Tasting wine is the same the world over, right? Well, yes and no. Even though I had worked in wine for nearly a decade when I moved to Madrid, and had WSET qualifications and a degree in Spanish, I remember being baffled by some Spanish wine terms that I had never encountered before, “balsámico” for instance, suggesting a deep-coloured, sticky vinegar from Modena to an English speaker rather than aromas of eucalyptus, mint and other resinous oils that you might want to find in wine.
The thing is, having been a leading wine producing nation for thousands of years, Spain has developed a much richer vocabulary than that of its more northerly cousins, whereas in English, we tend to borrow from French when we lack specific words relating to winemaking or vine-growing. It can make some common phrases rather difficult to translate…Take for instance, the words bodeguero and enólogo, literally “winery owner” and “oenologist”, they are often both translated as “winemaker” although they don’t refer to quite the same job role.
So, I’ve pulled together some terms to help wine lovers who find themselves in need of a decent glass of wine in Spain – from basic phrases for ordering a glass or bottle of wine, to more complex terms you might hear at a winery visit or at a tasting. ¡Salud!
Until recently the only wines on offer in most traditional bars were blanco (white) or tinto (red), but now most bars will offer a white from Rueda, a Rioja Joven (unoaked wine) and oaked Crianza and a Ribera Roble or Crianza. Of course, decent wine bars and restaurants, will offer a lot more, so use the phrases below to help you navigate the wine list or chalkboard. The main “false friend” to be aware of here is copa – although it sounds like “cup” this is the correct word for a wine glass, a vaso is a glass used for beer or water.
Two words you frequently hear at visits that can leave non-Spanish speakers a little confused: “elaborate” (they mean produce or make) and cementerio– not where they put visitors who get a bit over enthusiastic in the tasting room - but the cellar where bottles are laid down to rest for a long time.
Another example of the paucity of English in wine terms can be seen in the distinct words in Spanish for “vineyard”: viñedo and viña, basically the same, although the word viñedo is more often used for a larger expanse of land planted with vines. “Vine” is usually translated as una vid or una viña although the plant itself can also be referred to as una cepa or una parra, the latter being a vine that has been trained or trellised rather than left in bush (en vaso).
Here is where things can get really tricky. I’m sure you’ve seen some back label texts that have been run through Google Translate rather than past a professional translator, and the stuff that comes out can be amusing albeit nonsensical!
Rather than “Cherry red of medium intensity with a terracotta-coloured rim, bright, with noticeable legs,” I recently saw “Rojo cereza con ribete teja de media capa, brillante y glicérico” translated as “Ruby red with cherry-half layer of edging tile, and knowledgeable glyceride.” Come again?
When talking about the visual description of a wine rather than a clothing item rarely seen this century, capa alta should not be translated as “high cape”. What the writer is really talking about is the depth of pigmentation in the wine, what is sometimes referred to using the French word robe, but more often simply with the adjective “deep”, so “Rojo rubí de capa alta” would be “deep ruby red.”
Goloso is another frequently mis-translated word – if you see the word “greedy” in a tasting note, you should know that it can mean both someone who likes to eat a lot or something that would appeal to a person with a sweet-tooth; a wine that is ripe, fruity, rich in sweet flavours whether they come from residual sugar or a combination of alcohol and body.
As for the Spanish wine word of the moment, sapidez, it literally means “sapidity” or richness of flavour but is frequently used to refer to that richness of umami flavour and amino acids that is found in Sherry wines and foods such as mushrooms, yeast extract and roast meat - savouriness.
And, with a sigh I feel I must mention the word caldo. Hated by winemakers and others who try to raise the value of wine, its principal meaning is broth or stock. As the dictionary also defines it as “a juice extracted directly from a fruit or vegetable” it is also used as a synonym for vino by non-wine specialist journalists, much to the wine industry’s chagrin. However, don’t ask for a caldo in a wine bar, unless you do want a mug of steaming hot broth. Manzanilla can cause similar confusion, meaning both a light, biologically aged Sherry from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and chamomile tea.
Wine-speak is not easy to understand at the best of times so throw in some dodgy translation and its incomprehensible! Hopefully these words will help you understand what to expect.
Anna Harris-Noble is a specialist wine translator and communicator, who also offers training in English for WSET students. You can find out more about her services on tasteexchange.com.