Wine, Any Way You Spell It

Today we’re wrapping up Palindrome Week, a 10-day string of dates that read the same forwards and backwards: 9-10-19, 9-11-19, 9-12-19…you get the picture.

Although I couldn’t find any wine grapes whose names are palindromes, the quirky dates got me wondering: how did wine grapes get their names, anyway? Was there once a Frenchie named “Monsieur Sauvignon”? Or an Australian cat named Sherlock Shiraz?

Coronation grapes

[“Coronation Grapes” by Amber Fox, courtesy of Flickr]

The origins of grape names, it turns out, are logical for the most part, though some are more interesting than others. I found the stories behind eight common wine grapes:

  1. Chardonnay actually is a small village in the Mâconnais region of southern Burgundy, a part of France where Chardonnay grapes thrive. (If you weren’t aware, Chardonnay wine from that part of the world is sometimes referred to as “White Burgundy.”) The word means “place of thistles.”
  2. Gewürztraminer translates to “spiced Traminer,” a mutation of the Traminer grape from Tyrol, or northern Italy. We know it as an almost-perfumey star wine of Alsace.
  3. Malbec is mostly known as a red wine grape from the Mendoza region of Argentina, but it was once known as Auxerrois from the Cahors region of France. There, it’s known as Côt, Cor, Cos, or Cau, obviously derivatives of Cahors. It may be called Malbec because it was planted in Bordeaux in the 1780s by a Monsieur Malbeck.
  4. Merlot‘s history is pretty straightforward: the name of the dark, rich grape came from “merle,” the French word for Blackbird.
  5. Pinot Noir means “pine” and “black,” relating to the dark, pine cone-shaped clusters of Pinot Noir grapes on the vine. Pinot lovers refer to Burgundy as the “spiritual home” of Pinot Noir, and when you see a bottle on a wine store shelf that’s simply labeled “Bourgogne” or Burgundy, it’s Pinot Noir.
  6. Riesling references date back to 1477, when some writings in Alsace called it “Rissling.” There’s also a small vineyard and stream in Austria called Ritzling, and some claim that’s the origin of the name. A third possibility: the origin may be traced to durchriesein, a word with many spellings and meanings, including  “inability to flower in cool temperatures.”
  7. Sauvignon boasts a wild history, so it’s appropriate that its name derives from the French word “sauvage,” which translates to “wild.” Cabernet Sauvignon is an accidental cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
  8. Shiraz might be known as the signature grape of Australia, but its ancestry spans three continents: the name refers to the wine-producing city of Shiraz in Iran, and the grape originated in southeast France.

Enjoy what’s left of Palindrome Week, because the wacky pattern won’t happen again until 2021–on 12-1-21, to be precise. The 10-day string of palindrome dates happens every century, always in the second decade. And you might want to pour a special glass this evening, Thursday, September 19 at 19 minutes and 19 seconds past 9, when it will be 9-19-19, 9:19:19.

That factoid has nothing to do with wine history, but it’s an excuse to celebrate anyway, just a little.

Wine Lingo: Wine thief = no, it doesn’t mean your cousin Lizzie who “borrows” one of your best bottles and never replaces it. If you haven’t seen a wine thief in person, you’ve seen photos: it’s the long glass or metal tube used by winemakers to draw samples from wine barrels.

Peterson Syrah med

Vino ‘View: 2011 Peterson Syrah, Gravity Flow Block, Dry Creek Valley (13.8 percent alcohol, $48) Get out your decanter, because this full-bodied Sonoma red will need to breathe for an hour or so. It’s not a cheap bottle, so you’ll want to drink it at its best. The aroma is intense, with smoke and black fruit wafting up. After decanting, the wine finds a good balance, with smoke and oak remaining on the palate through the long finish. Dry leaves sneak in–have you tried CBD oil? I detected a bit of the same mushroomy, earthy taste. Not that the fruit is lost; I tasted plum, blackberry and maybe avocado. Drink it now; this wine won’t benefit from any more aging.

[The Peterson Syrah was sent to BigSexyReds for review.]

Cheers!

Mary

Body Language (in your wineglass, that is)

You love pouring wine into your body – but what about the body parts in your wine?

I don’t know when somms and oenophiles started naming wine features after human traits and body parts, but it’s genius, right? Describe a wine as “bright” or “light-footed” and people pretty much get the gist.

It doesn’t always work, though. “Foxy” people are seductive, but a foxy wine can smell musty, like a sweater stored in a damp basement. Still, we humanize wines in an attempt to describe them in a distinct, meaningful way. Here’s my list of hominified (ha! how’s that for a word!) wine descriptors – some are familiar terms, others will be new:

Bottle necks

Neck and shoulders: We can skip the neck; everyone knows where to find a bottle’s neck. The shoulder is where we find our own shoulders: just below the neck. As you can see in the above photo, wine bottles have either a “high shoulder,” like the bottle on the left, or a “sloping shoulder.” The high-shoulder bottle evolved in Bordeaux, possibly to catch the sediment as aged Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot were poured. The sloping-shoulder, or Burgundy bottle, is often used for lighter reds – Pinot Noir, Gamay – and some whites. German, Alsace and sparkling wines typically are bottled in an even skinnier sloping shoulder, but today, anything goes –  you can find all wine styles in a variety of bottle shapes.

Body: If we use body parts to describe wine, it makes sense that “body” itself should be part of the jargon. It refers to the weight in your mouth; wine is described as light-, medium- or full-bodied. It helps to compare it to milk: skim milk is light-bodied, whole milk is medium and heavy cream is full-bodied. Sugar and alcohol content add weight, so dessert wines and high-alcohol Zinfandel, for instance, tend to be full-bodied.

Nose: This one’s simple: a wine’s nose tells you what you smell – either a simple aroma or a more complex bouquet of smells. It also can be a verb, as in, “nosing a glass of wine.”

Legs: You see legs – sometimes called “fingers,” “curtains,” “tears” or “church windows” – coating the inside of your wineglass after you swirl, separating into rivulets as they slide down the glass. Legs usually mean you’re drinking a rich, full-bodied, higher-alcohol wine; they also can indicate warm-climate grapes or aging.

Backbone: A wine with good backbone has a balanced “structure” – meaning, its body, acidity, tannins and other elements are all detectable but in proportion, with none of them overpowering the others.

Muscular: muscular wine is a bold, full-bodied red – a BigSexyRed! – that’s sometimes referred to as “masculine.”

Fat: fat wine is rich, full and flavorful but with low acidity. If the acidity is too low, the wine might be called “flabby.”

Heavy: A relative of fat, heavy wines are out of balance, with high alcohol, low acidity and strong tannins.

Meniscus: It’s less technical than it sounds. A wine’s meniscus is simply the wine’s rim inside the glass. The color can imply maturity and richness.

Brawn: brawny wine is young and full-bodied, with high tannins and probably high alcohol. It’s described as being “woody” or on the raw side, but aging should soften it.

Butt: This doesn’t describe where you’ll land if you drink too much wine, though that does happen (so I’ve heard). A butt actually is a unit of measurement equaling 570 liters. In the wine world, a butt is a type of barrel used for storing sherry in the Jerez region of Spain.

Dead arm: This unfortunate condition is a group of fungal vineyard diseases that rots the wood. Also called “grape canker,” dead arm sometimes kills entire vines.

Bladder: No, it’s not a dried sheep gut that you fill with wine. Ick. A bladder is the strong, rubbery bag inside the wine box you buy in the supermarket. If you search YouTube, you’ll find videos showing different ways of repurposing and recycling the bags.

Nervy: Lastly, a “nervy” wine is the opposite of the bold reds we’ve referenced. It’s a dry white with acidity you can detect, but it’s in balance with the wine’s other elements.

Wine Lingo of the Day: You haven’t had enough with the words? Fine, here’s one more body-ish wine word: Dumb. Generally, “dumb” refers to a wine with little taste, as when a white wine is over-chilled and it’s too cold to discern its wonderful flavors. A wine in its “dumb phase” is in a transition time between youth and maturity (just like teenagers in their dumb phase, eh?). The fruit flavors are mellowing but the complex tastes and aromas of an aged wine haven’t developed yet. 

Cultivate PN small

Vino ‘View: Just as its winemaker believes wine’s “greatest gift is its power to bring people together,” Cultivate 2014 Pinot Noir (14.1 percent alcohol, $27.99) brings wine regions together, blending Pinot from Santa Barbara County, Monterey County and Sonoma County. Sourcing fruit from these diverse regions gives the wine its own unique complexity. Strawberry and black cherry aromas swirled up from my glass, along with a whiff of pomegranate and a little cinnamon. The red fruit stayed with me as I drank, along with juicy orange and a dash of cardamom, spiked with a little black tea. Expect full body – no surprise at this alcohol level – but it’s smooth with subdued tannins. Share this bottle with somebody you want to impress.

[This bottle was sent to BigSexyReds.com to be reviewed.]

Cheers!

Mary