The Language of Wine and Spirits

Like the mighty tree that has fallen in the forest with no one around, if someone speaking to you uses a term that you don’t understand, has communication taken place?

For years, wine and spirits cognoscenti, who are those persons self-determined that they know more than you about the topic of adult beverages, have tossed about terms which good-natured real people, like you, don’t comprehend. Those words include descriptors and aspects associated with fermentation and distillation. Some of the words are in another language. In the case of fermentation, which is the process by which grape juice becomes wine, the words are often in French.

While the descriptor words or phrases used may be correct, the implied message from the speaker is that, “I know more than you about this topic so any questioning of my knowledge will not be appreciated and I will just up the ante and use even more obscure words that you have also never heard. Oh, and by the way, I’m not going to explain what I just said.

“Further, if you ask what the hell I just said, I will look at you with some disdain because that facial expression gets me out of having to explain. Likely I really don’t even know myself what the words mean but I’ve heard them used and they sound important.”

Let’s start with something simple by way of example: dry. Ask many people what kind of wine they like and they will answer, “Something dry.” I immediately assume they mean “not sweet.” Here, however, we have entered the realm of individual taster’s perception, maybe in error.

“Dry,” as a wine descriptor, really means that all of the sugars in the grape structure have been converted to alcohol during fermentation. The juice of the grape, and the sugars in the meat and the skin, have been attacked by yeasts, either naturally occurring or added by the winemaker, and those yeasts have consumed the sugars and yielded alcohol. That is the essence of fermentation.

But you may taste a wine fully dry and find it still “sweet.” The difference in perception is that the composition of certain grapes, in their DNA, is a fruit-sweet component.  Some grapes have more fruit-sweet presence than others. Riesling, after full fermentation, still comes of a bit sweeter than Zinfandel at the same stage. The Riesling grape fruit presents differing levels of sweet whereas the Zinfandel is also fruit sweet but tannins and acids mask those qualities.

Both wines are actually dry, yet one may seem to you to be sweet, and you don’t like that perception of a sugar which is not really there. Yet the wine is for all intents and purposes, dry. 

Terroir is another of those terms tossed around the wine and spirits industries which can be a bit baffling to the listener. Let me tell you something, knowledgeable wine professionals are actually baffled by the term, and some of them are not intelligent enough to realize their lack of perception.

Terroir is a term for which there is no English equivalent. Most wine people will tell you that the word means all the conditions that affect the wine: the soil in the vineyard, the way the vines face the sun, the canopy of leaves on the vines that shade the grapes, the ambient temperatures and the rains that affect the quality of the grapes during their growing season, the range of those temperatures from the daily highs to the daily lows, the winds, and maybe even hail.

Other wine lovers will extend the terroir to the ensuing processes: the conditions under which the grapes are harvested, the length of time from the picking to the crush, and the other myriad circumstances to which grapes are subjected, including oak or no-oak storage, all of which have bearing on the outcome.

Which brings us to a factor of terroir seldom included in discussion by wine lovers: the winemaker him-or-herself. Are they an interventionist or do they allow the wine to follow a natural path, gently guiding the juice to an elegant outcome? Do they have something specific in mind, like their style or a winery style, and move towards those results? There are plenty of folks in both camps making wine out there.

After all those subjects are covered, to me, you are also terroir. What kind of mood are you in when you are drinking the wine? What are you munching on between sips? What are you drinking out of? Who are you with? Are you focused on what’s in the glass or on what is happening around you? (As an experiment, drink a wine while at dinner with friends or a loved one, and then have the same wine in the Dome watching a Saints game. Same qualities? I’ll bet not.)

Which brings me (finally, you say) to my points: 1) Let’s drop the use of the term terroir unless we are going to be specific to a single aspect of the word (ex: The terroir in the vineyard this year destroyed the subtle nature I have come to love in this wine.) 2) Let’s speak in terms that are considerate of our listener. Some wine experts and members of the wine media are more interested in impressing themselves than with sharing a viewpoint. Avoid elitism in speech.

Lastly, let’s quit acting like wine and spirits are made for only a select few. Everyone can enjoy, to their own abilities, everything out there. Maybe not everyone understands the complete "big picture" with all the nitty-gritty details, but they can figure out what they like. And that’s what’s important.

We can start with drinking for mood and not just for food. What do you want to drink at any given moment? Then do it. Don’t let some “expert” tell you that having a Cabernet Sauvignon with shrimp cocktail is wrong. It may not be the best pairing, but if that’s what you want, go for it.

And when someone tells you that it’s wrong, just look them in the eye and say, “Yes, I know that.”




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