A refresher on some of the more heavily used winespeak in our rotation.
One of the formative experiences of my adolescence was my receipt, at the age of 13 or so, of Steve Martin’s comedy album, “A Wild and Crazy Guy.” I’m assuming most of the SommSelect demographic knows this album (and, for that matter, what an “album” is), and if you do, you know that 13 is probably a little too young for it. But whatever: I mention it because there’s a great riff (which I know by heart) about going to Paris and trying to speak French. I’m reminded of it a lot lately, not just because I struggled mightily during our buying trip to France last March, but because of all the French terminology that ends up in our daily offers. We all know the French have effectively cornered the market on winespeak: Some words, like terroir most famously, aren’t even directly translatable. Not wanting to assume that everyone knows and uses such terms, we try to explain them in our offers, but sometimes we get lazy and just italicize them—leaving it up to you to figure out what we mean by élevage or lieu-dit or cuvée. So, I thought it’d be useful to tackle a bunch of these words/terms in one shot—not just as a reference but, in the spirit of Steve, a celebration.
Take élevage for example: It’d be correct to translate it to “aging,” or “maturation,” as in “…élevage is carried out in mostly new Allier oak barrels,” but that doesn’t really capture the true French spirit of the word, which is more suggestive of “raising” a wine as one would a beloved child. Look up élevage in a French-English dictionary and there are references to stud farms and other forms of animal “breeding.” I’ll never do it in an offer, but it’s not uncommon to hear someone describe a wine as being “raised” in oakbarrels; that, my friends, is next-level winespeak.
Another example is lieu-dit, which means “place-name” or “locality” and refers essentially to a vineyard with a name, as in “…the lieu-dit ‘Le Meix Tavaux’ in the village of Meursault.” Usually, the term lieu-dit is used to describe a wine from a vineyard that is named but isn’t otherwise ‘ranked’ in some way (i.e. Premier Cru, Grand Cru). Sometimes, just to complicate things further, you might also see a special lieu-dit within a Premier or Grand Cru, as in the case of Louis Jadot’s “Les Demoiselles,” which is within the famous Grand Cru Chevalier-Montrachet.
Sometimes, if one is feeling especially fanciful, you might trot out the word climat instead of just “vineyard.” To refer to a vineyard as a climat (literally “climate”) is to make it more than just a plot of land but to imbue it with the full power of the word terroir by bringing its “total natural environment” into play—the unique microclimate that makes it a vineyard worthy of a name in the first place. Recently, we offered a Chablis from the “Vaillons” Premier Cru in Chablis. Vaillons is, of course, both a lieu-dit and a climat, and within the broader Vaillons vineyard, which spans about 100 hectares along a southeast-facing slope, there are assorted smaller climats which have their own lieu-dit names. Make sense? Good! Toss in a phrase on the order of “I always love this particular climat!” at your next tasting with friends and you’ll either be (a) celebrated as a brilliant wine mind or (b) asked to leave.
Which leads us, of course, to cru, which translates to “growth” (“Grand Cru” = “Great Growth”) and can refer to either a single vineyard site or an entire village’s vineyards (as in Beaujolais and Champagne). The word/term cru, derived from the verb croître (“to grow”) is especially laced with French nuance: Calling a vineyard a “growth” lends it animation, as if one were looking at a time-lapse video of the vines’ maturation. It’s also a term of prestige: a vineyard (or village-full of vineyards) isn’t given the cru moniker unless it is special—or, in the case of Premier and Grand Crus, extra-special.
Wine geeks are also known to use both cépage and cuvée in regular wine conversation, and while both words essentially mean “blend” there are subtle shades: cépage usually refers to the blend of grapes in the wine, as in “…the cépage is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, and 5% Petit Verdot,” whereas cuvée refers more to blends of wines from different vineyards, or ‘lots.’ A cuvée is more of a special ‘batch’ of wine derived through blending.
Disgorgement (dégorgement in French) is another one: It comes up a lot because the question of when a Champagne is disgorged—i.e. when the little plug of spent yeast cells that has collected in the neck of the bottle, often for years, is expelled and the bottle is sealed up with a proper cork and readied for sale—is an important one. More producers are printing disgorgement dates on their labels, as they herald the arrival of a new ‘batch’ of wine recently released to market. Wines aged for significant periods on those yeast cells, or lees, take on greater complexity and depth, with scents of brioche dough, biscuits, and other yeast-derived sensations.
Another favorite is the much-used phrase lutte raisonnée, meaning “reasoned struggle,” which we refer to repeatedly in our offers to describe the farming ethos of the producer in question. I like the heroic, romantic implications of this term: It is used to describe someone who tries to farm organically whenever possible, but who may occasionally employ chemical treatments (fungicides especially) if conditions demand it (check out Alder Yarrow’s great deep dive on the topic here).
Now, all this doesn’t get us off the hook in our offers. We should still endeavor to explain everything—like, for example, what a barrique is (it’s a French oak barrel of 225-liter capacity, which is different from a tonneaux, which typically holds 500 liters, or a foudre, which is larger still). Putting it all together, you might describe a wine as undergoing a 12-month élevage in Allier oak barriques. Oh, and Allier is the name of the forest the wood for the barrels comes from. It never ends! Next stop, pronunciation! À votre sante! — D.L.