Don’t know Meritage from pinotage? Duero from Douro? We’re here to help
I think we can all agree that there are people we just can’t keep straight, either because of their similar vocations, names or both. Our endless streams of information deliver words and images to us at a rate that makes it impossible to retain most of it. We end up — or at least I do — in a dreamy state of gazing forward, at nothing in particular, searching the rooms of our minds for information. “I know the name but that’s about it” is how we often respond.
Sometimes we confess that we can’t keep two people straight — and maybe for you it’s chef Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) and writer Alice Walker (“The Color Purple”), or some vaguely familiar words from the wine world. Perhaps the words don’t exactly sound or look much alike, but they have a way of blurring together in your mind — like Finland and Norway.
Below are some of the wine words whose meaning might run together for you. If you know them, it might seem absurd to even imagine confusing them for one another. But if they are on the fringes of your knowledge and cause you to blur into that horizon-gaze and search your mind, some simple clarification might help you keep them straight from here on out.
Meritage vs. pinotage: First, let’s address the pronunciation of these two made-up words. Meritage rhymes with “heritage” and is a name that members of The Meritage Alliance can display on their labels of red or white Bordeaux-style wines that are not actually from the Bordeaux region of France. Pinotage, which starts with “PEE-no” and ends with “tahj,” as in Taj Mahal, is a South African grape variety that was made by crossing pinot noir and cinsaut.
Claret vs. clairette: Maybe you knew that the British are partial to referring to red wines from Bordeaux as claret, but did you know that there is a white grape variety in southern France known as clairette?
Duero vs. Douro: The Duero is the river that runs through Spain and lends its name to the Ribera del Duero region, renowned for its tempranillo-based wines. When the river crosses the border and enters Portugal, it is called the Douro. In Portugal, the same river lends its name to the Douro Valley, which provides us not only with world-famous, fortified port wines, but also with table wines carrying the “Douro” region name.
Albarino vs. Alentejo: Here is yet another Spain-Portugal mash-up. Albarino is a white grape variety used to make the prized wines of Spain’s Rias Baixas region. (In Portugal, albarino is called alvarinho and is used to make the light and refreshing Vinho Verde wine.) Alentejo, however, is an enormous wine region in southern Portugal and a major source of the world’s corks.
Txakoli vs. Tokaji: Txakoli is the crisp, zippy (mostly) white wine from the Basque region of Spain, while Tokaji is the legendary, nectar-like dessert wine from Hungary.
Edna Valley vs. Eden Valley: The words have essentially a one-letter difference, and they are both wine regions, but physically they are a world apart. Edna Valley is in California’s Central Coast, south of the city of San Luis Obispo. Eden Valley is in South Australia, north of the city of Adelaide.
Pecorino vs. pecorino: Next time someone offers you some pecorino, ask if the pecorino in question is wine. It is definitely not one of Italy’s most widely known grape varieties, but the white grape is found in the Marche and Abruzzo regions. The other pecorino is — just as you suspected — sheep’s milk cheese from Italy. It’s been said before (last week, right here), but I think it can be said again: Mmm, cheese.
Verdicchio vs. verdejo: Verdicchio is another white grape variety from Italy’s Marche region, primarily, while verdejo is a white grape variety used in the wines of Spain’s Rueda region.
Rueda vs. Roero vs. Rioja: Rueda, in northwestern Spain, is one of the country’s top white wine regions, relying (as noted above) on the verdejo grape variety. Roero, in northwestern Italy, is home to nebbiolo-based red wines and arneis-based white wines. Rioja is the world-famous region in northern Spain that turns out sought-after tempranillo-based reds.
Chablis vs. Soave: Both of these words have appeared on the labels of white wines of questionable quality through the decades. “Chablis” was a popular, generic term for sweet-tinged jug wine from California, but real Chablis has always been crisp, flinty chardonnay from the Chablis region of France — and nowhere else. Soave, made mostly of the garganega grape variety, hails from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. While its reputation has suffered, good versions of Soave are not too hard to find these days.
‘Burgunders vs. ‘frankisch: They don’t look or sound alike yet — but hold on. Grauburgunder is the German name for pinot gris. Pinot noir is known in Germany as spatburgunder, and in Austria as blauburgunder. Blaufrankisch is the Austrian name for the red grape variety called lemberger in Germany. And as long as the spelling and pronunciation are so close, it’s probably also worth mentioning the notoriously stinky cheese known as limburger. Smell it once and you’ll never confuse it with anything even close to wine again.
Of course there are dozens more similar-looking and/or -sounding words in the wine world. Once you know them, really know them, they’ll be as clear to you as if you had a sister named Mary and a brother named Maury — or as clear as the difference between an enologist (one who studies wine and winemaking) and an enophile (a connoisseur of wine). Hey, that’s you.