Who knew something as simple as fermented grape juice would result in such a complex world of wine lingo? The more you understand about wine, the more you can enjoy and appreciate it. If you’re new to wine or even an old pro we hope this list of wine terms serves as a helpful resource.
Terroir is a French word (pronounced ‘tare-wah’) that encompasses all the elements of nature that affect the wine. This include the soil, weather, elevation of the vineyard, slope of the vineyard and nearby rivers, mountains and vegetation.
Lagare is a term in Portugal for the traditional open vats where people crush grapes with their feet. This is not commonly done today. Portugal is one of the last places where traditional lagares are used with high-end wines. It is believed that crushing grapes in this manner is the best method for a high amount of skin contact with juice without crushing the seeds. Crushed seeds give wine a very bad flavor. In case you’re wondering, the process of fermentation completely purifies wine. ;)
When wine goes through malolactic fermentation the malic acids (responsible for green apple or citrus flavors) go through a chemical process that turns them into lactic acids (responsible for creamy, soft flavors). Conducting this process in oak barrels (as opposed to steel tanks) allows both red and white wine to achieve more complex flavors like vanilla, caramel, and crème brulee in addition to the flavors of soft fruit.Not all wine goes through malolactic fermentation, but if the winemaker choose to, it is done after the grapes go through primary fermentation (when sugar turns to alcohol) and before the wine is aged.
Lees is the sediment left over in the wine after the grape skins have been removed from the juice. It is made up of the remaining tiny bits of grape skin, pulp, dead yeast cells and proteins. The longer the lees are in the wine the more complexity it will develop. Also, the longer the lees are in the wine the higher the risk that the lees could develop a bacteria that would make the wine go bad. So the art of an experienced winemaker involves knowing exactly when to remove the lees to maximize complexity and flavors and minimize the associated risk. They are always removed before bottling.
Some winemakers choose to age their wine in oak. The first benefit of oak aging is that it allows tiny amounts of oxygen in that help the wine age slowly. This allows the wine to develop complexity. The second benefit is that the oak passes on flavors to the wine including spice, coffee, leather, vanilla, licorice and many others. Some winemakers want the benefit of oak without the flavors it adds, so they choose to use oak that has already been used 1 to 3 times. Oak barrels normally come from France, America or Hungary and cost anywhere between $800-$1600 new.Often wine is aged in steel tanks without ever seeing any oak, while some spends time in both. Time in the tank helps smooth out a wine by allowing it to settle and develop.
Wine almost always has fruit flavors, but that doesn’t mean it’s balanced. In order to taste good a wine must be balanced, meaning there isn’t anything sharp or awkward when you drink it. The components that balance wine are: alcohol, acids and tannins. At the right levels these three components create harmony in the mouth. Winemakers can attempt to manipulate balance by adding sugar (which turns into alcohol), acid or tannin powder. The best wines are made from high quality grapes that achieve their balance in the vineyard without additives.
Acidity in wine isn’t often mentioned in casual, non-expert wine conversations. Acid has a big influence on a wine’s taste. Too much acid makes a wine taste tart or sharp. Too little acid results in a flat wine. Winemakers can add acid, normally tartaric acid (cream of tartar) if they need to. They can also remove acid. The best wines have very little additives and are made with grapes that have the perfect amount of natural acids in them already.
FINING & FILTERING
When grape skins are removed from the juice some bits and pieces of grape pulp and skin remain. These particles can be dangerous impurities in the bottle and should be limited. Fining and filtering are two methods that remove these potentially dangerous particles. Unfortunately, fining and filtering can also take out the delicious “alive” part of the wine. The challenge is to make the wine as purely as possible so it needs little fining and filtering. Winemakers at small vineyards are passionate about keeping as much of their grapes in the wine. Mass produced wineries can’t risk something going wrong with the wine so it is normal for them to excessively fine and filter their wine (as well as use additives to artificially get the flavors and tannins they want). Some winemakers like the challenge of creating a pure wine without fining or filtering. This is rare. These wines can only be made in small batches and are typically very high-end.
Sediment is usually a sign of a very high quality wine. Two types of sediment are common, crystalline sediment and solid sediment. Someone who only buys red wine on the shelf in a grocery or liquor store is probably not used to seeing sediment in wine and could worry upon their first encounter with it. Sediment is a good thing. It means the wine has lots of natural components to it and was carefully made.
This occurs in both high-end red and white wine although it’s normally unnoticeable in red wine because it is stained red. Sometimes you’ll see the red crystals formed on the cork when you open the bottle. In white wine it can look like millions of tiny diamonds, sometimes mistaken for glass. This sediment comes from the tartrates which are formed from the tartaric acid that is in some grapes. Crystalline sediment is found in high-end wines because it is expensive and time consuming to make a wine that is not excessively processed and filtered.
Old vines can produce truly excellent, concentrated, complex wine. The older the vine, the fewer grapes it produces. The result is a small amount of highly concentrated and nutritious grapes. A grape vine must be cared for its whole life in order for it to evolve into a special old vine. A poor quality young vine will grow into a poor quality old vine.
Minimal intervention winemaking, contrary to how it sounds, is a very specialized skill. Much know-how goes into creating a great wine without excessive modern technologies and additives and chemicals.