Wine tasting notes have recourse to a variety of terms that may seem a bit offputting to the uninitiated: pencil shavings (merlot), iodine (cabernet sauvignon, among others), barnyard (chardonnay), wet gravel (cabernet franc), petrol (riesling), cat’s pee (sauvignon blanc)… And all those are actually flavours people seek out! So it’s understandable if a person, on seeing rancio in a description of a wine’s flavour, reads it as a typo for rancid. Mmmm… rancid wine. Why not? Wine is often drunk with cheese, and you know what some cheese smells like. (Fortunately, no one actually says it in tasting notes.)

On seeing the word a few times, the reader will conclude it must not be an error. (Some, more easily cowed, will conclude this right away.) But the next questions follow: What does it mean? And how do you pronounce it?

It seems reasonable enough to think it might be an Italian word, pronounced like “rancho”. Hmmm, if you can have barnyard in chard, why not rancho in… what? Tokay? Okay. Muscat? Better than muskrat. Sherry? Yeah, baby! Cognac? Hmmm… let’s have some more and see. Your rancho will become very relaxo.

But actually, no, it’s pronounced to rhyme with “Nancy O.” Or “fancy o,” or perhaps the beginning of “fancy a wine that tastes a bit of rich, overripe fruit, nuts, and butter?” Hmmm… just as there’s runny cheese, and then there’s cheese that ran out the door, and cheese that’s just rank, and different people prefer different stages of that caseous decomp, there’s also wine that runs with lively fruit and there’s wine that’s rancio, and wine that just ran – see ya!

But no need to worry about wine with rancio flavours being “off.” Cognac is distilled, of course, and the others are generally maderized, which means cooked. Which is not always a thing you want to happen to your wines, but lemme tell ya, it works great for some, and maderized wines keep awfully well! And rancio gives such a nice, natural richness, so much better than added caramel, say.

What produces rancio flavours? Oxidation of fatty acids, actually, producing ketones. Generally food that has this happen to it is called… um… rancid.

Oh. Well, yes. Rancio is in fact the name rancid books its table under when it goes out to the fancy places and wants to sound all foreign and romantic. Rancio comes to English from French, which got it from Spanish; Spanish got it from Latin rancidus “rotten”. But, hey, in wine, even noble rot is actually something good.

And while you may not like your fruit, nuts, or butter rancid, I assure you that in wine that unpleasant edge is taken off. Look, see for yourself: rancid loses that | and is nice, smooth rancio.

9 responses to “rancio

  1. I note that, in tasting ‘rancid’, you did not venture into the often very strange links between -id words and -our words. I write without rancour. — (After a very humid Albertan ‘summer’ I have to search for humour.)

    • If I were tasting rancid qua rancid I might. (I would also probably mention the punk rock group of the same name.) But I was trying to stick close to rancio.

    • Oh… and “very humid Albertan ‘summer'” – that is humour. Remember that I’m from Alberta and now live in Toronto (and lived in Boston before). Albertan “very humid” is eastern “normal.” Eastern “a bit humid” is Albertan “it’s about to rain.” Eastern “very humid” is Albertan “you’re inside a greenhouse.”

  2. Thanks for this splendidly arcane word. Trying to imagine how a rancid taste could be in any way pleasant, I stumbled on a web page about cognac,
    which listed the four stages of rancio that this stuff goes through:
    R1: 10-15 years
    Oxidation aromas. Peak of vanilla and oak taste. Flowery: dried rose. Nutty. spicy.
    R2: 17-22 years
    Flowery: Jasmine. Chocolate. Dried, candied fruit. Curry, saffron. Ginger.
    R3: 30-40 years
    Old tawny port. Cedar, eucalyptus. Cigar box, tobacco. Old muscat wine. Nutmeg.
    R4: 50-60 years
    New flowery scents. Tropical fruits: passion, lychee. Wood scents: sandalwood.

    And a Spanish dictionary says that the term for ‘to be of noble descent’ is ser descendiente de una familia de rancio abolengo.

  3. Apologies for mistyping the ‘italics off’ tag after ‘rancio’. Wish there was a way of editing one’s comments.

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