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16 ways to politely insult your friend's homemade wine

I received a question recently from a reader who must remain nameless. I think you can appreciate the witness-protection imperative when you read the e-mail:

"Many of my friends make their own wine and I need a list of euphemistic adjectives to describe it," he wrote. "I realize frank discussion could end the friendships (and future dinners) if I tell the truth. Criticizing your friends' wine is like criticizing their children. Help!!!"

Welcome to my life. I have neighbours who make their own. Joe relies on imported California grapes. Eric gets Joe to crush a proud red from a decades-old concord-grape arbour that grows like something out of Jack and the Beanstalk over Eric's back porch. Both wines are surprisingly well-crafted, but the fruit is not exactly grand cru. I have to make excuses for why Château Joe doesn't meet the quality criteria to warrant a splashy column in The Globe.

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More frequently I find myself in the company of professionals whose juice isn't always up to snuff. So, I keep a handy mental glossary of polite winespeak. Here's a list, followed by phrases winemakers themselves often use to cover for their mistakes.

Assertive: A wine can, indeed, have too much flavour – bad flavour. This flexible catch-all covers everything from the foxy, wet-wool character of a red made from native North American vines (hello, concord) to the nail-polish fumes of a defect known as volatile acidity.

Food wine: Here's another versatile descriptor, but it's particularly apt for atrocities with a grip as bracing as battery acid. Nothing protects the taste buds, or tooth enamel, from oenological napalm like a hearty repast. Honourable mentions: vibrant, lively, tangy.

Closed: All wine should taste of fruit. But some young reds can be so cloaked in astringent tannins that the frutiness goes AWOL. It's not necessarily a defect, because the wine may eventually come around in the cellar. But it's hard to predict whether that's going to happen. In the meantime, you're safe with, "This strikes me as a bit closed. I think it needs time."

Bold: Do you grow listless or drowsy after two sips of a syrupy shiraz, jammy zinfandel or high-alcohol New World pinot noir? You've just had a "bold" wine, my friend.

Toasty: Like all euphemisms, this can apply in a sincerely complimentary context, specifically with respect to good wines carrying a nuance of charred wood from barrel maturation. That's why a lumber-loving winemaker would blush to hear that his or her overoaked chardonnay is "toasty."

Layered: Complexity is the hallmark of fine wine. "Layered" is sufficiently vague to acquit you in any circumstance.

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Ripe: Grapes should be ripe when harvested, so this word is flattering by definition. When grapes cross the line, though, and develop a cloying raisin-like character, you can diplomatically omit the prefix "over" from "overripe."

Great nose: Too bad about the taste.

And from the winemaker's PR phrasebook:

It's an early-drinking vintage: Substitute "bad weather" for "early-drinking" and you've nailed it. Wines from poor harvests don't cellar well. Drink up soon because this dog is going nowhere.

We picked before (or after) the rains: Autumn can be precarious in many vineyard regions, with precipitation that turns berries into water balloons with diluted flavour. No one picks when the skies of October turn gloomy – or at least no savvy marketer admits to doing so.

Don't you love the matchstick?: No, I don't, at least not when it's highly pronounced. Sulphur compounds, either added as a preservative or produced naturally in tank or barrel through negligent practices, can get out of hand.

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We use oak only as a seasoning: Many winemakers who rely on barrel aging trot out this cliché, even when the wine tastes like a two-by-four soaked in grape juice.

The grapes were hand-picked: And I proofread my columns with a pencil. So what?

We farm biodynamically: Then I hope your wine will taste better when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars. It's quaint to follow astrology and bury a cow horn in the vineyard, but if the guy down the road makes better cabernet than you at a cheaper price, he's got my patronage.

Our pinot noir vineyards are planted with the Dijon 777 clone: Maybe that's why I'm getting a note of hot mustard.

This goes beautifully with sushi: So does pilsner. And a six-pack of Urquell is $20 cheaper than a bottle of your riesling.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Beppi Crosariol writes about wine and spirits in the Globe Life and Style sections.He has been The Globe's wine and spirits columnist for more than 10 years. In the late 1990s, he also wrote a food trends column called The Biting Edge.Beppi used to cover business law for ROB and previously edited the paper's weekly technology section. More

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