Confucius said the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name. That’s especially true when it comes to writing and speaking about wine. Enology and viticulture is full of confusing terminology. Using the wrong words can confuse your audience and damage credibility.
To help with our etymological wine journey, we enlisted the help of Tim Martinson, senior extension associate, at Cornell University in Geneva, New York. Tim is also a plain-spoken Midwesterner from Decorah, Iowa.
Variety vs. Varietal– The correct word is more of an issue of grammar. Varietal is an adjective. Adjectives modify or describe nouns.
To use “varietal” when referring to grapes, you’d have to say “grape varietal.” But this is technically an improper construction. When the adjective is after the noun, there is supposed to be a verb in between. For example, “the grape is purple” is fine. However, the “grape purple” is incorrect and sounds like bad poetry.
On the other hand, “variety” is a noun and can be used by itself. Therefore, if it’s already established that grapes are the subject, “grape variety” is redundant.
Cultivar is an alternative to both variety and varietal. According to Martinson, “cultivar” connotes that the grape was propagated. As home gardeners who take cuttings know, propagation is breeding plants naturally from the parent stock.
In contrast, Martinson thinks “variety” implies the plant was produced from seeds.
Cultivar shares a root with “cultivated.” That’s why I like using “cultivar” to describe wine grapes. Isn’t that how we like our wines, refined and well-educated?
Clones and other Genetic Words– The danger with technical wine terminology is getting in over your head. Any discussion of plant breeding and genetics has the potential to take you down a dark tunnel of terminology.
A particularly tricky word is “clone.” According to Wikipedia, “cloning” is any organism whose genetic material is identical to that of the parent organism from which it was created.
That sounds simple enough and fits with my original understanding of cloning which originated from Dolly, the first cloned sheep. Dolly looked exactly like the sheep whose cell was used to create her. (Dolly would have been 20 years old next year.)
Grapes must be a lot more complicated than sheep. Legendary grape clones of Cab Sauv, Riesling and Frontenac don’t look or taste the same, but all the different clones are the same variety of grape. Martinson said there are five Riesling clones in the Finger Lakes alone.
Martinson does a great job of explaining grape cloning, but he also grasps subtle nuances that he probably acquired while acquiring a doctorate at Cornell. According to Martinson, a grape clone changes genetically to alter the character of the fruit, but the changes are so minor that it’s still essentially the same grape.
According to Martinson, mutations happen naturally in grapes and some grapes are more unstable than others. Pinot has notoriously unstable DNA, hence Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. (Noir, Gris and Blanc are just the French words for black, grey and white; the color mutations of Pinot.)
Over time there can be a lot of natural mutations in grapes. Grape breeding programs, like Cornell and the University of Minnesota, find the favorable mutations and use them to create new wine grapes.
Which brings us the to the word hybrid.
A hybrid is simply a cross between two lines of things. Humans have been cross breeding plants at least 5,000 years. As a result, the vast majority of the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store today are the work of plant breeders. That’s also true of the European wine grapes we think of as being genetically pure.
Because of the phylloxera epidemic during the 1800’s, European grapes are almost all grafted on roots imported from North America. According to Martinson, “On both sides of the Atlantic, we have wine grapes today because of a mixing of genetic material from two continents.” Therefore, as much as it may pain European wine growers, almost all U.S. and European grapes are hybrids.
Further complicating the matter, is the fact that many wine grapes that we think of as the equivalent of primary colors are in fact combinations. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is thought to be a cross of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.
When referring to North American wine grapes that are combinations of native and European grapes, there are alternatives to the unappealing word “hybrid.” The best alternative, in my opinion, is “cold hardy”
“Hardy” has several definitions and connotations that make it well suited to wine. The first synonym in my dictionary after “hardy” is “robust.” In my book, robust wine is good wine.
The second meaning of “hardy” is “courageous” and “intrepid.” Anyone who grows grapes in cold places has to be courageous and intrepid.
An, of course, there’s the definition of “hardy” that goes with “cold;” capable of surviving unfavorable conditions.
Another tricky wine term is “native grape.” Technically, Norton is the only native grape used to make wine in the U.S. According to Martinson, Labrusca grapes that are used to make wine are really hybrids, but they’ve been around so long that they are often called natives.
To further confuse the matter, Martinson said there are still wild Vitis Labrusca vines growing on the East Coast. But just because a grape is a Labrusca, does not mean it’s wild. Concord, the most common Labrusca grape, is actually a hybrid created by human breeding.
“Vigor” is a viticulture word that Martinson says is often misused. Vigor is actually the rate of shoot growth in the spring. Hence, a grape vine can be enormous, but not vigorous.
Vigor factors into “crop load,” which is the ratio of leaf area to fruit production. “Overcropping” is producing too much fruit from the vine and that’s bad.
Wine has a language of its own, and we have not even got into winemaking terms. In a future article, we’ll delve into the difference between sulfur and sulfites and other tricky winemaking vocabulary.