Feeling Confused about Wine? You're Definitely Not Alone

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Ross

In the wine world, if you're not a little bit confused, you haven't been paying attention.

Take pinot grigio, for instance, a member of the pinot grape family, named for its grey ("grigio") skin, a simple variety producing simple wine.

Simple, right? Read on.

In French vineyards, pinot grigio takes a French name - pinot gris, also sometimes known by the name "tokay" (toe-KAE). But don't confuse French tokay with Hungarian tokay, the dessert wine made from the furmint variety, or with tocai (toe- KEYE), the grape grown in northern Italy alongside pinot grigio. (Editor's note: We follow a policy to lowercase grape names and wine styles. Other publications may follow other standards.)

The grape - randy creature that it is - makes tracking its genealogy like taking census in a rabbit hutch. France's ugni blanc is identical to Italy's trebbiano. Australia's shiraz is identical to France's syrah. But petite sirah is neither syrah nor petite (French for "small"). There is a sub-variety of syrah called petite syrah, but it's different.

People once considered petite sirah kin to the durif grape, but it's not. In fact, no one knows where this grape came from or how it came to California. (For an excellent guide to grapes and the wines made from them, see "Vines, Grapes and Wines" by Jancis Robinson, published by Alfred A Knopf.)

There's consternation in wine terminology too. For instance, extra dry Champagne is slightly sweet, (by law, 1.2 percent to 2 percent sugar per volume.) Here's why: The original Champagne produced in the 17th century was very sweet. By the 19th century, modern sugar processing made sweet pastry and candy more accessible and taste in wine turned "extra dry."

Today, with a diet crammed with sugar, most drinkers are attracted to even drier flavors than "extra dry." This style is called brut (broot, like "boot" or "brook," containing .8 percent to 1.5 percent sugar.)

Consumer buying patterns confound wine industry members. High alcohol, oaky chardonnay is still a top-seller, while real-life experience confirms that people prefer lighter, sweeter wines like extra dry, riesling or French vouvray.

The influence of wine scores is perplexing, too. If raters score a wine at 90 points or higher, it becomes so popular that it's almost impossible for customers to buy. If a wine scores under 85 points, it's almost impossible for the trade to sell. …