Prunes, Canes and Leaves

Ouch. Enological grammar, spelling and usage can be tricky business
Oct 2, 2012

When "normal" people think of wine experts, occasionally a few unsavory words come to mind: Geek. Snob. Bibulous fusspot. Coincidentally, those same words are commonly associated with another profession: Copy editor.

Imagine, then, the frustrations of the copy-editing wine pro. As someone who has copy edited professionally for more than a dozen years and has been a member of the Wine Spectator editorial staff for nearly 10, it's my pleasure to present here a few of the myriad misused terms in the wine industry. Hopefully we can all learn a little, laugh a little and lift each other's wine language skills.

One of the most beautiful things about languages is that they're organic, always evolving, so consider this simply a snapshot of one enophile's vernacular. You will no doubt hear vintners using these words differently than we do, but the following list is, to use a favorite phrase of our crack copy editing team, "consistent with Wine Spectator Style" ...

On the vine, Cabernet is not a varietal. It is a grape variety. A varietal is a wine made from a single grape variety. It's OK to use varietal as an adjective, referring to "varietal characteristics," or even as an adverb, for a wine that shows proper typicity, or is "varietally correct," but it's not OK to say a Bordeaux is a blend of varietals. An easy way to remember the difference: Wines made in Burgundy are varietals; Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are varieties.

Wine has tannins, not tannin. Tannins are chemical compounds in wine that create the tactile or astringent drying sensation you often feel in your cheeks when drinking red wine. A tannin is a single polyphenol molecule, of which there are millions upon millions in a glass of wine. In short, if your wine only has one tannin, it is most definitely not tannic.

Fermentations occur in a fermentor; if anything can be called a "fermenter," it's the yeast.

Vineyards are planted to Merlot, not with it. One can only imagine the difficulties of trying to plant a vineyard using a grape cluster in place of a spade.

We assess a wine's flavor and body with our taste buds and our palate; its hues of red or gold are found on a palette; we move large bins of grapes around in the winery using a forklift and a pallet.

I recommend complimenting the sommelier when he or she selects a wine pairing that perfectly complements the entrée.

Terroir is frequently misspelled "terrior." Terroir would make a great name for a terrier, however.

Which is better: to be first or great? In terms of French wine classifications, that depends. In much of France—notably Burgundy and Champagne—the grands crus (great-growths) reign over the premiers crus (first-growths). But in Bordeaux, the Grands take a back seat to the Premiers. Well, actually, it's complicated. There, all classed-growths are Grands Crus Classés, ranked from fifth-growths up to first-growths, or Premier Grand Cru Classé—the pinnacle. Unless you happen to be talking about St.-Emilion, where the top tier is further divided into Premiers Grands Crus Classé A and B (yes, A is above B—that much is logical), or Sauternes, where Château d'Yquem stands superior to all other Premiers Crus as Premier Cru Supérieur.

As an English-language publication covering a topic that was largely European until about 100 years ago, we're also tasked with reconciling the anglicization of many non-native terms. For instance, we pluralize château as châteaus rather than use the French châteaux because the word has been incorporated into the English language; we use Brunellos di Montalcino as opposed to Brunelli. And yet we pluralize German auslese and spätlese as auslesen and spätlesen, as those terms are not common to Americans. We try to stick to a system, but like I said, it's tricky.

And then there are the words and styles for which it has been our privilege, along with the rest of the wine community, to create, filling the many voids that exist between winespeak and Merriam-Webster's: ageability, ageworthy, budbreak, budwood, grapegrower, minerality, typicity ... the list grows, frequently.

What grammar and spelling mistakes really grind your gears, in the wine world or elsewhere?

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