Learning French: Wine Vocabulary for Dummies

The journey to the world of wine is not a short one. It takes time to understand the general surroundings of growing and producing wine and to get acquainted with industry terms.  I must admit that I am still barely off the starting line. I have started from sparkling wine, mainly from two or three areas as well as scratched the surface on ports. There will always be more countries, grape varieties, styles of wines or vintages. There will always be more something.

One thing that I have however taken the time to learn are some general terms that you come across on the label of bottles. Words like Appellation, Solera and Cru are thrown around lightly in the world of wine, but I must admit, it was only after I started in the business that I really understood their meaning and implications. Today, even if I am not familiar with the producer, grape or area, I have a general vocabulary to carry out a conversation and/or read the label of a wine bottle. Many of the terms come from the French language, thus the playful subject, Learning French. Here are some of the most useful terms (to my opinion) when buying or discussing wine:

1. The term Cuvée has several meanings, but is mostly related to a blend, either of more than one grape or of wine from specially selected barrels. Simply, it is the blend. When it comes to Champagne, the term can also refer to the first-pressed (and best) juice from the grapes. “Cuvée” is also used to imply prestige or quality, though the term is not officially regulated, and therefore can appear on the labels of all kinds of wines.

2. Cru refers to a vineyard or group of vineyards, especially one of recognized quality. It’s often used within different classifications of French wines. The terms Premier Cru ( used eg. in Burgundy, Saint-Emilion and Bordeaux) and Grand Cru (used eg. in Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne), are generally translated into English as First Growth and Great Growth. The terms designate levels of presumed quality that are variously defined in different wine regions. The terms are not technically a classification of wine quality per se, but are intended to indicate the potential of the vineyard or terroir.

3. The direct translation for the term Vielles Vignes is ‘old vines’. The terms is commonly used on wine labels to indicate that a wine is the product of vines that are particularly old. The practice of displaying it stems from the general belief that older vines, when properly cared for, will produce a better wine. This term, as many others is not clearly regulated, so it is relative what one considers to be ‘old’. We have some great wines from ‘old vine’ in our selection and there the age tends to be from 50 to a 100 years (and yes, the wines are really good).

4. You might have noticed I use the word terroir quite often when I describe the characteristics of a wine. When describing a wine, terroir meand the set of special characteristics brought by the geography (for example altitude), geology (soil) and climate of a certain place.

Appellation Vouvray Controllée
Appellation Vouvray Controllée
5. An appellation is a legally defined and protected geographical indication used to identify where the grapes and wine were grown.  Appellations have restrictions such as geographical boundaries, what grapes may be grown, maximum grape yields, alcohol level, and other quality factors. These requirements for the production must be met before the grower may legally use an appellation name on a wine bottle label. The rules that govern appellations are dependent on the country in which the wine was produced. So if you are generally interested in natural wines (bio-dynamical production, use of pesticides etc.), check out the rules for different appellations. You will find that some are much stricter than others, and though a wine might not be classified as ecological, the appellation may already forbid many practices that are rough on the land. Denominación de Origen Cava is one good example of an appellation with restrictions that push towards a kind treatment of the environment.

For more terms, you can check out the Wine Enthusiasts Glossary for Wine. If you are pondering about a term, don’t be ashamed to ask (or just quickly pop into the loo and google it). Wine people might not always realize they sound a bit silly when flaunting these words like they are a part of everyone’s vocabulary .

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