Vintage Talk

The language of wine might be messy, but it can also lead to terrific bargains


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There was a funny commercial on TV recently, in which a self-important man expounds to his date about the wine he is tasting.

“Pinot noir ...” He says in a pensive voice full of deep thought. “It means … peanut of the night.”

The ad is a good dig at the kind of pretension that, on occasion, comes rolling off lightly liquored tongues. But it also gets at something a little more serious, namely the complexity of trying to keep wines straight. 

The language of wine can be incredibly messy. A wine known by one name in France may well be made from a completely different grape in Spain or Italy. Or, in the reverse, a wine actually made from pinot noir in France may also be made from the same grape elsewhere, but in this other country, may have an entirely different name. 

So, in our “peanut of the night” example, we find wines called pinot nero in Italy, blauburgunder in Austria, and spätburgunder in Germany, all made from pinot noir grapes. 

Another one is grenache, a base grape for inexpensive California red wines. Today, it is used mostly in small percentages for blending and adding a new facet to a wine. In Spain, however, grenache is a common red grape. It is used widely on its own and appears there on wine labels as garnacia, and makes lighter, floral red wines that have a distant similarity in character to Beaujolais Villages from the northern Rhone Valley of France.

Skip across the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Sardinia and you’ll find that their rugged, dusty, deep reds bear a resemblance in taste and smell to both grenache and garnacia. They are indeed the same, but on Sardinia, they call it canonnau.

Most red wines and their variant names are pretty easy to follow. But when it gets to white wines, forget it. 

Anyone willing to dig around a good wine shop might find Austrian or German versions of pinot noir at a bargain.

The white wine grape known as tokai is a name believed to be Hungarian in origin, where it is also known sometimes as sauvignon vert and as furmint, and makes excellent dry and sweet white wines. 

To complicate matters further with tokai (or tokay), the French region of Alsace for years had a white wine grape called tokay pinot gris and it too was alternatively known sometimes as sauvignon vert, but it bore no relations to the Hungarian versions. In 2004, Alsace agreed to drop the name “tokay,” which has since simplified matters of identity.

The confusion generated by these contorted uses of names does actually leave the consumer with an advantage: You can find lesser-known named wines at good prices. And they are excellent, sometimes more balanced and food-friendly than their American and French cousins.

With the price of French and American pinot noirs at a record high, anyone willing to do a little digging around might well find the Austrian or German (blauburgunders and spätburgunder) versions of pinot noir to be terrific bargains under $20. 

These are also very good wines with good balance and acidity — and make a terrific match up to a holiday turkey or goose.

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