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Wine 101: unpacking some of the technical language used in wine

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 terms will help the conversation flow. So here, on this page, we’re compiling a short glossary of some wine terms.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Confected

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.