Glossary of wine terms & jargon

Please find below a useful list of wine related terms and definitions

Acid

Acid in wine is mainly a feature of white wine, and it is what makes your mouth water when you take that sip.

The two principal acids are tartaric and malic, both of which occur naturally, at varying levels, in black and white grapes. In red wine, most of the acid disappears during ripening and the wine making process, so that acid levels in red wine are not very important in an assessment of quality. In white wine, however, acid plays a big role in defining the wine.

Too much acid, or acid in a clumsily made wine, and you could be forgiven for reaching for your chips rather than your wine glass. Too little acid, and the wine will taste dull and flat. Different grape types have different acidity levels. Albarino and Riesling, for example, have pretty high levels of acid; on the other hand, most Chardonnay grapes have rather low acid. Grapes grown in cooler climates tend to make high acid wines, whereas grapes from hot climates make low acid wines.

Tactics to pursue sufficient acid levels in white wines in hot countries range from adding tartaric acid, picking before peak ripeness or….making red wine. In cool climates, however, winemakers will use malolactic fermentation to reduce the acidity of their wine. Misused, these tactics cannot hide bad wine. Well used, however, and the results can be fantastic. In Chablis, for example, one of the coolest wine-making climates on the planet, the wine-makers use the low-acid Chardonnay grape, apply a subtle level of malolactic fermentation, and deliver world-class wines.

Austere

This can be a comparative term, identifying where one wine is more tannic, dryer, less fruity and leaner in flavour than another. This does not mean it is a poorer wine, just that it is different according to those terms. It can also mean that the wine is too young, and that age will soften the tannins and enrich the fruit. More often than not, however, it is a description of flawed or poor quality wine. If the grapes have been picked underripe, if they have not been sorted properly, if they have been pressed too vigorously, resulting in crushed pips, or if the wine has been rushed into bottle, then the wine can often be described as austere.

Balance


Balance comes from the fruit, the tannins and the acid being in perfect harmony, with no single component overwhelming the others. Such a wine will tend to be graceful, elegant and refined, as well as satisfying, concentrated and long-lived in the mouth. Perfect balance is elusive: much modern wine can be fruity at the expense of structure, resulting in wine which is easy to like at first sip, but is ultimately unmemorable; much old-fashioned wine is thin and tannic, making drinking an ordeal rather than a pleasure.

Barrique

The traditional oak barrel used for maturing wine. Traditionally 225 litres in Bordeaux, and a little bigger in Bourgogne, the size is important, since it defines the surface area in contact with the wine as a proportion of the volume of wine. Some parts of the world use much bigger barrels, and some use much smaller ones, but the barrique is predominant. Different sources of oak have different characteristics, but French oak is most highly prized.

A barrique only has a limited useful life for a wine producer. Typically a Bordeaux producer will use a barrique for only three or four years. Each year, he introduces the same proportion of new barriques, discarding the oldest ones.

A new barrique costs as much as £450, and a four year old one has little value at all, so this is an important cost to the producer. Much wine (most white and a lot of red) is made without ever seeing an oak barrel. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since there are other ways of maturing wine, and there is a lot of decent red wine that is unoaked. Some producers will blend wine at the time of bottling, taking some from barriques and some from stainless steel tanks, to achieve their desired balance.

The purpose of the barrique is twofold. The first is to add a layer of flavour to the wine. When done well, the flavour is unmistakeable but also delicate, adding to but not overpowering the other flavours. The second is to allow tiny volumes of oxygen to pass through the oak and enter the wine over time, which is part of giving the wine its complexity and maturity.

Blending

There are at least five reasons why a wine producer will choose to blend wine from more than one grape varietal to make his final wine.

Firstly, and most importantly, it is about the quality of the wine. One of the characteristics of a high-quality wine is its complexity. Complexity means that there is plenty going on when the wine is in the mouth: range of flavour, depth of flavour, balance between fruit and acid, or fruit and tannin. There are plenty of wines made from a single varietal, and many are very good, or even great, Pinot Noir from Burgundy, for example, but many of the very best wines in the world, Bordeaux or the best Southern Rhone wines, for example, are made from a blend.

Secondly, it is about terroir. Different grape varietals thrive in different conditions. That is why Burgundy is given over to Pinot Noir, and why Albarino dominates in Galicia. However, it can be much more local than that. Different soil, different aspect and different elevation can each call for a different grape, and this can be in vineyards only metres apart. The wine producer will have experimented over the years, and will have established which varietal suits which patch of ground best. Having grown different varietals, he can either make small quantities of different wines, or he can blend them into a wine where the final product is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thirdly, the producer might be wise to hedge his bets. Different varietals perform better or worse than each other, depending on that year's weather conditions. Some handle above average heat better than others, others above average rainfall. Different varietals come into flower earlier or later in the season, and ripen at different times also. This means that the weather could mess up one varietal, (low yield or low quality) but is unlikely to mess them all up in the same year.

Fourthly, a wine producer benefits in practical terms in having different varietals. Since different varietals ripen at different times, then not all his grapes will be ready for picking at the same time. This means he can spread his labour over a longer period, and can manage the flow of grapes into the winery in a more controlled manner.

Lastly, the blend is not necessarily the same each year. This might be a matter of differing yields, but it can also be to do with house style. Every vintage is different from the last, and this is one of the joys of wine. However, many producers seek a continuity of style from year to year, and altering the proportions in the blend can help this process. This is most critical in Champagne, where the notion of house style is critical. In Champagne, the final blend can include different proportions of wine from different varietals, but it can also include wine from different years, but that is another story.

Body

One of those terms which is used often, but which does not necessarily add much to a wine's description. An alternative term for much the same thing is mouth-fill. Does the wine pack a punch? Does it have strong flavours? Does it feel rich or viscous in the mouth? If the answer is yes, then the wine is full-bodied. As you might imagine, this is a term more commonly used to describe red wines.

Body is not necessarily a measure of quality, rather one of style. Certainly a poorly made red wine would be light-bodied if it was thin, sharp and shallow in flavour. However, there are many fine light-bodied red wines: many Pinot Noir, especially those from Alsace, for example, or many of the red wines from North-East Italy, Bardolino for example. Conversely, there are many poor quality red wines that can be described as full-bodied: when a wine-maker has taken a sledge-hammer to crack a nut, and has crushed too many pips and stalks in the must, has over-extracted flavour, added a fistful of oak chips, left too much residual sugar or several other crimes against wine-making, then the wine will certainly be full-bodied, but equally certainly undrinkable.

When you taste a well-made full-bodied red wine, you will be satisfied by the range of flavour, the depth, the warmth of the alcohol, and length of time the flavour stays in the mouth. This is a deeply satisfying experience, but don't forget there is a time and a place for lighter, more delicate wine as well.

Carbonic maceration

Most famously used in the Beaujolais, this is a vinification method where carbon dioxide replaces air. Uncrushed whole bunches of grapes are placed in the vat, the vat is sealed, and carbon dioxide is pumped into the vat, replacing air and so excluding oxygen. The carbon dioxide permeates the grapes' skin and fermentation takes place within the uncrushed grapes. The result is exceptionally fruity wine, with low tannin levels and structure. At its best, wine produced in this way is a joy to drink when very young, bursting with red berry fruit flavours. When done badly, the result can taste like boiled sweets, or even bubble-gum.

Concentration

A concentrated wine is one where all the flavours are prominent. It does not necessarily mean rich or full-bodied. A light-bodied red wine, such as much Burgundy, can display immensely concentrated flavours. Nor does it necessarily mean high in alcohol.

Cork or Closure

The primary purpose of a cork, or other closure, is to do just that: close the bottle. The secondary purpose of a cork, not fulfilled by other types of closure, is to contribute to the successful aging of the wine.

The best quality cork, used in the best quality wines that benefit from aging, a Bordeaux for example, is of a particular density, and cut to a particular, long, length. Cork is a natural, porous product. If the bottle is kept upright for any length of time, the cork will dry out, the pores will open, and excessive volumes of air will enter the bottle, causing it to turn to vinegar. That is why corked bottles are kept on their side. The wine in the bottle keeps the cork moist, and so limits the porousness of the cork. However, porousness is not reduced to zero. Tiny amounts of oxygen come into contact with the wine. Over time, the oxygen contributes to the successful aging of the wine, producing wine of great complexity, structure and softness.

Many producers use a shorter cork, or a cork of a different density (less or more dense than the best). This still works very well, but the quality of the wine may come under threat, if it is kept for many years before drinking. If the wine is designed to be drunk young, or only a couple of years after bottling, then a second rank cork is just fine.

Other producers use a composite cork. This is a cork made of chips of cork and glue, much like MDF instead of solid wood. These composite corks are fine, if the wine is to be drunk young, but they do have a high failure rate, if the wine is kept. This is probably due to their ability to make a seal being less than a top quality cork.

Still more producers use a plastic cork. These have the same merits and demerits as a composite cork.

An increasingly large proportion of producers use a screw-top closure. These are brilliant at what they do. They create a very reliable seal; they do not require the bottle to be kept on its side; they do not require a corkscrew. Most modern wine, red as well as white, is made to be drunk as soon as it is bottled. The wine is not designed to improve in the bottle, nor will it. In that case, why use a cork? Any oxygenation will not add to the quality of the wine, and the risk of failure is greater with a cork than with a screw-top. The screw-top had a burden of snobbery to overcome, given that screw-tops were first used on appalling quality wine, but this is no longer so. Many quality-conscious producers are using a screw-top in preference to a cork, and they are right to do so.

A rule of thumb is: if the wine will benefit from bottle aging, and is to be drunk, say, more than four years after vintage, then look out for a long cork. Anything else, a screw-top is at least acceptable, and probably better than the alternatives.

Extraction

This is the process of extracting just the right amount of flavour and colour from the grape skins during and around early fermentation. An analogy with brewing tea works well: don't let the tea brew for long enough, and you get a cup of insipid, flavourless tea; let the tea brew too long, and you get something over-flavoured and unpleasant. So it is with wine. The analogy can be taken further. Some people swear by stirring the tea in the pot; others wouldn't dream of it. All winemakers do some stirring, as a part of managing fermentation. Some do as little as possible, seeking to maintain delicacy, others seek richness by regular stirring.

Fruit-forward

This means that the fruit flavours are the first and most noticeable flavours to hit your senses. Generally this is a good thing, and is a significant differentiator between modern and old-fashioned wine. Fruit is essential to wine, and essential to variety, since one wine will be as different to another through its fruit flavours, just as an apple is different from an orange. As with anything in wine, if the fruit is overdone, or if there is nothing other than fruit, then that is what you have: alcoholic fruit juice, not wine.

Jammy

Some fruit naturally tastes jammier than others. For example, plums and blackberries are jammy, cherries and blackcurrants less so. The difference can be due to the grape varietal, or it can be due to ripeness, with jamminess increasing with ripeness. A jammy flavour will spoil the wine if it is the result of over-ripe grapes, or grapes grown in over-hot conditions. Then the wine will taste baked, cooked, caramelised…..like jam.

Mouth-fill

This term describes the combination of the range of flavours sensed in the wine, the sense that these flavours emerge over time in the mouth, revealing themselves one after the other, and then the length of time those flavours stay in the mouth after the wine is swallowed. Ask yourself: what flavours can I detect; does the wine make my mouth water; am I getting that drying sensation around my teeth and gums?

Oak

We are fortunate that the use of oak in wine-making has found a new equilibrium across the world. This was not always so, say 15 years ago.

When done badly, in white or red wine, the use, or over-use, of oak gives wine that tastes of bananas or pear drops, in the case of bad Chardonnay, or vanilla, in the case of bad Shiraz, for example. Most of these wines are, thankfully, consigned to history.

When done well, mostly in red wine, the judicious use of oak gives a layer of flavour additional to the fruit, and, along with tannin, a structure to the wine that takes it well past a basic alcoholic fruit juice. These days, it tends to be done pretty well, even in modestly priced wines.

The only good way to deliver this virtuous effect of oak is by maturing the wine in oak barrels, usually barriques. The wine maker controls the length of time the wine spends in barrels, the age of the barrel, with the value of the barrel diminishing over time, the volume of the barrel, which controls the surface area as a proportion of volume, and the proportion of barrel-aged wine in his final blend.

The problem was that oak was, and still is, expensive, at about £450 for a 225 litre barrel. If a barrel is used four times, that means a cost of 50p per litre of wine. Many wine-makers wanted the oak flavour in their wine, but without the cost, which is a natural enough aspiration. The most common way was to add chips of oak wood to the stainless steel tank. The idea was that the small volume of chips would leak out their flavour disproportionately quickly, compared to an oak barrel. One problem was that some producers added far too many chips, resulting in a massive over-flavouring of the wine. The second problem was that little time was given to the process, resulting in harsh, woody flavours. Ultimately, no one really made it work well enough to match the traditional barrel, and so the use of oak chips has reduced massively

A perfectly drinkable, young, fruit-forward, light red wine will have been made entirely in stainless steel tanks, and will never have seen oak. This is a perfectly respectable, modern, way of making wine.

A better quality, though still affordable, Bordeaux blend red wine, for example, will likely have spent 18 months maturing in barriques, after initial vinification in stainless steel.

Quite a high proportion of Chardonnay is made using oak, and, when well done, this is heavenly. Not a lot of white wine in general benefits from oak.

Reduction

Technically, this means the absence of oxygen. Some oxygen is required to fuel fermentation and to develop flavours, especially in terms of tannin. Too much oxygen and you get oxidation, which will turn your wine into vinegar. Too little oxygen and you can get, at best, a dullness and flatness to the aroma of the wine, and, at worst, an unpleasant smell of sulphur, even stinkbombs. While unusual, this type of smell is reduction at its worst.

Structure

One of those terms often used, but equally often, vaguely understood. It can also mean different things to different people.

Most people use structure as a way to describe the total effect of all the elements within a wine. Typically, a wine's structure is the summation of: acid, tannin, alcohol, body and finish. In other words, everything beyond the fruit.

Wine is often described as "fruit-forward". This is not necessarily a bad descriptor, since modern wine-making techniques have been successful in accentuating the range of fruit flavours from different grape varieties, to the benefit of us all, since it means wine-drinking has become more varied, and to the benefit of the market, since it has been a key driver of the growth in wine drinking in the last 15 years or so.

However, "fruit-forward" can be a negative term, if it means there is nothing else to the wine. Such wines do not excite the taste buds, do not cause that lovely salivation caused by acid, do not give that satisfying gum-drying sensation of tannin, and do not live long in the mouth after swallowing. A disappointing wine such as this can be said to lack structure, or lack complexity.

"Over-structured" can also be a negative term, when a wine is dominated by oak or tannin, or if the acid makes you wince, or if the wine is so alcoholic the heat in your throat kills off any other flavour. At its worst, the wine-maker has played so many fun and games with his grapes that all the fruit has gone, and is disguised by clumsy, brutal flavours.

Better quality wines have a detectable structure, and, of course, this structure is not the same in every wine. When you taste two well-structured wines side by side, and you start to describe the differences between the wines, then you are describing structure.

Tannin

When you taste red wine, and you feel a drying sensation, particularly around your gums, you are experiencing the effect of tannin.

Tannins are chemical compounds found on the skin, in the stem and in the seeds of the grape. Some tannins can also transfer from an oak barrel, especially a new one, to the wine. Tannins change in the grape during the ripening process, and in the wine during the aging process. More important than the impact of aging, at least for most wines, is the care taken during the wine making process.

Grapes must be harvested only when they are perfectly ripe, otherwise the tannins will be harsh and disagreeable. On the sorting table, care must be taken to remove individual unripe grapes, and to de-stem the bunches before the grapes enter the press. Over-enthusiastic pressing of the grapes will result in excess tannins being released from crushed pips.

This all sounds as though tannins are a bad thing, but that is not so.

If the wine is badly made, then the harsh tannins will hit the mouth like a slurp of after-shave. A bit better is a wine that is often described as a bit rustic – the tannins are forceful, but not necessarily unpleasant. At the other extreme comes a wine with little or no tannin feel in the mouth. Here the winemaker has used low-tannin grapes in the first place, and grown them in a pretty hot place, often with irrigation, sometimes to the point of over-ripeness. When badly done this wine will taste jammy rather than fruity, and may also feel flabby. Even if you like the taste, it will not stay long in your mouth. However, when this sort of wine-making is done well, the wine will be fruity, soft and easy to like, if not particularly memorable. This describes much modern red wine from all corners of the world.

However, you will be rewarded if you seek out red wine where the maker has got the tannin right. Tannin plays a vital role in making a wine taste satisfyingly complex, and in extending the pleasure of the taste and feel of the wine in the mouth. When the wine stays in the mouth, the pleasure is extended, but also this gives time for the whole range of flavours to be enjoyed. Good quality red wine will always have a judicious dose of gentle tannin. Great wines come from winemakers who make an art out of taming and exploiting the tannin in their grapes.

Terroir

Health warning: this is a term that can be over-used, over-blown, or have far too much mystery attributed to it. To listen to those who overdo it, you might think that terroir is something magical, mystical or super-human. If the producer is going pretentiously over the top with terroir-related claims, then there is quite possibly an inverse relationship with the quality of the wine. It can also be an empty term. If the producer is from a large commercial operation, taking grapes or wines from a wide range of locations and in large volumes, particularly from heavily-irrigated vineyards, and blending them into a £7 a bottle brand, then he may well be making a perfectly drinkable product that we will all have in our larder most of the time. However, if that producer starts blathering on about the uniqueness of his terroir, then you would be well-advised to hit the mute button.

So what does it mean?

On one level, terroir is, quite practically, the sum of the effects of a range of physical variables.

Soil is the most obvious one. Grapes for wine thrive in poor soil. If you grow grapes in fertile soil, you will get huge yields of big, fat, watery, tasteless, low-sugar grapes. These grapes will make huge quantities of tasteless wine – to be avoided. On the other hand, if you grow grapes in poor quality soil, particularly soil that does not retain water well, then the vine has to go to work to put roots down deep into the ground in the search for nutrients and water, resulting in small yields of grapes with massive concentration of flavour and sugar. This is where the great wine comes from. This is one reason you see vineyards clinging to unpromising hillsides, struggling to thrive, but delivering wine of heavenly quality. Examples that spring to mind are the Douro valley in Portugal, the precipitous riverbanks of the Mosel in Germany and the ancient terraces in Piedmont that give us Barolo. So here is the basis of terroir. As the vines put roots down through layers and layers of different soils, then a series of unique combinations is made, and each of those combinations makes a unique wine.

Other effects of terroir are more visible. Altitude has a big effect. Great wine can be made at sea-level (Muscadet, Bordeaux, Rias Baixas), or at significant altitude, especially Mendoza in Argentina. So there is no correct altitude, just different altitudes, and that is the point of terroir – difference. Aspect has a significant effect. A slope facing south and east (in the Northern Hemisphere) will benefit more directly from sunshine than another slope. However, again, there is no correct aspect, just different ones. Another point about aspect is that tiny differences can make a significant difference, and this is a big part of why one vineyard can have a different terroir than its next-door neighbour, even if separated by yards.

So does it matter?

The differences can be small, and so, maybe they do not matter much. However, if you visit a winery, and taste two of their wines where the only difference is terroir, it is remarkable how different those two wines can be, and that is fascinating.

Related article from the New Scientist