This fancy French word isn't always as glamorous as it sounds.
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selection of wine bottles
Credit: Raymond Hom

Now that we're taking the pretentiousness out of winespeak, it's time to decode some of the terms we might hear out and about in the wine world. First up: Cuvée. What does it mean? Why does it sometimes cost so much? How should we use it in conversation?

When it comes to wines made in the Champagne region of France (or occasionally sparkling wines produced elsewhere) you might hear the term "prestige cuvée." In this context, the word refers to the top wine that a Champagne firm produces (such as the Dom Perignon line from Moët & Chandon). "The prestige cuvée usually costs three to six times as much as a regular Champagne," says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and editor of "WineSpeed" newsletter. That is to say, it's the cream of the crop, and definitely worth shelling out for.

Outside of Champagne, though, "cuvée" takes on a different meaning. Throughout France, the word is used as we might use the word "blend" here in the U.S. "Let's say you were walking through a winery and there were several different tanks, and one was a blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon and 20% merlot," explains MacNeil. "The winemaker might say, 'This tank is our top cuvée,' meaning 'our best blend.' It could also be the worst cuvée. But nobody would say, 'This is our cuvée.'" On its own, the word is used as a descriptive noun, but not a category in its own right, or even a denotation of quality. In fact, the literal English translation of the French word "cuvée" is "in a vat" or "from a vat"—not exactly a glamorous visual.

MacNeil advises wine consumers to be wary of brands that use what looks like a fancy French word to rope people in. "If I was at Trader Joe's and saw a $5.99 bottle called 'Cuvée Spectacular,' I would be suspect," she said. "When you see a cheap wine using a French term like that to imply that it's somehow special, it can be a sign that you should keep on walking. A reputable producer wouldn't try to fool you." If, however, you're actually in the South of France (lucky you!) and spot a cuvée in the aisles, feel free to purchase. "You might see something called, for example, 'Cuvée de la Grand-Mère–Grandmother's Cuvée,'" said MacNeil. "In that case, it's probably not putting on airs, but an actual blend inspired by a person or by the local culture. Buy away."


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