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Tongue-Tied Terminology (January 3, 2006)

I have in my cellar a cherished half bottle of Inniskillin 1984 Vidal Eiswein. It was the first bottling of a wine for which the winery has become known – justifiably – around the world. Inniskillin should have had an inaugural release a year earlier but the Vidal grapes left hanging to freeze on the vine were harvested by the birds the weekend before the pickers were about to start. The winery learned their lesson and have netted their vines ever since.

When I first saw that 1984 label I said to Donald Ziraldo, the co-founder of Inniskillin, that he really should use a Canadian name for the wine, even though it was a recognized German category, and I suggested he coin the term Icewine, as one word, for future vintages. He agreed, even though his partner, Karl Kaiser, is Austrian and grew up with the Eiswein tradition.

Ironically, the very first Icewine made in Canada was the Hainle Vineyards Okanagan Riesling 1978 in BC and the late Walter Hainle, himself German-born, labelled those original 156 bottles as "Ice Wine." The product went on sale in the 375 mL format in 1983, the same year that Pelee Island's Beerenauslese Eiswein was released in Ontario. (The last offer for a remaining half-bottle of Hainle's Okanagan Riesling Ice Wine 1978, incidentally, was $20,000.)

A couple of years later I made myself very unpopular with the local industry by acting as an expert witness for the French champagne houses who were suing Ontario's sparkling wine producers for calling their wine "champagne." The Ontario wineries eventually won the case, not on its merits, but because the French had taken too long to bring the action. And, argued the lawyers, who was going to mistake Bright's President Champagne for Dom Perignon? If the same case were brought today, the gap between the taste of French champagne and what is being produced at Blue Mountain, Summerhill and Sumac Ridge in BC and Château des Charmes and Henry of Pelham in Ontario would be found to have narrowed amazingly.

But the point is we should not be using other regions' appellations in an effort to market our wines. That's like a young girl dressing up in mother's clothes before she's learned how to apply her lipstick. Terms such as Champagne, Sauterne (with or without the final "s"), Burgundy, Claret and Port are being phased out of Canadian winery vocabulary as a result of GATT agreements, but there are still words in other languages that don't belong on our labels. Here's a sampling:

Vieilles vignes: If the vines are old, tell us they are old. Why borrow the term from the French? Malivoire does it right when they call their Maréchal Foch "Old Vine Foch." So do Quails' Gate with their Old Vines Foch. The question is, how old should "old" be? A vine that's been in the ground for 25 years is old. Less than that doesn't count, and you'll get no takers if you label your wine as the product of "young vines."

Sur lie: This translates from the French as "on the lees," a winemaking technique, notably for Muscadet, when the fermented wine is left in contact with the lees for a few months to pick up more flavour. This practice is usually done in stainless steel tanks. I am seeing this phrase used on Chardonnay by Henry of Pelham to denote an unoaked wine, while Peller Estate uses "Sur Lie" for their barrel-aged Chardonnay. Now, how confusing can you get?

Fut en chêne: This simply means oak barrels. Does this also mean that the barrels themselves are French? If you're proud of the fact that you've spend $1000 or more on a barrel from Allier or Nevers you can say you're using French oak on your back label, but it's frankly pretentious to use the French idiom.

Sans chêne: Without oak. Stonechurch uses this descriptor for its 2004 Chardonnay made in stainless steel. You have to be careful how you pronounce this in the presence of a French speaker because it could sound like "sans chien" ("without dog"). Again, why do it?

Recourse to French expressions is unnecessary, but the use of English terms can also lead to excesses. There is, you will find, a proliferation of English terms to denote a wine that has not touched oak: Unoaked, Non-oaked, No Oak, Without Oak, On the lees. Let's just have one descriptor that sends the message that the wine was fermented and aged in stainless steel. I know that wine companies try to differentiate themselves from their competition by what they put on their labels, but this is confusing to the consumer, especially when it's in French.

Heaven knows, wine is bewildering enough for the average consumer without rendering it more so. The marketing departments should throw away their thesauri. If they want to make your wine different from the guy's next door, just make a better wine. Give us plain English. (Under federal regulations, both official languages have to be used on wine labels. Does this mean we have to have a mandatory English translation for "sur lie"?)




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