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Glossary of wine words: unpacking some of the wine terms and technical language used in wine

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31 October 2019. Words by YGOW.

Wine has its own language. It can sound quite familiar but still remain somewhat cryptic. While there’s no quick way to impart fluency, unpacking some important wine words will help the conversation flow. So here, on this page, we’re compiling a short glossary of some wine terms to know.

But first, a little wrap up of some of the lingo used in describing the taste of wine, which you’ll encounter when reading a wine note or chatting to a somm… For those learning about wine, sometimes the language used in tasting notes by those in the know can be confusing. Aside from technical terms, relatively innocuous words can also have nuanced meanings. For ‘fresh’, think lively acidity and/or zesty aromas, like fresh citrus; for ‘bright’, think aromas and flavours of fruit, flowers and the like, rather than woody or earthy characters; ‘fruit’ refers to the flavours, richness and weight that the grapes provide, not fruit descriptors; ‘tannins’ are the things that dry out your mouth, think heavily brewed tea; ‘structure’ is what gives the wine definition in the mouth, so basically the degree of acid and tannin present; ‘texture’ refers to the mouth-feel of the wine, whether the tannins feel furry or chewy or the like, if there’s a richness or softness to the mouth-feel, things like that; ‘balance’ is about how much any one part of the wine tastes in relation to the others – how well the ‘fruit’ is ‘balanced’ by the ‘tannin’, if it dominates or is harmonious. We could go on… Oh, and if someone says, “have you had a look at this wine?” they mean have you tasted it.

A

ABC

Anything But Chardonnay was a popular saying a few years ago with wine consumers getting too familiar to the point of being bored with the big rich buttery and oaky style of Chardonnay. These days this imperious grape variety has many guises and is rarely boring.

Acetic acid

A volatile acid, acetic acid is the thing that makes vinegar vinegar. A bacteria called acetobacter consumes the ethanol in wine and turns it into the sour stuff that we dress salads with. A little bit is quite normal in wine, though it’s generally undetectable. If it’s really apparent, then you might have a problem

Acid

Acid is what gives wine its freshness. Sometimes you notice it, sometimes not. But it’s always there. In a crisp young riesling, it might be racy and tart. In a richer red wine, it might just cut through a bit of the weight. Like lemon juice cuts through the richness of fat. Whether a driving force or in the background, it’s about the balance.

Acidification

Grapes grown in regions that receive abundant sunshine frequently ripen at higher sugar levels and therefore lower acid levels. Tartaric acid which is naturally found in grapes is added to the fermenting wine to keep the wine tasting fresh and bright. Most Australian wine sees some acid adjustment.

Additions

You only need grapes to make wine, which have plenty of sugar (alcohol), tannin, acid and colour, but you can add all these things, too. In fact, you can add a whole lot of things that wouldn’t be familiar to anyone but a winemaker. Most don’t add much, except a bit of sulphur dioxide, as this stops wine oxidising. Some don’t even add that. For large-scale commercial wines, a whole raft of things might be used to refine and stabilise the brew. Less is best, we say.

Aldehyde

For those not technically minded, don’t look up aldehyde. It’s quiet a complex area to investigate, but understanding it in terms of tasting wine is less so. Aldehydes are produced through oxidation of ethanol by bacteria and can be seen as a fault in some wines. But one of the world’s great wine style has the most commonly occurring aldehyde (in wine, that is) in spades, and it is the easiest way to understand what it smells like. I have one word for you: Sherry. Fino Sherry to be more precise. It’s that nutty, savoury, umami-laced aroma that makes dry Sherry so distinctive. It’s a character that you’ll often see in Champagne, too.

Amphora

There’s nothing deceptive about this term. An amphora is a big, classically shaped clay pot used for fermenting and maturing wine. They, unsurprisingly, go way back, and are still extensively used in Georgia (the world’s oldest winemaking country… truly), where they are called qvevri. They’re also used by lots of natural winemakers, as well as plenty that don’t put themselves in that camp. Why use them? Well, you get interesting ferment vectors, which swirl the lees around, and they are very neutral in terms of flavour imparted. They’re also a protective environment, being less oxidative than oak barrels, but don’t have some of the issues associated with the complete absence of oxygen in stainless steel tanks.

Amontillado

A type of Sherry that sits it between the light and delicate Fino and the dark and rich Oloroso. It typically is a medium brown colour with a nutty aroma.

Angel’s share

An attempt to elevate wine maturing in the cellar into the heavens. The reality is that a small amount of liquid evaporates whilst the wine sits in the barrel and this in turn concentrates the remaining fluid.

Aperitif

A French word that refers to a drink before dinner intended to stimulate the palate. Champagne is considered the ultimate aperitif, sometimes with the addition of crème du cassis to make a Kir Royale. If you prefer something without the fizz a crisp lighter style of white wine is a most suitable alternative.

Appellation Controlee

The French system that guarantees authenticity of the wine. French wine is labelled where the grapes are grown and not the grape variety.

Assemblage

Specifically refers to the blending of base wines for sparkling but it can refer to any wine that is comprised of different parcels of fruit.

Autolysis

This is a term strongly linked with Champagne, with autolysis giving the wines characteristic notes of baked bread, brioche, biscuits and the like. When wine ferments, the expired yeast cells, or lees, precipitate out, but even in death they keep contributing. It gets a little complicated, but natural enzymes eventually start to break the lees down, which can start to build the aforementioned flavour characters, while also softening the mouthfeel of the wine, giving it texture.

B

Balance

This word gets used a lot, sometimes properly. Wine is about relative values. If you’ve got lots of fruit richness in a wine, you’re going to need some tannin and/or acid to balance it out.

Barrel

These are vessels used for maturation and in some cases fermentation. Oak is used almost exclusively and these barrels are made by shaping staves of wood with the desired curve that then snugly fit inside metal hoops. The staves are generally heated with fire to become pliable and this process chars the wood and this in turn imparts flavour into the wine.

Barrel fermentation

Some wines are fermented in tanks or large fermenters before the wine is transferred to barrels, while others are fermented in the barrels that they’re then aged in. Barrel fermentation is a practice most commonly used when making chardonnay, but it is also employed to add texture and flavour complexity to other white wines, such as commonly with pinot gris and viognier, but it can be applied to any variety. The impact of barrel fermentation is one where fruity flavours are softened and rounded off, while adding in some yeasty, leesy notes, with a generally softer and creamier texture. The wines are typically then aged on the lees, where stirring (battonage) can add even more richness and softness to the texture, though winemakers are doing this less and less, pursuing more refined styles.

Batonnage

Battonage is the process of stirring lees while a wine is maturing in barrel or tank. Why? Well, those lees will help to add texture and flavour to the wine, softening some of the hard edges. It can also be used if a wine becomes a little stinky/reductive, by introducing oxygen, and it is also sometimes used to reduce the buttery flavour in chardonnay that can be produced from malolactic fermentation.

Baumé

Baumé is a measurement of the sugar content of grape juice before fermentation. It is used as a tool to assess how much alcohol there will be in the finished wine if fermented dry (or how much can be left in the wine as residual sugar if the ferment is stopped). It is the easiest scale to understand for those not technically minded, with 12° Baumé, for example, translating to about 12–13% finished alcohol.

Biodynamic

An organic farming method created by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920s. It’s a slightly mystical approach, employing elaborate organic ‘preparations’ to restore the natural balance of the soil and encourage microorganisms. It also observes the lunar cycle to prescribe actions in the vineyard and winery. Why some of it works is not clearly understood, but it is used by some of the world’s greatest producers.

Blind tasting

Tasting blind is simply tasting without knowing what’s in the glass. It’s intended to be a more impartial way of assessing wine, devoid of any triggers that may pervert the taster into thinking it is better or worse than what’s in the glass.

Botrytis

Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, as it’s also known, is a fungus that infects fruit when the spores are present and the conditions right, generally characterised by high humidity followed by dry conditions. This can be a blight for those wanting to make dry wines, but it also transforms grapes to produce the world’s most revered dessert wines, most famously the opulent sweet rieslings of Germany and Alsace (as well as pinot gris and gewürztraminer), the semillon-dominant wines of Bordeaux, led by Sauternes and Barsac, and Hungary’s Tokaji. The fungus removes moisture from the grapes, concentrating the flavours, sugar and acidity, which results in rich and complex wines. Botrytis also helps to develop toasty, honeyed flavours, often with notes of crystallised ginger and candied citrus peel.

Bottle fermented

This is an essential part of Champagne and all its imitators. After the primary fermentation the wine is bottled and a small amount of yeast and sugar is added, the bottle sealed and a second fermentation then takes place in the bottle. With nowhere to escape the carbon dioxide produced during the ferment dissolves into the wine magically creating the fizz.

Bottle sizes

Large format bottles are good for ageing wine as the ratio of liquid to air space increases and this slows down the oxidation.

Piccolo 187ml
Half Bottle 375ml
Standard Bottle 750ml
Magnum 1500ml
Double Magnum 3lt
Jeroboam 4.5lt
Methuselah 6lt
Salamanzar 9lt
Balthazar 12lt
Nebuchadnezzar 15lt

Brettanomyces (brett)

This is a bit of a dirty word in the world of wine. Brettanomyces is essentially a yeast, but is regarded as a spoilage yeast, producing undesirable flavours and stripping wine of texture. It is, however, employed by brewers and cider makers, with many famous styles marked by brett characters. In wine, it is very hard to control and can ferment sugars that won’t convert in a regular alcoholic fermentation, which is why affected wines can look a bit hard and severe. It also throws up undesirable flavour characters. Terms like, barnyard, horsey, bandaid and even vomit (erm… yes) might be used when talking about brett. And needless to say, they’re rarely used positively. For a bit more detail, check out our article on the subject here.

Bright

Vibrant and clear flavours in a wine are often referred to as bright or fresh. Bell-clear and distinct aromatics and a sense of purity often fit into these descriptors.

Brut

Actually a French word meaning crude or raw it has come to be used for sparkling wine with low levels of the sweet dosage, which leaves the wine tasting dry.

C

Canopy/canopy management

This term covers (excuse the pun) the leaves and stalks of the grape vine. The management of the canopy involves any preparations sprayed on the canopy, trellising systems and leaf plucking. These measures are employed to increase or modify the flavour of the grapes and optimise the yield.

Carbonic maceration (cab-mac)

This technique was made famous by Beaujolais. It’s basically a ferment of whole bunches in a fermenter or tank that is closed up, allowing the grapes to ferment as whole berries. You get a really vibrant and bright fruit expression, but it can also make wines look a bit confected, too.

Cépage

Literally meaning grape variety, in wine talk cépage is an abbreviation of encépagement, which refers to the varietal composition of a blended wine.

Champagne method

By law Champagne has to be grown and made in Champagne. There are many imitators around the world that follow the ‘Champagne Method’ and achieve high quality results. The most significant aspects of the method include a second fermentation the bottle and a significant time in the bottle before disgorgement.

Chaptalization

In grape growing areas that often have cooler summers sugar is added to the ferment to bring the final alcohol content up to the desired level. This process also adds body and weight to the wine. This is a process that is legal in many European jurisdictions but not allowed in more sunny climes such as Australia.

Climate

For grape growing regions the climate is a historical average of the relevant conditions that shape the flavour and nature of the resulting wine. Some grape varieties particularly those with thin skins are best suited to cooler climates whilst other varieties need abundant sunshine to fully ripen.

Climate change

The last 30 years have seen an unprecedented number of very hot growing seasons combined with extreme weather conditions such as hail and heavy rain just prior to harvest. The general consensus is that these extreme conditions are due to climate change.

Clone

As if there aren’t enough grape varieties in the world, clones only complicate things further. You might hear people talking about 777, 114, 115 or MV6, which are all clones of pinot noir. In fact, there are over 1000 known clones of pinot noir, which is dizzying to think about. Pinot noir mutates easily, so some of the plants that show a particularly useful trait are isolated and cultivated, thus making a clone. Nurseries propagate these clones and they are sold to suit certain climates, conditions or to give certain flavours.

Colour

The least important thing about wine is the colour, but it’s worth knowing that the colour comes from the skins. If you’re extracting lots of colour, with red or white, you’re probably pulling out some tannins, too. If you’re into guessing a wine’s identity, then colour helps, but otherwise it’s not worth spending much time worrying about it.

Complex/complexity

Nothing to see here. Complexity is just that, a wine with a lot going on. That complexity might just be a dizzying array of flavours, or it might be due to a layered texture, or tannins with different types of grip – fine, furry, pleasingly bitter etc. On the other hand, simple wines are ones that have singular flavour notes and little texture or structural variety. It doesn’t mean they’re not enjoyable, just not profound is all.

Confected

Like confectionary. If your wine smells like jelly snakes, it’s pretty reasonable for you to drag this descriptor out.

Continental climate

A continental climate can broadly be characterised as an inland one, where the predominant influence is the land mass – rather than an ocean with a maritime climate. The warmth or heat of a continental climate can vary greatly, but the common shared characteristic is that there is a large diurnal range, or where there is a big difference between the daytime and night-time temperatures. In Australia, we’re basically talking about inland zones, where there’s plenty of sunshine, but nothing to keep that heat in during the night. The result can be nicely ripe grapes that stay fresh because the acid is retained during those chilly nights.

Cooperage

This term covers the craft of barrel making and the companies that make barrels.

Corked

Wine that has been spoiled by cork taint (see Trichloranisole) is said to be corked. Most Australian wine avoids this problem by using screw caps instead of cork.

Crop Thinning

In years where there a lot of bunches have set on the vines the viticulturist may decide to cut a certain number of bunches off so that the remaining bunches will fully ripen and develop concentrated flavours. This process is usually conducted when the grapes change colour or begin their final maturation phase.

Cuttings

A cutting is simply a piece of grapevine taken to propagate that vine elsewhere. Cuttings can be taken from a number of the best vines in a vineyard (massal selection), or from one vine (clonal selection).

D

Dealcoholized wine

There is a growing demand from the community for winemakers to offer low or no alcohol wines. The early attempts at these wines were clumsy and the wines were clearly inferior to regular strength wines however recent years have seen some high quality wines made with reduced alcohol. There are various methods employed to remove alcohol including thermal and membrane techniques.

Decanting

This is the process used to separate solid particles from liquid in wine. Most commonly it is required for older red wines that have developed a solid agglomerate but some white wines throw a crystalline deposit as well. The wine is poured from the bottle with a slow and steady flow into another vessel with a light source under the neck of the bottle that clearly identifies the sediment. Some robust young wines without the sediment will benefit from a vigorous decanting to aerate the wine.

Demi-sec

A French term that means semi dry. It is applied to sparkling wines where the dosage is noticeable but the wine is not a sugary dessert style. Wines from the Loire Valley in France can be labelled Demi-sec as some residual sugar is left in the wine to counter balance the high acid levels from this very cool region.

Dessert wines

These are wines with pronounced levels of residual sugar and are most commonly served at the conclusion of a meal to accompany cheese or dessert. On the odd occasion dessert wines are used as an aperitif to match rich starter dishes.

Destemming

This describes the process of removing grapes from their stalks. Some wine is fermented as wholes bunches and the destemming takes place after the fermentation is complete whilst other batches of fruit are destemmed prior to fermentation commencing.

DOC

This is the legal term used for some of the wine made in Portugal and Italy. The loose translation is naming the Origin and controlling the production. The rules and regulations are constantly up for debate and revision. They are designed to ensure that the wine produced under the system is from the particular region and made according to standards that ensure its quality.

DOCG

Similar to the DOC term except you can add Guaranteed for the ‘G’. This system is designed for the most highly rated Italian wines.

Dosage

After sparkling wine has completed its maturation in the bottle the neck is frozen and a small plug of yeast solids is removed. A mixture of some older still wine and sugar then replaces the plug. This mixture is called the dosage.

Dryness

A dry wine is one without residual sugar. A wine can be rich but still technically sugar-dry. You might hear some people say a wine is “very dry,” which just means that it is both technically dry and tastes even dryer than that because it has plenty of acid and/or tannin to make it appear even dryer.

E

Eiswein

This is the German term for wine that has been made from frozen grapes. The wine is typically more concentrated in sweetness and acidity as the freezing process reduces the water content. Because of the low temperatures the Botrytis Cinerea rarely develops so the resultant wine is an alternative sweet wine without the ‘Noble Rot’.

Elevation

The height above sea level is a critical factor in affecting how the vines grow. High elevation will result in cooler nights and this extends the ripening period. There are risks involved also with high elevation such as frost susceptibility.

Enzymes

These are protein-laden molecules that control and influence a wide range of activities in both grapes on the vine and fermenting must in the winery and later in the cellar.

Esters

Okay, esters are a very complicated subject if you’re into the fine detail. We’re not. Simply put, they’re the fruity aromatics that are primarily produced through fermentation. Sometimes, the term can be used as a bit of a negative. This is when commercial yeasts produce flavours that can be a bit like banana lollies or candied pineapple – fleetingly appealing until you identify the character, then a bit sickly.

Ethanol

Ethyl alcohol is the result of sugars fermenting and is the active agent that affects your nervous system in several mysterious ways. Table wine contains between 11 and 16 % alcohol whilst fortified wines range between 17 and 22 degrees.

Evans, Len

Len Evans was simply the most important individual in the Australian Wine Industry. Len was a restaurateur, vigneron, writer, commentator and show judge who led Australia in its love affair with wine from the 60s through to his premature demise in 2006.

Extract

Strictly speaking the term covers the non-volatile solids in wine whether they are dissolved or free floating. More specifically it is a term used to describe the bitter elements derived predominantly from tannin. These elements shape the feel and aftertaste of the wine.

Extraction

Alcohol is a pretty good solvent, and it will get a lot out of the grapes during fermentation – flavour, colour, tannin – but you can extract more of these elements with certain techniques, which don’t always make the wine a better wine, though they can. So, heavily extracted just means the maker has left nothing behind, for better or worse.

F

Faults

A collection of characteristics in wine that may detrimentally affect the flavour. The fault could be caused by spoilage in the grapes or develop in the winery.

Fermentation (Alcoholic)

This is the process that makes wine wine. Grapes have plenty of sugar in them, and they also have naturally occurring yeast on their skins. Break that skin and the sugar becomes available food for the yeast, which then ferments and converts the sugar to alcohol, with carbon dioxide as a by-product.

Field blend

This is wine that is made from several varieties that are grown together in the same vineyard. This method is gaining popularity in Australia.

Filtration

A process where solid particles are removed from the wine using a variety of physical substances. The process is controversial, as many believe that it can remove some of the flavour of the wine as well.

Fining

In winemaking – fining is a process where colour, tannin, bitterness and proteins that can make a wine hazy are partially or totally removed. Various agents are used, from clay-based treatments to eggs and fish products (which is why vegans need to read back labels). It can be a relatively gentle and simple process, though some argue that you remove character and sanitise a wine to some degree by fining it.

Flor

Responsible for the dry sherries of Sanlúcar de Barrameda and Jerez as well as the famous oxidative styles of France’s Jura region, flor yeast forms a layer on top of wine in un-topped barrels, lending it distinctive nutty, umami-rich flavours. That layer of yeast is protective to the wine (known as ‘sous voile’, or under a veil, in French), stopping it from oxidising, while some of the ethanol is converted through an oxidative process to create acetaldehyde, which lends sherry its trademark nutty sea spray notes. This process also reduces the acidity dramatically. The process has also been adopted by several Australian winemakers.

Fortified wine

Just regular wine that’s been fortified with some distilled wine (i.e. spirit) and often with a bit of sugar in there for balance. Think port, or those unique Australian treasures, liqueur muscat and topaque.

Fresh

Freshness can be a pseudonym for the level of palate-cleansing acid in wine.

Fruit

Yes, the fruit that makes the wine, but also fruit flavour and weight. A wine might have lots of richness from the fruit, but not be sweet in terms of sugar. Basically, when we refer to the fruit in a wine, we’re talking about the flavour, weight etc. that the grapes contribute. Not fruit flavours as such.

G

Grand Cru

A French wine term that translates as ‘great growth’. In Burgundy and Alsace Grand Cru vineyard status is assigned to the very best individual sites whilst in Bordeaux the property is given the title of Grand Cru Classe.

Grafting

Like fruit trees, you can graft different varieties onto the root system of an existing vine. Cabernet not doing so well in your vineyard? Chop the top off and splice in something more suitable, and a couple of years later you’ll get a usable crop. Grafting onto rootstock is also a way of nullifying the effects of the vine-eating pest, phylloxera.

I

Ice wine

English translation of the German Eiswein. Sweet wine picked from grapes that have frozen on the vine. This is a specialty of Canada. There is no wine region in Australia that can produce this wine naturally.

IGT

Stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica and its used to recognise wines in Italy that fall outside the traditional DOC wines.

Irrigation

The application of water to supplement rainfall. It can be used to keep vines healthy and growing when the rainfall is low however it can be used to increase grape yield for more commercial (i.e. cheaper) wines.

H

Harvest

The grapes are picked in the autumn and this can be done by hand or machine. The year of the harvest is known as the vintage.

Herbaceous

This word is used to describe wine that has the flavour of cut grass or crushed leaves. It can be used as a compliment if the flavour is supporting however it becomes a term of derision if these flavours dominate. One of the most common causes of the herbaceous character is due to Methoxypyrazines(see Pyrazines).

Herbicides

A group of chemicals that kill plants. Some target specific plants whilst others are much less specific. They are used in vineyards to kill weeds and other plants that grow near the grape vines and compete for nutrition.

Histamine

This substance causes an allergic reaction for a small percentage of unlucky people and is present in many wines.

Hybrids

This term applies to the offspring of two different grape vines. Many of the vines planted today are offspring of phylloxera resistant American rootstock with the European vine above the ground.

Hydrogen Sulphide

Also know as Rotten Egg Gas this is an awful smelling gas that can spoil a wine if present in a strong enough concentration. Generally the gas is stripped out during fermentation by Carbon Dioxide but sometimes in remains in the wine with most unfortunate consequences.

Hygiene

This is an extremely important factor in wine making. The purity of the vessels, tubes and valves that come in contact with the juice that becomes wine is paramount in preventing bacterial or microbial spoilage.

L

Label

Each country has laws and rules regarding the information. Consumers can find out quite a deal of information from the label such as alcoholic strength, grape varietal composition, region of origin etc.

Lactic acid

This is a soft acid well known as a component of dairy products. Grape juice contains the harsher malic acid that breaks down into lactic acid with the assistance of bacteria. This process is known as malo-lactic fermentation and occurs in most red wines and a smaller number of white wines, although the effect is more noticeable in whites.

Latitude

A measurement of the distance a location is from the equator. Grapes are most successfully grown between 28 and 51 degrees either north or South.

Leaf plucking

This is a process that designed to reduce disease that is evident on the leaves or allow bunches of grapes to receive more direct sunlight and in turn achieve greater levels of ripeness.

Lees

You’ve probably heard this one tossed around a bit, and it definitely falls into the jargon category. No mistaking it for anything else. It’s pure winespeak. Lees are simply the solid bits in a wine, which are often, but not always, removed from a wine prior to bottling. They’re mainly dead yeast cells that have done their job turning sugar to alcohol during fermentation, but lees are really any particulate matter in a wine (fragments of skins and the like). The lees can play a big role in a wine, too, with wine kept on its lees (sur lie, as the French say) developing more texture and sometimes creamy and cheesy aromatic notes (sometimes nice, sometimes not). They also give Champagne much of its appeal via autolysis.

Length

If you take a moment after you swallow a mouthful of wine, sometimes it seems that the flavour of the wine just vanishes abruptly, and sometimes it seems like the impression of the wine floats slowly into the distance, fading to a speck after quite some time. That’s length. The longer a wine lingers (in a good way), the higher quality it is seen to be.

Lifted

This is a term that typically means a wine is particularly aromatic and pungent. Lifted aromas of passionfruit and cut grass goes someway to not just describing the flavours of sauvignon blanc but also their intensity.

Limestone

A soil type that is comprised of mineral calcite and is frequently suitable for growing grapes. For example the Terra Rossa soil of the Coonawarra in South Australia has rich red clay over a Limestone base.

M

Maceration

A winemaker can macerate grapes both before, during and after fermentation. The process of maceration simply refers to the time that the juice and/or wine stays in contact with the skins, drawing out tannin, colour and flavour. A wine may be macerated on skins very briefly before fermentation or it can be left on skins for weeks or even many months in the case of some reds, especially nebbiolo, as well as for orange/amber wines made from white grapes.

Macroclimate

These are the common climatic conditions of a region as opposed to individual vineyard sites.

Malolactic fermentation

You’ll hear this especially when wine nerds (like us) are talking about chardonnay, and usually abbreviated to malo. “This looks like it’s had a bit of malo,” we might opine. It’s another type of fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid. These acids are almost always described as being like the acid in a green apple and the acid found in milk, respectively. And that’s because they are.

Maritime climate

Maritime climates are unsurprisingly ones that are near the ocean, with such a large mass of water regulating the temperatures and weather patterns. Vineyards in maritime climates generally have a smaller difference between daytime and night-time temperatures than those in continental climates. A big body of water like that tends to even out temperature extremes but keeps things relatively cool. In grape growing zones, those coastal breezes can take the edge off the heat, and given that the ocean temperature is pretty stable, you don’t get the big night-time temperature drops that you get inland. The further inland you go, the less maritime it gets, but you can still get some maritime influence. You can have a vineyard in a maritime climate without it overlooking the local surf break, but equally it might.

Maturity

The desired state when a specific wine is drinking at its best. Most commercial wine is mature as soon as it is released whilst some wine that is high in acid and or tannin will be drinking at its best after several years.

Mechanical harvesting and pruning

These are machines that replace humans in the vineyard. Whilst they lack the subtle touch of a person wielding a pair of secateurs machine harvesters can deliver grapes from vineyard areas that can’t access seasonal labour.

Mercaptans

This is a group of foul smelling compounds that occur when the yeast used in the primary fermentation reacts with sulphur in the lees. These flavours can be reduced by aeration in the winery and sometimes a very small amount adds to the character of the wine however left unchecked the foul flavours can dominate making it difficult to drink the wine.

Microclimate

Because of the surrounding conditions and the specific slope of a site the climate might be noticeably different in a small area. The result could be more or less rain, higher or lower temperatures etc. This in turn may affect the flavours in the grapes. And in turn the wine.

Minerals

Found in minute quantities some non-organic salts are dissolved in wine and can play a significant part in its flavour.

Minimal-intervention winemaking

There is no official definition of what minimal-intervention (or lo-fi) winemaking is, but it follows on from the approach of natural winemaking without the dictates of working with organic/biodynamic fruit. In ‘conventional’ winemaking, a raft of additives is available to makers, some quite benign, others with a more sinister feel. Many of these are rarely used, but larger scale commercial wineries will use enzymes to achieve certain results, from increased juice yield to colour development to aromatic development, as well as adding tannin, acid and cultured yeast. A minimal-intervention practice would be to not add anything, to not try and adjust the wine, but rather to let it take a natural course with using native yeasts and ideally not filtering the wine before bottling. None of this means a winemaker doesn’t take an active role, but it’s a process of working with the fruit rather than against it.

Mouthfeel

A term used in wine tasting that describes the sensation of the wine in the mouth. Some wines are light and very similar to water whilst bigger bodied wines feel quite viscous as they coat the tongue.

Must

This is the term given to grape juice and its skins as it is in the process of fermentation.

Mutation

This is a description of the spontaneous change in a vine due to generic forces. Many grape varieties are ancient and they have been subject to many mutations. A well-known example is the variety Pinot Gris (aka Pinot Grigio). When ripe most of the grapes are a copper like colour but some develop a dark maroon whilst others are green, all in the same vineyard.

N

Natural wine

No, not a style. The natural wine movement is about working with organic or biodynamic fruit from unirrigated vineyards, then not adding any tricks: no yeast, acid, tannin, enzyme additions, no new oak and only a little bit of sulphur at bottling, if at all. If it’s not organic, it’s not natural wine. Full stop.

Negociant

A French term simply meaning a wine merchant however they can be involved in several other activities including buying grapes and supervising the winemaking, buying recently fermented wines and assembling the final blend.

Noble rot

The correct scientific term is Botrytis Cinerea. It is a mould that flourishes in humid conditions in the autumn as the grapes ripen. The mould pierces the skins of the grape and with evaporation concentrates the flavour compounds as well as sugar and acid. With a balanced amount of botrytis some of the most wonderful dessert wines can be produced from fruit affected by this noble rot.

Nouveau

This is a term borrowed from Beaujolais Nouveau, where a red wine is made in a super-fresh way and brought to market soon after vintage. Think juicy, jubey, bright and essentially smashable.

O

Oak

Most of the wood used in barrels comes from the oak tree. Two sub species are preferred, Quercus Robur Aka French or European Oak and Quercus Alba, AKA American Oak. The difference between these two types of oak is that the American variety grows much faster and is consequently more porous therefor imparting more wood flavour into the wine.

Oenology

This word means the study of wine but has become to specifically refer to the science of wine making.

Options game

This can be a lot of fun and educational at the same time. Created by Len Evans (see Len Evans) wine is served masked and multiple choice questions are posed by the pourer that ultimately reveal the wine’s identity.

Organic

Farming without recourse to chemicals to control pests, weeds and disease, or to stimulate growth with synthetic fertilisers. But be wary, a wine can be made from organic fruit but not be an organic wine. An organic wine will be made with the same ethos.

Oxidation

Wine exposed to oxygen will see the colour brown and the fruit flavours degraded. If this occurs over a lengthy period it can add to the enjoyment of the wine however if this occurs rapidly it can be a destructive fault in the wine.

P

Palate

This word is used to describe all the sensations perceived when the wine is in your mouth, including flavours, texture and the aftertaste. Sometimes the word is used to describe a wine taster with a reputation of being highly skilled in recognising and identifying these characteristics.

PH

This is a measurement scale that indicates whether a liquid is acidic or basic. The scale generally ranges from 0 to 14 with 7 being neutral. Grape juice and wine is acidic and mostly falls in the range of 2.9 (very sharply acidic) and 4.2 (soft and gentle acidity).

Phenolic

This one’s bandied around a bit, and it’s typically used in tasting to refer to a wine that has a bit of tannin in it from grape skins, seeds or stalks. Polyphenols are present in all of these parts of a grape, more in some varieties than others, and they’re great antioxidants. They contribute tannins, colour and all manner of things to wine. But mostly, a phenolic wine is one that looks a little naturally grippy, rather than from oak-derived tannin.

Phylloxera

This is one of the nastiest words in wine. Phylloxera is basically a louse that loves to feast on the root systems of grapevines, eventually killing them. Originating from North America, these microscopic bugs were responsible for a worldwide plague that wiped out whole regions in the late 19th century. And it was a big mystery, until they were finally identified. Indigenous American vines are immune to the pest, so using an American rootstock with a vitis vinifera vine grafted on top solves the problem. They also don’t like sand, so there’s no need for grafting on sandy soils.

Piquette

A traditional drink of vineyard workers and labourers, piquette is a low-alcohol (around 5% abv) wine made from the leftover grape matter (pomace or marc) that is usually discarded after pressing off wine. That pomace can be distilled to make grappa, or water is added, and it is refermented to extract the last vestiges of sugar. Added sugar can also be employed to lift the alcohol a little. It is also called acqua pazza (crazy water – not to be confused with the tomato-scented broth for cooking fish) in Italy, being a particular favourite of Tuscan peasants, making the most of the cast-offs from the nobility. Today, the interest in piquette is largely driven by natural-leaning winemakers and the wines often have a gentle spritz to them.

Port

This is a particular type of fortified wine from Portugal. The fermentation is arrested with the addition of spirit, typically brandy. The wine retains unfermented sugars. There are two major styles, Vintage and Tawny. With Vintage Port the wine is bottled after a period of between 1 and 3 years barrel aging. It will then develop for many years in the bottle. Tawny Port is made using a ‘Solera’ system where small amounts of different vintages are blended together in one large vessel and mature as one wine. Australia makes these styles of wine and they are called Vintage Fortified and Fortified Tawny as legally the name ‘Port’ can only refer to wine from Portugal.

Press

The Press is a machine used to squeeze the liquid out of the must. Traditional basket presses are still used whilst more recently developed pneumatic presses are used extensively particularly in larger wineries. The intensity of the press can determine the amount of extraction and have significant effect on the structure of the wine.

Primary, secondary and tertiary flavours

Primary flavours are those produced by the grapes once turned to wine. So, typically the fruit flavours, though really any character from growing the fruit is a primary character, which may include the influence of local flora, like herbs or eucalypt. Secondary flavours are those added by the winemaking process. So, oak flavour, lees character and the like are all secondary characters. Tertiary flavours are those produced by ageing in bottle.

Pruning

Vines are annual plants that are dormant in the cooler months. At this time viticulturists will prune the vines to set the amount of bunches that will develop on each vine as well as setting the path for the growth of stalks along the trellising wires. Mostly this process is undertaken by hand but some vineyards are pruned by machine.

Pump

This is a machine that is much maligned by many involved in the wine industry. Used to move the must or fermented wine from one vessel to another some maintain that the pressures exerted by the pump on the liquid will adversely affect the flavours. Many wineries today prefer to gravity feed or very gentle displacement measures rather than powerful mechanical pumps.

Pumping over

During the fermentation of must that is fermented in larger vats pumping the juice over the crust of skins and stalks that forms at the top of the ferment is necessary to promote an even ferment and prevent spoilage. If the winemaker requires greater extraction of colour and tannin they may prefer to plunge the cap to keep it in contact with the juice.

Pyrazines

Methoxypyrazines – or pyrazines for short – are a group of flavour compounds that are present in grapes from the extended cabernet family. Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and sauvignon blanc all originate in Bordeaux, France, and their shared lineage means they can share some flavour profiles. In this case, pyrazines are responsible for some of the greener (less ripe) notes you might identify, such as capsicum, green leaf, herbs, cut grass or green peppercorns. These characters generally disappear when the fruit is riper, and can be out of balance if too green, but they’re also linked to classic varietal character when in harmony.

R

Ramato

This is a style of wine that originates from Friuli, in Italy’s north-east, where the pinot grigio grapes aren’t pressed before fermentation, which means that the skins give up their flavour, tannin and colour to the finished wine. In the case of pinot grigio, those skins are a pinky grey, meaning that the colour of the finished wine has a coppery, petrol-like hue. Ramato translates as auburn in Italian.

Rancio

This is a tasting term that is used in mature fortified wines that have been oxidised over the years of maturation. It tastes like a combination of butter, sugar and nuts cooking in a pan.

Reduction/reductive/reduced wine

Reduction in wine can get complicated, but a broad brushstroke understanding is helpful to learn how the term is generally used by tasters and winemakers when assessing a wine. Basically, a reduced wine is one that is in an anerobic state, or one without the presence of oxygen. So, the opposite of an oxidised wine. A reduced wine is therefore protected and will not spoil so easily, but the term reduction is frequently used to apply to off-putting characters that can occur in this reduced state. Generally, these characters are sulphur compounds that can be unpleasant (like rotten egg gas) or pleasing (matchstick), or the wine can simply be a little hard to properly appreciate on the nose, with the fruit masked. In the worst case, these characters can be faults that won’t be remedied, but introducing oxygen will otherwise release the flavours of the wine, while some of those pleasing matchstick notes will probably stick around (most winemakers work hard to capture these characters).

Refractometer

This is a simple tool that measures how much light is bent through a liquid. It is used on crushed grapes to determine when the crop should be picked.

Refrigeration

The application of cooling devices has changed how, when and where wine can be made. Cooler temperatures slow down chemical reactions and allow winemakers to make more considered decisions as to how they should treat a wine.

Residual sugar

This can be confusing for those learning about wine, as some wines that have lots of fruit weight can be quite rich, but they mightn’t actually have any sugar in them. Wines that are sweet, like some German rieslings or dessert wines, have just had the fermentation stopped at a certain point, so some of the sugar is not converted to alcohol, hence residual sugar.

Resveratrol

This is a phenolic compound found in the skins of grapes believed to have many health benefits, particularly heart health.

Ripeness

Different winemakers have different opinions on ripeness. Those wishing to make delicate, crisp and refreshing wines will say that their fruit is ripe at a lower sugar level than those winemakers desiring a rich full-bodied wine. The flavours in the grape change quite rapidly as the sugar develops and the concept of ‘ripeness’ is subjective.

Rootstock

Generally this refers to phylloxera resistant American roots that are planted to prevent the vines being swamped with the phylloxera louse. The rootstock grows in the soil whilst the European grape variety is grafted on and grows above ground level.

S

Saignée

This is a French term (you probably got that already) referring to bleeding off of some grape juice from a red wine ferment right at the beginning of its journey. This happens before much extraction of tannin and colour from the skins has occurred, meaning you have pink-ish juice which can then be fermented to make rosé. That rosé is typically a secondary product, with the prime motivation to intensify the red wine ferment, both in terms of flavour and structure.

Sampling

In the vineyard this refers to taking random samples of grapes to determine flavour and ripeness levels prior to picking. Once picked the must is sampled to confirm the sugar and acid levels and sampling is again undertaken during and after completion of fermentation as part of the quality assurance programme.

Skin contact

The skins hold the colouring matter and lots of tannin. Leave them in contact with the juice/wine and you’ll extract those elements. Most conventional white wine sees no skin contact, rosé a little bit to get a blush, and red wine plenty to get the colour and structure. Skin-contact whites… well, they have some skin contact. Yep. More colour, more tannin and a different flavour profile.

Slate

This is a dark grey hard rock that is ideally suited to growing the finest Riesling wines. In Germany it is highly regarded in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region whilst in Australia the Clare Valley benefits from slate in the soil. The slate holds moisture and heat that allows a steady development of the grape bunches.

Soil fertility

High quality grape vines require a medium amount of soil fertility that encompasses the nutrient level of organic matter in the soil as well as other chemicals that promote growth. Highly fertile soils have negative affects on the grape quality, as they will be prone to producing large volumes of insipid flavoured grapes. Low fertile soils may produce highly flavoured grapes but in such small quantities that they do not become economical to maintain.

Solera

This is a system of annually adding small amounts of wine to the blend that slowly matures and oxidises until the desired flavours are achieved. This system was developed in Spain for aging sherry but a similar system is used for Port maturation and in Australia it is used extensively in our fortified wines. The end product does not have a vintage but would normally be described as being of an average age, representing the time the wine has spent in the barrel or vat.

Sommelier

A French word originally meaning pack horse it now is reserved for the steward or waiter in charge of wine at a restaurant. This includes selection, storage and service of the wine.

Structure

This is the architecture, if you like. Tannin from grape skins, seeds, stalks and oak barrels give wine a dryness and pulls in the fruit, and acidity gives a wine linear direction and similarly reins in fruit sweetness and also sugar sweetness.

Sulphur dioxide

Sulphur gets a fair bit of bad press, but used properly it is one of the most useful winemaking tools. Sulphur is a naturally occurring preservative and antioxidant, which helps to protect wine from losing its natural flavours and from undesirable oxidative reactions to occur. Some people are allergic to it, but this is often overstated. It is used widely in food production, and if you can eat dried fruit, then wine is probably not going to cause any issues. Sulphur can be used at various stages in the winemaking process, and natural winemakers can even use it, though only when bottling, and only in small doses. In fact, many winemakers prefer to only use it at bottling to protect their wine on what can be a long journey before it is opened. If it’s used too much, you can make a wine more prone to oxidation later on, but that’s another story. Sulphur can also help stop or minimise brettanomyces issues and bacterial spoilage. It can also stop a wine from fermenting, which makes it all very handy when used judiciously.

Sustainable viticulture

More vineyards these days are adopting practices that allow grapes to be grown with degrading the environment. Fundamental are the use of cover crops that naturally maintain soil fertility and the avoidance of using in-organic chemicals. In addition to environmental considerations, sustainability also encompasses economic and social sustainability.

Sweet

Not a complicated one, though it can be qualified. A fruit-sweet wine is one where the richness of the fruit gives an impression of sweetness, but it doesn’t actually taste sweet with sugars. Sweet is just that – a wine that has sugar in it and tastes sweet to degrees. A wine can be very sweet or very slightly so, with acidity making the sweetness less apparent. Some wines taste sweet at the start but finish dry once swallowed. It’s all about how fresh that acid is in relation to the sugar.

T

Tannin

These are those grippy things in your mouth. The drying ones that can make you pucker at times. Think heavily brewed tea. They can be bitter at the extreme end or just lightly chewy, and they contribute to much of the structure of red wine and some whites. Tannins are extracted from grape skins, seeds and stalks when making wine, as well as contributed by newer oak barrels during maturation.

Tartaric acid

The most voluminous acid in grapes and therefore it is vital in determining the flavour and mouthfeel of wine.

Tartrates

These are primarily a salt of potassium tartrate and whilst this salt is fully soluble in grape juice it is not as readily soluble in fermented wine. Therefore it falls out of solution and gathers as white crystals AKA ‘Wine Diamonds’ particularly in bottles that have been in long-term refrigeration.

Trellis systems

This is a combination of stakes and wires designed to direct the growth of the grape vines. There are many different systems that are used to maximise sun exposure for the bunches of grapes, support the growth of a particular number of bunches and provide airflow in amongst the bunches and foliage to reduce disease.

Trichloranisole (TCA)

Thankfully it is abbreviated to TCA in wine-speak and otherwise known as cork taint. It is a powerful substance that reacts to cork and spoils the wine. The smell is like a wet mouldy hessian bag.

U

Ullage

This term refers to the liquid that is lost due to evaporation in both casks in the cellar and in the bottle. In both cases pronounced ullage can spoil the wine whilst controlled ullage can add to the complexity and charm of the wine.

Unfiltered/filtering

In winemaking – there are many types of filters, from quite simple methods to exceedingly complicated machines, but they all essentially do the same thing. The idea is to remove matter from the wine before bottling, taking out any tiny solids as well as yeasts and some other microbial elements. Depending on the type of filter employed, you can lose a bit of flavour and texture doing this, which is why many champion their wines as being unfiltered. There are degrees, too, with the coarseness of the filter determining how much is removed from the wine.

Un-fined/fining

In winemaking – fining is a process where colour, tannin, bitterness and proteins that can make a wine hazy are partially or totally removed. Various agents are used, from clay-based treatments to eggs and fish products (which is why vegans need to read back labels). It can be a relatively gentle and simple process, though some argue that you remove character and sanitise a wine to some degree by fining it.

V

Variety

All grapes do not appear and taste the same. There are thousands of different varieties and each have their own distinctive characters that are modified by the environment where they are grown. Discovering different varieties is, without doubt, one of the great joys of wine tasting.

Vat

This is a large vessel that is used for storing wine both during and after fermentation. It may be made of many different materials including wood, steel, cement, slate, enamel and epoxy resin.

Veraison

This is the period when grapes on the vine change from hard green pellets into the juicy ripe fruit that is ready for picking. Much of the character of the fruit is determined prior to Veraison however some of these characteristics only become evident at this stage so it is an important time in the vineyard for the viticulturist.

Vine age

Grape vines can live for a long time, some for 150 years or so. As they age they become less productive in volume but the intensity of the fruit increases. There is general consensus that aged vines make better wine but very little consensus on what that age actually is. Some winemakers call vines 20 years aged whilst other wait until the vines are 50 years or older before claiming them as aged. Check the label to see exactly how old the vines are as ‘Old Vines’ is used as a marketing tool and consequently higher prices.

Vinification

This word describes the process of converting the grape juice into wine. In other words it describes the fermentation process.

Vintage

The Vintage is the year in which the grapes were picked. In the southern hemisphere grapes are generally picked between February and April whilst in the north the picking times are August to October. The word vintage can also be used in place of harvest.

Viscosity

The resistance of a liquid to flow is a mark of its viscosity. Sweet wines with a combination of sugar and alcohol are quite viscous whilst light white wines have very low levels of viscosity and are much more like water in texture.

Viticulture

Otherwise known as grape vine science. This covers all the farming practices in the vineyard including planting, trellising, and pruning, picking as well as disease and pest prevention activities.

Volatile acidity (VA)

Volatile acidity is one of those elements that can contribute positively to a wine but can also be a fault. Put simply, the two major volatile acids are those that we associate with the aromas of vinegar and nail polish remover (yep, delicious). They can be quite prickly on the nose, but in low concentrations can lift fruit flavours in the glass. When someone comments on VA in a wine, it’s usually becoming too overpowering, but we all have different perception thresholds, so there’s no definitive ideal with this. You’ll have to make your own call.

Vitis vinifera

The Mediterranean species of vine that is responsible for pretty much all the wine grape varieties that you’re likely to come across.

W

Weight

This is really just about how concentrated the wine feels. Is it big and rich, or is it fine and elegant?

Whole bunch

Yep, the whole thing. If you ferment with whole bunches, you’ll get a different result. The stems add more tannin, and tannin with a slightly different feel in the mouth to grape skin or oak tannin. You’ll also get some of those berries fermenting more or less whole, which yields a brighter fruit profile.

Y

Yeast

This is the stuff that makes beer, wine and bread ferment. Yeast (a type of fungi) creates alcohol by consuming and converting fermentable sugars, and it also creates CO2 (bread rises when the air pockets in the dough expand in the heat of the oven). Yeasts naturally coat grapes, but you can also add cultured versions – like sourdough versus packet yeast.

Yield

The highest quality wine comes from low yielding vineyards. Cheap commercial wine comes from high yielding vineyards. Generally in Australia the yield is expressed in tonnes per acre. High quality vineyards crop around two tonnes per acre whilst the flood-irrigated vineyards that produce bulk wine can crop 10 times this figure.

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