Wine terms everyone should know
We all have our favourites and know a wine we like when we taste it, but it is often much harder to describe them, right? Whether you are an avid wine drinker who needs to brush up on terminology or would simply like to decipher the wine descriptions on the tasting notes of a menu, the following wine terms will help you!
A naturally occurring component of every wine; it describes the liveliness or crispness of the wine. Acidity gives wine its tart and sour taste similarly to that of lemon or lime juice. So when someone describes a wine as being crisp, bright or fresh, or even sour (but not bitter) they are referring to the acidity present in the wine.
The French word for stirring settled lees (see below) back into the wine. Using this technique in winemaking helps to balance the wine and is a wonderful tool for quality chardonnay winemakers.
Body (Light, Medium, Full)
Body describes the weight and fullness of the wine on your palate (in your mouth) as a result of the many characteristics that work together on your tongue. Wine body breaks down into three categories: light, medium or full bodied. Light bodied wines have lower alcohol levels, lower tannin and higher acidity and will generally sit in your mouth with a longer aftertaste. Medium bodied is mostly used to describe red wines, such as a light red with lower tannin and likely lower alcohol level around 12 to 13.5%. Full bodied wines fill your palate with their texture and intensity – they have high tannin levels and may have an alcohol level above or around 14%.
A wine that is made from more than one grape varietal. For example, a “GSM” blend will contain a mixture of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre and is a classic example of a Rhône Valley blend as some of the most common grapes grown in that region of France. In South Africa, legislation dictates that blends may list varieties only if they were vinified separately before being blended. Percentages need not to be indicated but the varieties must appear in descending order according to volume. According to the legal requirements of South African wine: “All cultivars must be indicated except where two or more cultivars constitute 80% or more of the blend and each of those two or more cultivars consists of 20% or more of the blend – then only those two or more cultivars may be indicated in descending order.”
A blend made up of the five traditional grape varietals grown in Bordeaux in France, which are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. In Bordeaux itself t is most common to have two and at most three of each varietal in a Bordeaux blend. However, in South Africa – and in particular common to New World Wines – it is common to see between three and five of the grapes. (A Bordeaux white also exists but is less commonly referred to – consisting of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon predominantly, sometimes with a splash of Muscadelle.)
Worth mentioning alongside a Bordeaux wine as Burgundy is the region of France whose winelands specialise in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (comparable in South Africa to Hermanus and Walker Bay). Burgundy winemaking philosophy tends to favour producing wine that the terroir lends itself best to at that particular time, rather than aiming to produce a constant standard year after year.
This is South Africa’s take on the Bordeaux Blend with, you guessed it, our local grape Pinotage, instead of or in addition to the usual Bordeaux suspects, which are equally popular in regions like Stellenbosch, famous for its big, bold red wines. A true Cape Blend requires from 30% to 70% of Pinotage as a component to qualify as such.
A wine described as complex displays numerous flavours, odours and nuances that work together to distinctly change and transform the flavour from the moment you sip to when you swallow. Often people refer to these wines as layered.
If a wine is described to have “depth”, it is referring to characteristics that are noted in the aroma, taste, texture and finish, again associated to complexity with multiple layers and a long-lasting linger.
Dry wines have no perceptible taste of sugar. To say that a wine is dry means the wine is not sweet. Most still wines fall into this category. During winemaking, most of the fruit’s sugar converts to alcohol, making a dry wine. Not all sugar is fermented, leaving a sweetness behind, which a winemaker balances with acidity to get the perfect taste. Dry wines can contain up to about 10 grams of sugar per bottle but still taste dry and be classified as such.
Earthy – or sometimes called savoury or even herbaceous – is quite the opposite of fruit forward. The flavours fall into the bitter or sour spectrum and often has an odour or flavour quite similar to that of damp soil, green bell pepper or grass.
The term fruit forward is used to describe wines that fall into the sweet fruit category – however, it refers more to the sweet smell of the wine than the taste. When talking about red wine, we get flavours such as rasberry, cherry, blackberry, blueberry, jam and toffee. In the case of white wine we get peach, mango, pineapple, caramel and vanilla flavours.
The process of fermentation turns the grape sugars into alcohol by adding yeast. During fermentation, the yeast transforms the sugars present in the juice into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide (gas).
A wine’s finish refers to the sensations that take place in your mouth after you swallow a mouthful of wine. Wine typically leaves a residual taste in your mouth that’s either sweet, tart, bitter, smoky – or some combination of the above. Great wines have rich, long, complex finishes.
Lees is a winemaking term that is used to describe deposits of dead yeast or residual yeast and other particles that sink to the bottom of a wine (much like cells at the bottom of an unshaken bottle of orange juice) after the process of fermentation and aging. These can add flavour and are often favoured if the grapes are handpicked and no other impurities (like bugs or sticks) have crept in.
Maceration is a winemaking process whereby the colour, flavour and tannins are transferred from the grape skins to the wine juice, also known as “must”. This technique is used when producing red wines where the grape skins and seeds are left to soak in their own juices so that they soften for the purpose of increasing the colour, flavour and tannin structure in the wine.
Also called malo or MLF, this is a winemaking process that reduces acid and releases carbon dioxide, resulting in a creamier wine with an almost oil-like texture or butteriness. Coming from the names of two types of acid, malic acid and lactic acid (the same acid found in milk), malolactic fermentation happens when tart malic acid (naturally present in wine) is converted to softer, creamier lactic acid, by adding bacterial species to the wine called Oenoccocus Oeni. In fact, MLF is not, technically speaking, fermentation at all since it is not yeast that is added to the wine but bacteria. Either way, the result is certainly smooth.
Méthode Cap Classique or MCC, is a South African term used to describe sparkling wines made by the same classic method of undergoing secondary fermentation in the bottle – the same way French Champagne is made.
This is a tasting term denoting smells and flavours caused by barrel-aging. In white wine, such as a chardonnay, it adds butter, vanilla, butterscotch and sometimes coconut. In red wine, such as a cabernet sauvignon which may be oaked to reduce heavy tannins, it adds flavours often referred to as baking spices, vanilla and sometimes dill.
In South Africa, for a wine to be considered a “single varietal” it must contain at least 85% of the stated variety by legislation. Any less than that and it is legally classified as a blend.
Tannins are compounds in wines that leave a bitter, dry and puckery feeling in the mouth but which contribute to the taste and body of red wine. The wine can either have a low, medium or high tannin level. For example, a well-known red wine variety with lower tannin is Pinot Noir and a higher tannin variety is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Terroir refers to the land where the grapes are grown. This includes the complete natural environment: the climate, soil, tradition and terrain. The terroir lends unique characteristics to the grape that could not be imparted by any other region. A really sophisticated palate can thus discern from the taste of the wine the exact region it comes from, right down to the particular block.
Typicity or typicality is how much a wine tastes like the region where it was grown.
Wine of Origin
The term wine origin – or ‘W.O’ as it is sometimes displayed on the tasting notes, for example W.O Western Cape – is used to indicate that the grapes from which the wine was made come from that specific area (and not blended with grapes from different regions).