A lesson on wine terms that will go down easy

Credit: E. Jason Wambsgans

Credit: E. Jason Wambsgans

If you have ever had trouble keeping certain public figures straight — actors, writers, movie directors — perhaps you have had the same confounding experiences with some wine words.

Have you ever struggled to distinguish Tom Wolfe from Thomas Wolfe and Tobias Wolff? Was there a time when you were slow to differentiate between Edith Warton and Eudora Welty? For any of these people, if you know them, you know them. If you are familiar with their work and what they are all about, mistaking one for another is not even imaginable. But if you are not so clear on them — if their names ring a bell, but their work is vague in your mind — that's when you can turn one person, or one wine style, into someone or something else in your mind.

Maybe there are wine words that run together for you, and below is a list of some potential candidates. But if a few of them are fuzzy, perhaps this guide will offer some help. In many cases, the words look or sound similar. In other cases, they might be words that have sort of a similar feel to them — like "Iowa" and "Ohio."

Viognier vs. Vouvray: Viognier is an aromatic white grape variety used for wines that can be a viable alternative to chardonnay, and Vouvray is a Loire Valley growing region known for its chenin blanc-based wines ranging from dry to sweet to sparkling. Chenin blanc is often referred to as simply "chenin," so you should know that Chinon is typically a red wine, also from the Loire Valley, and made from the cabernet franc grape variety. Confused yet?

Pouilly-Fume vs. Pouilly-Fuisse: Yet another Loire Valley wine style is Pouilly-Fume — not to be confused with Pouilly-Fuisse. The former is sauvignon blanc, while the latter is an appellation in Burgundy that turns out some of the world's most-coveted chardonnay. Sancerre is another Loire Valley sauvignon blanc style, but that word is sneakily similar to Sauternes (the sublime, unfortified sweet wine from Bordeaux) and Savennieres (nested in Vouvray and made with chenin blanc).

Pinot grigio vs. pinot gris: Do you know the difference? The former is Italian and the latter French. Pinot grigio is the Italian way to say the name of the white French grape variety pinot gris, which can result in wines ranging from light and dry, to fuller and richer — Italian varieties tend to be fresher and lighter, while Alsace-grown bottles toward fuller-bodied. "Gris" and "grigio" both translate to "gray." Pinot blanc and pinot noir are the white and black relatives of their gray cousin.

Traditional method vs. ancestral method: There are several ways to turn still wine into bona fide bubbly, and two of those ways are known as traditional method and ancestral method (aka methode champenoise and methode ancestrale, respectively). Traditional method is how Champagne is made, via secondary fermentation in the bottle. Ancestral method involves the wine's one and only fermentation occurring in the bottle. This is the process used to make petillant naturel, a youthful, enjoy-now wine style.

Extra dry vs. extra brut vs. brut: While we're on the subject of sparkling wine, some of the terms that indicate their sweetness levels can be confusing, particularly extra brut and extra dry. Extra dry sounds the driest, but actually it has a higher sweetness level than both brut and extra brut, but not as high as just plain old dry. Confused? It makes more sense when you see the levels in relation to each other, listed here from least-sweet to sweetest: extra brut, brut, extra dry, dry.

Barolo, Barbaresco and barbera: The Italian wines Barolo, Barbaresco and barbera can give some people trouble — oh yes, they can. Barolo and Barbaresco are two of the finest red wine regions in Italy. Some would say they are "the" two finest. Each wine is made of 100 percent nebbiolo and named for the places they come from within the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy. Barbera is a popular Italian red grape variety used most notably to make barbera d'Asti, another Piedmont wine from the Asti region.

Monts: If you struggle with the "Monts" in Italy — Montalcino, Montepulciano and yet another Montepulciano — no one would blame you. Here are a few pointers. Brunello di Montalcino is made of 100 percent sangiovese, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is a sangiovese-heavy blend. Here's an easy mnemonic device: "Brunello di" has four syllables, and so does "Montalcino." "Vino Nobile di" has six syllables, and so does "Montepulciano." Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is named for the Tuscan village of Montepulciano, while montepulciano d'Abruzzo is made from the montepulciano grape variety and made in Abruzzo. When "montepulciano" comes first, it refers to the grape. When "Montepulciano" comes second (after "di"), the wine is sangiovese.

Gewurztraminer vs. gruner veltliner: It would be easy to mix up gewurztraminer and gruner veltliner if you were unfamiliar with them. Gewurztraminer is a grape variety that results in aggressively perfumed white wines offering bright fruit, spice and cleansing dryness, but can also be made into richly sweet and floral late-harvest dessert wines. Gruner veltliner is Austria's No. 1 grape variety and wine style, a dry white that offers herbal notes, peppery spice, minerality and lively acidity.

There's often a proverbial fine line separating similar wine words — a single letter difference, or an inflection. But sometimes they're virtually the same word. Check back here next week for more wine words that can get mixed up, including the one the British use for red Bordeaux. It sounds an awful lot like a lesser-known white grape variety, despite the different spellings. You'll also learn the difference between pecorino wine and Pecorino cheese. Mmm, cheese.

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