Comedian Steve Martin famously joked, “It’s like those French have a different word for everything.” And some French words, like cuvée, are used to market wine around the world, usually lending an air of sophistication in the process.
But cuvée can have many meanings depending where the producer is located. The word derives from “cuve” for vat or tank. The phrase tête de cuvée can be used to denote the top-of-the-line releases from producers in France’s Sauternes or Burgundy. In many other instances, its usage is more insignificant.
Henry of Pelham Family Estate Winery of St. Catharines, Ont., selected the term for its sparkling wine program. Its Cuvée Catharine label is used to market its brut, brut rosé and blanc de blanc (100-per-cent chardonnay) bubblies.
Senior vice-president of sales Daniel Speck explains the selection was a natural one. “Cuvée means blend, and is particularly associated with sparkling wines, which are typically a blend of many small batches of wines from different years and different vineyards in the same appellation.”
The goal of the blend is to create a consistent style or expression. In Champagne, the blend of the base wines collected for the secondary fermentation in bottle is widely known as cuvée, which is why you see the word on so many Champagne labels.
“In our context Cuvée Catharine refers to our great – times five – grandmother Catharine Smith, widow of Henry [Smith] of Pelham,” Speck says. “The cuvée is a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir fruit used to make the wines, while the Blanc de Blanc Carte Blanche, which is 100-per-cent estate grown and single-vineyard Chardonnay, checks off the cuvée box by being fermented in two different vessels, one stainless steel, the other large-format oak, before being blended back together.”
Blending is equally important in still wine production, Speck says. “It would also be correct to speak of a cuvée in still wine as most Old World wine regions allow or even enforce a cuvée or blending of different types of grapes from within a wine region to achieve consistency and quality from vintage to vintage.
“Even New World wines, which are typically less regulated on the blend front are still mostly a cuvée, be it of the same grapes from different parcels of vineyard or even barrels in the winery, or typically of up to 15 per cent of a different grape variety than is stated on the label – a globally recognized standard.”