Buzz: Hey, Marnie, why are imported wines so confusing? My wife wanted a Spanish wine to give as a gift this week. Should be simple, right? But when I went to the store, that whole section made my head hurt. None of the labels made any sense.
Marnie: That's one of the wine world's biggest problems, Buzz. Many wine terms are unfamiliar territory, even to wine drinkers. And it is particularly true for European wines. Not only are most named by their region, instead of their grape variety, but even those labeled by grapes the modern way aren't helpful if those grapes aren't famous enough.
Buzz: It's like reading in another language, using words from Pluto.
Marnie: Well it isn't from Pluto, but you are reading another language. Spanish wines, for example, are usually made with grapes native to Spain that rarely grow elsewhere. As a result, even when Spanish vintners try to follow American-style labeling rules by naming their wines for grapes instead of towns or regions, those Spanish grape names still read like mumbo jumbo.
Buzz: You just told the truth. This whole European wine issue is mumbo jumbo.
Marnie: Most Americans can't explain because they aren't familiar with the names. Spanish grapes, like tempranillo, monastrell, and verdejo, may make wines that are strongly similar to merlot or zinfandel or sauvignon blanc, but they don't even come close in name recognition.
Buzz: So I should memorize a bunch of foreign grapes? It's almost like hiding their product. Makes no sense.
Marnie: It's not as bad as you think. Unless you're in the wine trade or a committed amateur, chances are that all you need to know are the top 10 grapes you already recognize. It might be more useful for you to learn a few more general wine terms, though. For example, oak aging is a key quality factor that affects how wines taste.
Buzz: OK, give me some words I should learn.
Marnie: Well, in Spain, some of the words on the labels are regulated terms that say how much time a wine spent in barrels, indicating quality and flavor potential. When you see the word roble, which means "oak," that indicates the wine spent at least six months aging in wood, which concentrates the flavor and adds spicy aromatics. Similarly, the terms crianza, reserva and gran reserva indicate higher quality and longer aging, regardless of where they're from or what grape they're made with. This system has the added benefit of guaranteeing that the wine in question is perfectly aged and ready to drink.