We’ve all been there. Sitting in a wine tasting room and wondering by ourselves when the tasting presenter walks away from the table- “What on earth did he just say?” From tannins to lees to blanc de blancs, I have to admit that the wine industry has not always made it easy for consumers to understand what they are talking about. As the “wine language” was developed in Old World wine countries (mostly European countries that have been making wine for many centuries), a lot of the terms are in French, Italian and Spanish. But there are also quite a few scientific terms that wine presenters sometimes use that can be just as confusing as something spoken in another language. To the average person these terms and phrases might seem intimidating and that is why I decided to write this article. These are only a few of the most common, but yet confusing, terms that I get asked to explain often to my friends and family.
Anthocyanins: A chemical pigment found in plants that give leaves and fruit a red, blue or purple colour. Skins of red grapes are abundant in these compounds and they are responsible for the colour of red wine.
Aroma: The smell of a wine that is sensed by sniffing through the nose. Usually refers to the smell that is inherent to the grapes as opposed to smells that developed through barrel aging (referred to as bouquet).
Barrique: An oak barrel that is used for aging wine and holds approximately 225 L.
Blanc de blanc: A white wine that is made entirely from white grapes as opposed to a white wine that also contains red grape varieties.
Blanc de noir: A white wine that is made from red or black grape varieties. The juice is squeezed from the grapes and fermented without the skins. These wines may also have a light pink hue.
Bordeaux blend: A wine that is made by blending at least two of the traditional grape varieties that are grown in the Bordeaux region of France. These include Cabernet franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit verdot.
Brut: Refers to a very dry sparkling wine or Champagne.
Claret: A term that refers to red wines from the Bordeaux region of France.
Cooper: A person that is skilled in the art of making wine barrels.
Decanting: The process of gently pouring wine from the original bottle to a different container (called a decanter or carafe) to separate the wine from its sediment and allows the wine to be oxidised. It is important to let the bottle stand upright for a period of time to allow the sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle before decanting.
Demi-sec: A French term that refers to a semi-sweet wine.
Enology or Oenology: The science and study of winemaking.
Fermentation: The process that turns grape juice into wine through the conversion of sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast.
Fortified wine: A wine that has an alcohol content between 15 and 22 percent alcohol by volume which was obtained by alcoholic fermentation of grape juice and the addition of brandy or another wine spirit.
Late harvest: A term used to describe wines that are made from grapes that were harvested later than normal, usually with a higher sugar content (Brix). These wines are usually sweet, dessert-style wines.
Lees: The sediment that remains in the tank or barrel during and after fermentation has completed. This includes dead yeast cells, grape seeds, skins, stems, pulp and harmless tartrate crystals. Usually the gross lees is separated from the wine through a process called racking after fermentation has concluded. In some cases wine is left to age for an extended period whilst still in contact with the dead yeast cells (fine lees). This can enhance a wine’s complexity and add richness.
Legs: The viscous droplets that can be seen on the inside of a wine glass when the wine is swirled. It usually indicates a wine that is full-bodied with a fair amount of alcohol.
Method Cap Classique (MCC): The traditional method that is used to make sparkling wines that are fermented in the bottle. This is the same method that is used to make Champagne.
Noble rot: A mould called Botrytis cinerea that grows on ripe wine grapes under specific climatic conditions. It dehydrates the grapes which causes the sugars and flavours inside the berries to concentrate. The wines made from these grapes are rich, complex and usually has a high sugar content.
Oxidized: A term that describes a wine that has been exposed to oxygen (air) and has turned a brownish colour, lost its freshness and now has a honeyed or Sherry-like character.
Resveratrol: A natural chemical compound that is found in wine and grape skins as well as many other foods including blueberries and peanuts. It has been shown to have many health benefits including protection against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, type-2 diabetes and many others.
Rosé: These are wines that have a pink or salmon-coloured hue. They are made from red grapes that have had limited contact with the grape skins, giving rise to the lighter colour.
Tannins: Natural chemical compounds that are most prominent in red wines and gives wine a “rough” taste. It is mostly derived from the skins, stems and seeds of grapes, but also from oak barrels. It is important in adding structure and facilitates the aging of wine.
Terroir: A French term that is used to describe the multi-faceted interaction and relationship between the vine, soil, climate and topography of a specific site that influences the ultimate wine character.
Vintage: Refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested and the wine was made.
Viticulture: The science, study and cultivation of grapes and grapevines.
Umami: Considered to be the fifth taste sensation. Usually referred to as the “savoury” taste as it is found in most savoury foods including mushrooms, cured meats and soy sauce. It is also sometimes tasted in wines.
Hopefully now you will be able to decipher exactly what your wine presenter is talking about at your next wine tasting. And if you forget or still don’t know, ASK! There was little I enjoyed more when I worked in a tasting room than sharing the knowledge I had and I’m sure most other tasting room staff feel the same. Besides, at some stage, we didn’t know anything either.