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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

This is the flip of a maritime climate, where you get a big diurnal (daily) temperature change. So, hot days and cold nights during the growing season. 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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

You can have a vineyard in a maritime climate without it overlooking the local surf break, but equally it might. A maritime climate is one that has some influence from the sea. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Reduction/reductive wine

This can be a complicated topic, but essentially when we’re talking in terms of tasting, a reductive wine is one that has a character produced by the absence of oxygen. When tasting, we often associate aromas of sulphides, those struck match characters that people bang on about, and at the negative end, hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg gas). These characters don’t quiet describe the chemical process of reduction, but they do go some way to explaining the reduced characters in wine. A reduced wine might be a little stinky, or a lot, and the fruit will be hard to smell. A swirl in the glass or a stint in a decanter will fix this. And if it doesn’t, then you might have a problem on your hands.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.