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Prunes, Canes and Leaves

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

Posted: Oct 2, 2012 11:30am ET

By Robert Taylor

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?

Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  October 2, 2012 1:48pm ET
Rob, you've been fixing fermenter in my stories all these years. Thanks! Fun read.
Bryson Gappa
North Texas —  October 2, 2012 2:13pm ET

When in fact, they mean Meritage. I'll repeat it back, correctly, one time. If they still pronounce it as though French were their fist language, I just smile politely, as I know they must think themselves smarter than the "professional".
Robert Taylor
New York, NY —  October 2, 2012 2:18pm ET
Good call Bryson: Important to remember that Meritage rhymes with heritage!

David Nelson
CA —  October 2, 2012 4:30pm ET
How about those "Rydel" stems? Ha, how many times have we heard that one? Riedel rhymes with needle is an easy way to remember.
Bob Wesley
Santa Barbara, CA —  October 2, 2012 8:30pm ET
There are too few synonyms for "grape" so I will continue to break the Varietal Rule!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 3, 2012 12:07am ET
Question: Am I alone on the pronunciation of this one, I wonder? (I may be...) To me, Aussies "own" the pronunciation of Shiraz (shee-razz). You should sound like Crocodile Dundee when you say it! It makes me giggle when pronounced "shih-rahz", like the pronunciation found at this link: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shiraz. Sure, it's the dictionary, what do I know? LOL
Chris Towt
Sonoma, CA —  October 3, 2012 9:54am ET
Would love your comments on capitalization of grape varieties. Pinot noir, for example. I like to rely on the National Grape Registry for correct names http://ngr.ucdavis.edu.

Before reading your article, the first sentance could have read:
Would love your comments on capitolization of varietals.
Scott Mitchell
Toronto, Ontario —  October 3, 2012 10:14am ET
After reading this, I think pedant is perhaps another appropriate descriptor for a wine expert/lover.
Robert Taylor
New York, NY —  October 3, 2012 11:17am ET
Great comments!

Don, most of us here at Wine Spectator pronounce Shiraz the way the dictionary suggests, but I think you make an excellent point re: the Aussies. However, technically, at least according to Merriam-Webster's, the word Shiraz is probably French in origin.

Chris, it is Wine Spectator's style to capitalize the full names of all grape varieties, i.e. Pinot Noir.


Steve Smith
troy, NY —  October 3, 2012 12:14pm ET
"Microclimate", in my experience, is rarely used correctly.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 3, 2012 1:40pm ET
Some Aussies pronounce it "Shir-AH." And only rural Aussies from northern Australia talk like Mick Dundee. There are lots of different Aussie accents. For pronunciation of Shiraz, I say they're all legit.

On microclimate, Steve is absolutely right that scientists would call the conditions around a specific vineyard or small defined area a "mesoclimate," because in viticulture microclimate should refer to the area around a single vine. But the use of microclimate to refer to a whole vineyard site or small region is so entrenched it's going to be hard to dislodge it.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans —  October 3, 2012 3:38pm ET
Rob, as someone who routinely shouts "Geaux Tigers" and tells anecdotes about some guys named Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, you should be ashamed to keep changing châteaux in my stories to châteaus. ;-)

Some complain that wine's unique dialect makes it elitist or fussy. The truth is, any great passion - from baseball to politics - has its own language. People are always searching for a better way to describe something.

Kazuya Matsushita
Tokyo, Japan —  October 4, 2012 2:58am ET
In addition to grammer or spelling issues, how to pronouce the names of wineries or vineyards is another issue for a person whose mother tongue is not English.

I was totally at a loss when I first encountered the winery name "Kapcsandy". How do you pronounce the following, just to pick up a few:
- Araujo (a-row-h-owe?)
- Eisele (ee-zel or ee-zelee?)
- Aubert (pronounced like a French word or rhymes with Albert?)
- Marcassin (pronounced like a French word?)
- Bucher (a vinyard; Williams Selyem uses their Pinot Noir grapes)

What is the best way to find out "correct" pronounciation, I wonder. . . .

Robert Moss
Wichita Falls, TX USA —  October 7, 2012 7:45pm ET
I'm still trying to figure out how to order a turbot (rhymes with sherbet, which, in turn, does not rhyme with Herbert) in an English-speaking restaurant. If any waitperson ever fails to attempt to correct me by uttering "turbo" (the NASCAR pronunciation, nowhere near the French) I will probably jump up and give him or her a big hug.

Julie Mckain
Rockport, TX —  October 8, 2012 3:48pm ET
Pet peeve -- when Words with Friends doesn't recognize & won't let me play wine jargon words.

Funny story -- my husband was working on a recruiting team for his employer, and we had the opportunity to take an interviewee out for a "get to know you" dinner. Nice guy, sharp engineer, late 20's, fancied himself as a bit of a wine guy. He ordered a Pinot Grigio by the glass as an aperitif ~~ Peen Wa Greeg Wa . . . I almost choked on my water, but the waiter didn't crack a smile and gracefully delivered a Peen Wa Greeg Wa to him. I can't order one now without enjoying a great chuckle.

This was at Pappa Bros in Houston -- great and unpretentious service. And, yes, he was hired anyway & now knows his error.

Ron Fierstein
Chappaqua NY —  October 22, 2012 10:40am ET
Great article
My personal terminology bugaboo is the mis-use of the term "clone."
Prugnolo Gentile (Montelpuciano) and Brunello (Montalcino) are not clones of the Sangiovese grape.
They are mutations.
Of course, once the mutation occurs, one can clone it.
Now, getting the rest of the wine world to adopt your precision will be a chore.
For example, how do you convince the Californians and the Oregonians, for example, that, because of their state's generous blending laws, very few of them produce varietals!
But I applaud your effort to seek precision.
Ned Osborn
Phillydelpia —  March 23, 2013 11:27pm ET
I know I've read this article before, but now after reading it again I feel that I must be the Archie Bunker of wine. Finally I can say with all honesty that I love Bordeaux the bestest. Richard, I look forward to your articles, thanks.

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