Five years ago when I just started my journey into wine, I wish I had a list of key wine terms to know. Wine can be complex and confusing, especially if it is not your primary career. Sometimes getting into wine can seem intimidating and snobbish. That simply shouldn’t be; Wine is for everyone. By creating this glossary of terms, my hope is to help demystify wine, make you feel empowered in your wine choices, and ultimately make well-educated decisions on what you want to drink.
Some of these wine terms are common to all forms of winemaking. Other terms are common to conventional or natural winemaking. I think it’s important to know both terms and research both sides. By knowing the following terms, you will be better able to understand, ask for, and enjoy wines that appeal to you.
ABV: Alcohol By Volume, or simply known as ABV. This abbreviation preceded by a percentage tells you how much of a wine is comprised of alcohol by volume. The average glass of wine contains anywhere from 12-15% ABV.
Alcohol: Alcohol in wine has an important effect on a wine’s taste, mouthfeel, and potential for aging. Wines with a higher alcohol percentage would be perceived as having a fuller mouthfeel. Transversely, those with a lower alcohol percentage would be perceived as having a more watery mouthfeel. If you’re ever at a wine tasting you may hear people refer to wine as either low, medium, or high alcohol. These terms are broken down into the following categories:
- Low Alcohol: Below 11% ABV
- Medium Alcohol: 11-13.9% ABV
- High Alcohol: Greater than 14%
Helpful Hint: Grapes grown in hotter climates typically contain more sugars, which then are turned into alcohol during the fermentation process. Grapes grown in cooler climates tend to have fewer sugars and thus have generally lower alcohol levels.
Biodynamics: The earliest of the Organic Farming movements pioneered by Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamics is a self-sustaining, esoteric farming practice where special attention is paid to cycles of the moon and astrology. There is an emphasis on biodiversity, crop rotation, and carefully prepared fertilizers. There are two certifying bodies for Biodynamic wines: Demeter and Biodyvin. If you’re interested in learning more about biodynamics please see this blog post.
Brettanomyces: Colloquially known as ‘Brett.’ This is a wild strain of yeast that ferments alongside Saccharomyces Cerevisiae. Brett is responsible for earthy, rustic aromas which some winemakers embrace and others view as a flaw. Additional aromas that may be considered flaws are barnyard, horse saddle, or wet bandages.
Carbonic Maceration: A winemaking method that involves placing entire, uncrushed clusters of grapes in a sealed vat which is then topped with Carbon Dioxide (CO2). The grapes then begin fermenting inside the grapes themselves. Once the grapes have reached approximately 2% alcohol, the grape skins then begin to split open and release their juices. Wines made in this style typically have low tannins and fruity flavors.
- Semi-carbonic Maceration: A similar technique but does not involve filling the vat with CO2. The vats are filled with whole cluster grapes. Due to the weight of the grapes at the top of the vat, the bottom clusters are then crushed and their juices released. The free run juices begin fermentation and consequently also produce their own CO2 which fills the vat. The remaining grapes at the top then undergo Carbonic Maceration.
Chaptalization: This technique is named after Jean Antoine Claude Chapal. A method in which sugar is added to unfermented grape must to aide in the fermentation process in order to reach ABV minimums. This practice is illegal in many parts of the world, including the United States, but permitted in cool-climate growing areas such as Germany and France.
Clarification: The process after fermentation where dead yeast cells and proteins are removed. There are several techniques that can be used to achieve this:
- Sedimentation: The process is sedimentation works through the aide of gravity once fermentation is completed. The dead yeast cells collect and settle to the bottom of the fermentation vessel.
- Racking: Once sedimentation has occurred the wine is slowly and gently pumped into a different vessel thus leaving the sediments behind.
- Fining: Hazes and particles are removed from a wine with the aide of a glue-like substance that bonds to certain particles in the wine. This process causes visible clumps to form which are then removed via Filtration. Common fining agents include Bentonite clay, Chitosan, or Kieselsol. Learn more about the different fining methods here.
- Filtration: The physical removal of particles found in a wine via passage through a filter. This process may be completed after fermentation, during maturation, and/or prior to bottling. There are two methods of filtration:
- Surface Filtration: A fine mesh strainer where solids are trapped on the surface of the filter as the wine is passed through. This method is commonly used prior to bottling. Also called Sterile Filtration.
- Depth Filtration: A thick layer of material, these filters are able to handle gross lees and very cloudy wine.
Cork Taint: Also known as TCA or 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole. This is a wine fault that occurs when chlorine comes in contact with the corks. The resulting bottled wine has aromas of wet dog, damp basement, wet cardboard, or a musty cellar. Around 1-3% of all wines suffer from cork taint. If you’re unsure if a wine is corked, leave the wine out. The unpleasant aromas will only increase if left exposed to air.
Grape Must: Freshly pressed grape juice which still contains its seeds and skins.
- Rectified Concentrated Grape Must: Also known as RCGM. This is a colorless, odorless, liquid made neutral in acidity and the levels of Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) are close to zero. All the grape parts have been removed. It is ideal for the augmentation of the sweetness of a wine or to aide in increasing alcohol levels during fermentation if added to the Grape Must.
Lees: Quite simply, dead yeast cells.
- Gross Lees: The sediment that forms at the bottom of a fermentation or storage vessel of wine.
- Fine Lees: These particles are smaller and settle more slowly, wine appears cloudy typically.
Malolactic Fermentation: Commonly abbreviated as MLF or just referred to as Malo. This typically takes place after alcoholic fermentation has completed. Malic acid present in the wine is converted into Lactic acid by the aide of a bacteria called Oenococcus Oeni. MLF is commonly encouraged in non-aromatic grape varieties to give the wine a fuller, rounder, creamier mouthfeel. It also helps soften the perception of acidity. Almost all red wines undergo Malolactic fermentation. Also produces the compound Diacetyl.
- Diacetyl: An organic compound that comes from MLF and oak aging. It is considered to have flavors and aromas of butter.
Minerality: The perceived presence of non-fruit, herb, or spice aromas or flavors that closely resemble an assortment of rocks, chalk, or other organic matter such as soil and its components. Minerality was originally thought to be trace elements of minerals in wine however, this has been debunked by science. The majority of these qualities in wine are due to sulfur compounds which arose during the fermentation process.
Noble Rot: Also referred to as Botrytised. Fully ripe grapes that have been infected by the fungus Botrytis Cinerea. This is essential for the production of Sauternes and Royal Tokaji. In order for this to occur two conditions must be met: 1) the grapes must be fully ripened before infection and 2) the climate in which the grapes are grown must have humid, misty mornings and long dry, sunny afternoons to evaporate moisture. If the conditions are too wet in the afternoon than gray rot will take over. This is the same fungus that can cause gray rot, thus making grapes rotten and not usable. Noble Rot is responsible for making sweet wines with flavors and aromas of honey, chamomile, dried fruit, and citrus zest.
Orange Wine: Also referred to as Skin Contact or Amber wine. Orange wine is a term that was first coined by British importer David A. Harvey in 2004. Orange wine is essentially white wine grapes that have been treated as if they are red wine grapes. The grape skins and seeds remain in contact with the juice during the fermentation process which is what gives orange wine its color, aromas, and texture. Orange wines can be made in numerous ways all around the world.
- Amber Wine: The term commonly used to identify orange wines in the country of Georgia, Slovenia, and even parts of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northeastern Italy. Amber wines are traditionally made using clay vessels called Qvevri which have ancestral roots in the modern-day country of Georgia. The first individual credited with bringing back this style of wine is Josko Gravner. Between the late 1990s and early 2000s Josko abandons conventional winemaking techniques after a trip to California which changed his mind on wine making. He even went as far as importing traditional Georgian Qvevri’s to his home of Oslavia in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Another prominent winemaker who is also responsible for the movement is the late Stanko Radikon. His legacy still lives through his son Sasa Radikon.
- Ramato: This technique of leaving the grape skins of Pinot Grigio (as well as Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano) in contact with the juice during the fermentation process was commonplace in Italy until about the 1950s and 1960s. Santa Margarita was the first Pinot Grigio to remove the skins during the fermentation process and making the traditional Ramato (Pinot Grigio with skin contact) out of style. In recent years, Ramato has been making a comeback in popularity.
- Skin Contact: Simply refers to grape skin contact during the fermentation process of white wines.
Organic Wine: Wine that is made with organically grown grapes and processed using only a permitted list of additives either during the agriculture or vinification process. The EU permits the addition of Sulfur Dioxide where in the united states, this is not permitted.
Oxidized/Oxidation: When wine is exposed to oxygen. This can be deliberate or considered a wine fault depending on style. Typical oxidative notes in a white wine include bruised apples. When considered a fault, the wine will lose fresh fruity aromas and eventually turn brown. This is the opposite of Reduction.
Reduction: This occurs when not enough oxygen is present during the fermentation process. As a result, this produces Sulfer compounds. This typically produces a stinky aroma that can smell like rotten eggs, boiled cabbage, garlic, or even positive traits like passionfruit or flint. In some cases, these aromas may dissipate once the wine is opened for some time. Reduction is not caused by added Sulfites.
Residual Sugar: Also referred to as RS. The sugar that remains in a wine once fermentation stops. A wine with little to no RS would be considered Dry. Higher levels of RS can be equated with sweeter wines.
Saccharomyces Cerevisiae: The most common form of yeast associated with winemaking. In the absence of Oxygen, yeast will convert the sugars in grape juice into alcohol and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) through a process known as fermentation. The higher the sugars the greater potential for alcohol level. Yeast+Sugar=Alcohol & CO2.
Sulfites: Also known as Sulfur Dioxide (SO2). Acts as both an antioxidant and an antiseptic. The process of using sulfites can be traced back to ancient Roman times. It is used to protect freshly harvested grapes and judiciously throughout the winemaking process. There are strict regulations on the amount of SO2 that can be used during the production of wine. In the United States, the highest level of total Sulfites in a wine must not exceed 350mg/L. Any wine containing more than 10 parts per million must label that they contain sulfites. Sweet wines typically have the highest levels of Sulfites because of bacteria and fungi (they like sugar, too). Additional sulfites are added to protect these types of wines. Many natural wines do not use sulfites in their processing.
Sulfur Compounds: High levels of Sulfer compounds are considered a wine fault and produce unpleasant aromas like rotten eggs, boiled cabbage, onions, garlic, open drains, or wet matches. At low levels, aromas like grapefruit and other tropical fruits may be present.
Terrior: A French word that roughly translates to ‘Sense of place.’ This term is often used to describe the total environment in which grapes are grown. The term refers to the land, climate, soil, and traditional winemaking practices in the region. This word does not translate literally into English, its more of a concept.
Vinification: The creation of wine.
Volatile Acidity (VA): To some degree, all wines have some VA. These managed levels add to a wines complexity, fragrance, and flavor profile. However, high levels of VA can give off aromas of vinegar or nail polish remover. Acetic acid is the compound that turns wine into vinegar, thus causing it to spoil.
– Wine and Spirits Educational Trust, Level III (2016)
– Wine Folley, Magnum Edition, Madeline Puckette & Justin Hammack (2018)
– USDA, https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic
– Wine Makers Depot, https://www.winemakersdepot.com/Fining-Agents-Cheat-Sheet-W148.aspx- Natural Wine: An introduction to organic and biodynamic wines made naturally, Legeron MW, Isabelle (2014).