barrique" signals a revolutionary aesthetic regime.

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* Cuvee: French (pronounced coo-VAY) for a special blend or bottling. It derives from cuve, a vat or tank.

Traditionally, the word has most often been used with sparkling wines, for example Roederer Estate l'Ermitage Prestige Cuvee. Today, though, cuvee has become one of the terms that signals a special limited-edition bottling, signified by the phrase "special cuvee" or "reserve cuvee" on the label. Producers making a particular bottling or blend--often unfiltered--will use such a phrase. It is most often seen in Burgundy bottlings. Even though it's a French word, cuvee is increasingly seen on California labels as well, e.g., Chapell Vineyard's "Old Vines Cuvee," formely known as Chenin Blanc.

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* Extraction: You often hear praise of "highly extracted" or "high-extract" wines. This is a giveaway word about a taster's palate; it shows a taste for monster wines (nearly always red), powerfully flavored but with no concern for finesse. When a producer uses it, it signifies that every last drop of flavor and color have been wrung out of the grapes to make the wine. On the other hand, if the red wine is more tannic than the taster likes, then the wine is declared "over-extracted."

Too often, this term is treated as a synonym for "concentrated," but there's a crucial difference. Concentration comes from low yields in the vineyard; high extraction results from how the wine is made. Guess which is easier (and cheaper) to do?

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* Garrigue: A catch-all French term (pronounced gah-REEG) for the various wild scrub and herbs found in southern France, especially Provence. This is the newest vogue word, much used by fans of Provencal and Languedoc wines. It refers to a kind of sun-baked herbal scent. Fans say it's an element of the terroir (the "somewhereness" of the vineyard--the unique qualities of its soil, climate, drainage, exposure and so on). Others, more skeptical (or cynical), say it's actually an element of microbial spoilage. No word is trendier at the moment--or more vague.

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* Gras: French (pronounced grah) for fat. A term of praise, referring to a wine's richness and textural density. Wines with a lot of glycerin, which gives body, are often described as being (or having) gras. It's frequently used in connection with white wines. See also Seve.

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