People say wine is complicated. I always disagree – but sometimes I lose the argument. Here are some confusing facts about wine that illustrate the fact.
▪ Shiraz is the name of a hearty grape and the wine made from it. Shiraz is also the name of a city in Iran – the country that used to be called Persia. These days drinking wine is banned in Iran, although the ban is often disregarded.
▪ Wine fans used to believe shiraz came from the city of Shiraz. Recent DNA tests say the grape was born in France, where the grape and the wine are called syrah.
▪ Syrah is the red wine of France’s Rhone Valley, where it makes wines with powerful flavors of black fruit and spice and firm tannins.
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▪ In the mid-1800s, syrah was brought from France to Australia, where it became known as shiraz – perhaps because of how the Aussie growers pronounced it.
▪ So syrah and shiraz are the same grape, although Australia’s sunshine may produce a softer wine. Today shiraz is made in a style that is sweeter, softer and more fruity than syrah.
▪ Syrah became popular in California in the 1970s, and has been growing in popularity ever since.
▪ But recently, California winemakers have taken to calling some of their syrah wines by the name shiraz. It’s when they make the wine in the softer style.
▪ Confused yet? Well, be sure not to confuse syrah with an entirely different grape called petite sirah. Petite sirah, it turns out, is actually durif, a cross between syrah and peloursin created in 1880. While it’s called “petite,” which is French for “small,” it has bigger tannins and acids than syrah.
Also, consider this. France’s fabled champagne wines are defined by their sweetness or lack thereof, measured by their residual sugar content. Here they are in somewhat confusing order from driest to sweetness.
▪ Brut nature is the driest, with only about 0.5 percent residual sugar. “Brut” is old French for “rough” or “mean.” “Nature” is French for something like “natural.” This wine is sometimes called “brut sauvage,” which sounds dangerous, but “sauvage” is just another French word for “natural.”
▪ Brut, slightly less dry than brut nature with up to 1.5 percent sugar, is the most popular style in in America.
▪ Extra dry (yes, they switch here to English), can have up to 2.0 percent sugar – so “extra dry,” confusingly, is sweeter than brut. This has fooled many a wine fan.
▪ Sec, which in French means “dry” (yes, they’re back to French now) with up to 3.5 percent sugar, is a step up in sweetness.
▪ Demi-sec, French for “half-dry,” with up to 5 percent sugar, is yet another step up in sweetness.
▪ Doux, French for “sweet,” finally makes sense – it’s the sweetest champagne.
Speaking of champagne, there’s also controversy over the shape of the glass from which to drink it. In previous centuries, the wide, shallow “coupe” for champagne was said to have been designed after French Queen Marie Antoinette breasts – or maybe those of Napoleon’s wife. They were slender women; the coupe didn’t hold much.
By the 1920s or so, the breast theory was debunked, and the coupe was replaced by a tall, narrow “flute” glass – shaped to let the drinker spend more time watching the bubbles rise.
By now every wine lover has stocked up on flutes. So naturally a counter-movement is being waged by fans who complain the flute is too narrow to adequately express champagne’s aromas. Today the hot new glass is tulip-shaped, and slightly wider, to better display champagne’s aromas.
And what goes around comes around. The shallow, breast-like “coupe” is making a comeback among fans who want to use it for its original purpose – to fill it with sweet champagne and use its wide mouth to let them dip their biscotti. Like Oreos and milk, only a lot more expensive.
And another thing. Pinot gris and pinot grigio are the same grape, but they don’t always make the same kind of wine. Pinot gris is the French name, and pinot grigio is Italian. Both mean “gray pinot,” a reasonable description of the dusky whitish/pinkish grape.
Pinot grigio, from the cool climate slopes of northern Italy, is usually lighter, leaner and tarter than its French cousin, with flavors of citrus and green apples. Pinot gris, from France’s warmer Alsace region, is sweeter and fruitier, with tropical flavors.
U.S. winemakers from California to Oregon to Washington state make both styles, and name them accordingly.
Pinot grigio is more popular here, although its popularity sometimes leads to overproduction and mediocre wines.
So who now thinks wine is too complicated?