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Wine Words Which Once Were
By Jim Clarke

One of the classic weapons of the wine snob is the profusion of jargon endemic to the industry. If you don't seem impressed by their range of appellations they counterattack with obscure grape varietals. After that they can retreat to winemaking procedures, and they can always sidestep by varying their pronunciation between American and some rendition of French or Italian or Maori…I should add, if you've pushed him - or her, let's be fair - all the way to Maori during your discussion of New Zealand wines, you've got him or her on the ropes. There are also a number of historical terms that still show up…

Claret, for instance. Is it some drink peculiar to the U. K., like squash (a sweet, concentrated fruit syrup, most commonly orange, lime, or blackcurrant, served by blending it with water or seltzer)? Actually it's another name for the wines of one of the most famous wine regions in the world: Bordeaux. In the Middle Ages Bordeaux and the surrounding area where possessions of the Norman, English crown, and became a prime supplier of wines for England after King John granted them tax exemptions in an effort to prop up their loyalty. The wine they produced at the time was not Bordeaux as we know it today; the juice of the ancestors of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot was treated to only one night macerating with its grapeskins, producing what we would probably consider a rosé. The French "Clairet," which has lost an "i" in English, was a description of the relative clarity of the wine's color. It's hard to know, but these wines were probably quaffable light wines similar to today's Beaujolais in style, and were exported to England in enough quantities to be the everyday wine of England and Scotland in the 14th century. These wines have changed quite a bit since then, but the name has stuck.

As it happens, I came across a few four-letter words - and who doesn't think of a four-letter word after an encounter with the wine snob - that were once used for certain types of wine: Hock, Tent, and Sack. They each have a story, and the tale of Hock begins in Germany, shortened from the Rheingau village of Hochheim. I don't hear this one much in the U.S., but it still comes up in Britain occasionally to denote white wines from anywhere along the Rhine; wines from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer area are favored with their own term, "Moselle." Unfortunately for some Hock has taken on a connotation of poor quality; guilt by association with the mass-produced Liebfraumilch. For many years Hock was in fact greatly celebrated, and it can be no coincidence that its ascension coincided with the deliberate cultivation of Riesling as the grape of choice.

For that matter, around this time the Germans also began to emphasize the value of aging their wines; the modern term "Kabinett" stems from the cabinet - in modern terms, more like a cellar - wherein age-worthy wines were kept. The wines were stored in barrels, and the saying in the 19th century was that it was better to forget to kiss your wife when you got home for the day than to forget to top off your barrels.

In the 20th century Hock took a beating in popularity, courtesy of changes in fashion as well as the overplanting of Muller-Thurgau - an early-ripening grape of strong aroma and plentiful crops, but not given to creating high-quality wines. This was a case of science gone wrong; Dr. Müller (of Thurgau, in Switzerland) developed the hybrid at the wine institute in Geisenheim and its easy nature in the vineyard made producers overlook the deficiencies in the wine. Riesling has regained the affection of winemakers, writers, and, truth be told, some snobs; let's hope the latter don't put off the people who really enjoy wine. If Rhineland wines do make the big return to favor with consumers - as some wine writers predict - then Hock may spread its wings once more.

"Tent" and "Sack" both come to us from southern Spain. Derived from the Spanish "tinta," Tent was the name for the strong red wines that were for many years considered to be the best Andalusia had to offer. Both the wine and the term have faded, but Hugh Johnson has suggested reviving the term for today's powerful reds such as Aussie Shiraz and Californian Zinfandel. Alternatively we could use the term for wines packaged in special, lightweight containers for camping.

"Sack," on the other hand, has lived on to plague me in my college Shakespeare course - what on earth was Falstaff going on about? Because go on he does, and while he also indulges in Claret, Madeira, and beer, Sack is his liquid companion of choice, so much so that in addition to a great many occasional mentions he devotes a lengthy soliloquy to its virtues in "Henry IV, Part Two." Essentially Sack was a strong, Spanish white wine - the predecessor to sherry. It was born at the same time as the voyages of discovery, and was intended for travel: "saca" was contemporary Spanish for export goods. Although at the time it would have been an unfortified wine, the Spanish sun would have made it quite strong - probably about 16% - and the preservative qualities of alcohol would have given it its travel-ready endurance. It became popular in England after the Duke of Medina Sidonia lifted the export taxes on wine at the port of Sanlúcar in 1491. The term was later applied to wine from Madeira, Malaga, and the Canary Islands as well, and wine from these regions were sometimes made in a sweet style. Not for Falstaff, however; he sweetened his wine himself, and it earned him the nickname "John Sack-and-Sugar." That would surely dismay the today's snob.

I hope you don't think I'm trying to arm wine drinkers to start jousting with snobs ourselves. I'm sure we have better ways to spend our time, and all of this is a bit by-the-way; enjoying the glass in your hand remains the primary goal of wine-drinking. But the wine world is big, diverse, and quirky, and exploring its byways and side alleys can be a lot of fun. Sometimes it even puts a new spin on the question, "What are you drinking?"

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 Published: June 2004
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