Talking the Talk

Talking the Talk

How au courant is your wine lingo? Here’s a handy guide for aspiring wine snobs.

In a previous incarnation of a SommSelect blog, I posted an item about some of the insider wine lingo that has bubbled up in the years since I co-authored The Wine Snob’s Dictionary with David Kamp in 2008. Lots of cool slang has been added to the wine-drinker’s lexicon, and, after a recent tasting with Ian Cauble and several SommSelect colleagues during which the topic came up, I thought it might be a good time to resurface the glossary below.

When I say winespeak I’m not talking about the fanciful, often ridiculous descriptions people (including myself) use in tasting notes—like, for example, comparing a wine’s aroma to that of a freshly opened can of tennis balls, as Ian did so notoriously in the SOMM film. I’m talking about the often-technical jargon one deploys to identify oneself as an authentic member of the tribe. Whatever your chosen field of connoisseurship, there’s an accompanying insider’s lexicon—words or terms which, when deployed, provoke fear and/or curiosity among the uninitiated.

Nearly all the best stuff I’ve been hearing (and using) lately is (a) French and (b) sprung from the ever-growing natural wine movement, which has given us not just an expanded lexicon but a new, scruffier look for wine geeks. Wine has traditionally inspired a lot of nouveau-riche affectations, but these days it’s dirt-under-the-fingernails authenticity that really sells. But regardless of which Snob camp you fall into—I personally dabble in all forms—you need to talk the talk. Here are a few favorites you may already have in regular use:

Glou-Glou / Vin de Soif: French for glug-glug and wine for thirst, respectively, referring to refreshing, inexpensive, lighter-weight styles of wine well-suited to glugging in chunky, bistro-style glassware. Glou-glou has graduated from mere term of endearment to catchy name for a wine bar or natural wine importing company. One of the great examples of the genre is a bargain-priced bottling from Beaujolais legend Marcel Lapierre called Raisins Gaulois.

Sans Soufre: You could just say no sulfur, but of course the French sounds better, and cooler still when pronounced correctly (soof, not soo-fray). Wines made without the addition of sulfur, or SO2 (which sounds even more noxious in chemical-formula form) are celebrated for their purity, as one of the guiding principles of natural winemaking is to minimize inputs and/or adulterations. Although more and more producers are mastering the no-sulfur regimen, there are occasions when un-sulfured wine veers into soiled diaper territory (the compound is both an antioxidant and disinfectant, so wines deprived of it can sometimes develop bacterial and other off odors).

Pét-Nat: Perhaps no term—or wine—captures the free-spirited lack of pretension and let-nature-take-its-course idealism of natural wine like pétillant naturel (“pét-nat” for short): Translating roughly to naturally lively, this term refers to lightly sparkling wines made in the most rustic of ways—namely, by bottling still-fermenting juice, sealing it, and allowing the fermentation to finish inside. The resultant CO2 has nowhere to go, thus the effervescence, and the spent yeast cells collect at the bottom of the bottle as a milky-looking sediment. Much less expensive than Champagne-method sparklers and typically finished with beer-style crown caps, these are the sparklers of the moment

Zero Dosage: In the spirit of reducing inputs, or zero manipulation, a sparkling wine to which no dosage (more on that in this edition of the newsletter) has been added is often given a few extra points on the coolness scale. Obviously more bone-dry in style, these wines aren’t better in any way than wines which have been ‘dosed,’ but they appeal to drinkers with an especially high, even masochistic, tolerance for acidity.

Whole-Cluster: Check out Allegra Angelo’s deep dive on the topic from our February issue; the use of intact, or whole, grape clusters during fermentation—as opposed to grapes which have been destemmed—is a much-discussed stylistic choice that tends to impact a wine’s texture in ways that seasoned wine tasters delight in detecting, i.e. “Am I picking up a little whole-cluster here?”

Skin-Contact / Orange Wines: Obviously, all red wines and rosés are skin-contact wines, deriving color and flavor from the juice being in some contact with the grape skins during fermentation. Skin-contact whites—which turn somewhere from copper-pink to golden brown depending on the producer—can often be intriguing, once you get past their complete lack of resemblance to “conventional” whites from the same grape variety.

Concrete Egg: The de rigueur fermentation vessel of the moment—literally an egg-shaped fermenter made of concrete, whose thick walls offer superior temperature regulation and whose ever-so-slight porousness seems to have positive effects on wine texture (i.e. allowing for a trace amount of oxygen transfer during fermentation, somewhat like barrel-fermentation does). The shape is also said to encourage more contact of lees (yeast cells) and juice during fermentation, which lends complexity. Most important: they look incredibly cool.

Amphora(e): Clay-pot fermentation vessel(s) enjoying a renaissance among vintners looking to commune with their ancient forebears.

Natty: Abbreviation for natural, as in “I only drink the natty juice!” And it should be noted that, snark aside, we love natty wine here at SommSelect.

Native Yeast Ferment: Initiating a fermentation with whatever ambient yeasts arrived in the winery with the grapes is exponentially more authentic than using cultured, or commercial, yeasts, for reasons which should be obvious.

Mouse: Right up there with “barnyard” on the yuck scale, although barnyard is not actually considered a pejorative, while mouse taint most definitely is. It refers to an off odor—like the smell of a dead mouse—that sometimes creeps into un-sulfured or otherwise unclean wines.