Gastronomy 101, a blog about food and Los Angeles restaurants

WINE: Advanced Wine Lingo

Knowing the basics of wine is fine. But we all know the real reason why we are trying to learn more about wine in the first place. So we can look cool. Anybody can enjoy wine as long as they have taste buds and they don't have to know anything about the wine to have fun drinking it. But if you can also talk about your wine, then you alse seem super-suave and smart. Therefore, I'm going to throw down a little bit of advanced wine terminology that you can sprinkle in your wine conversations and look really educated.

Viticulture: The agricultural process of growing grapes for wine.

The conversion of juice into wine by fermentation.

Only if a wine producer does both of the above processes themself can they call their wine estate bottled. Many wine producers do not grow their own grapes, and some neither grow the grapes nor convert them into wine. They buy wine in bulk and create a proprietary blend in stead.

Microclimate: The local climate of a particular site. And when I say particular, I mean particular, such as a certain hillside or portion of a valley. In wine, if a label or wineseller refers to a microclimate, they are talking about the microclimate of the vineyard where the grapes in that particular wine were grown.

The uppermost spreading branchy layer of plants. Canopy management is how grape growers get the leaves of the vines and thereafter the fruit into the best position to maximize sunlight exposure of the grapes, generally by attaching the vines to wires and trellises in a certain pattern.

The ripeness of the grape is how mature and how close to full flavor it is. How long it takes a grape to ripen is a function of the climate. In cooler climates, grapes take longer to ripen and sometimes may not reach full ripeness at all. In warmer climates, grapes will ripen faster, but may sometimes ripen too quickly.

Low Yields:
For quality wine, the less grapes produced per acre, the better. If the vines produce just a few pounds of grapes each, then the flavor is concentrated in those grapes, thus producing a high quality grape must that will probably make a great wine. Growers reduce the yield of a vine by pruning, usually in the winter. If a wine claims to be from low-yield vines and it tastes thin or watery then it's probably an exaggerated claim.

Fermentation: The process by which juice turns into wine.

The aging process that wine goes through between the time it's made and the time it's consumed. During this time, the wine becomes richer and more pleasant in aroma and flavor.

Barrel-Fermented: The process of fermenting wine in small barrels rather than vats ro tanks. The barrels are usually made of oak and are generally around 60 gallons in size. Barrel fermentation is more expensive and more unpredictable, but is thought to bring complexity, flavor, oak characteristics, and better aging capacity. On the other hand, barrel-fermented wine loses fruit flavor. It is usually white wines that are barrel-fermented.

Barrel-aged wines are fermented in a stainless steel or other inert vessel and then aged for a period of time in wooden (usually oak) barrels.

IMPORTANT FACT: Why do you need to know about this? Because contrary to logic, white wines that are barrel fermented actually taste less oaky than wines that are only aged in the barrel. This is because juice interacts differently with the oak than wine does.

Lees: Deposits of residual yeast and other particles that settle to the bottom of the vat after fermentation and aging. Normally, the wine is transferred to another container and this sediment is left behind. Some wines are aged on the lees for a while, which gives a yeasty flavor and aroma.

or Malolactic: Malolactic conversion is a process of change in wine where tart malic acid is changed into softer lactic acid. This can occur naturally, but in commercial winemaking, the producer will start the process by introducing the desirable bacteria, or prevent the process to maintain a tarter, more acidic profile in the wine. Red wines almost always undergo the malolactic conversion process, whereas with white wines, the producer determines whether to intiate the process or prevent it, depending on the desired flavor of the finished wine. ML will give a buttery flavor to a white wine, but will diminish its fresh fruitiness.

A measure of the acidity of the wine. The higher the pH, the lower the acidity, and the lower the pH, the higher the acidity.

Soft tannins:
"Good tannins." Soft tannins are achieved by harvesting fully ripe grapes, controlling fermentation time and temperature, along with other techniques.

BONUS: Wine terms that don't have a particular meaning. These terms don't necessarily mean the wine is any better or more special than any other:

  • handcrafted
  • artisanal
  • limited release
  • select


You're really getting into this wine research. I appreciate the educating effort.

said by Chubbypanda at 11:49 PM Delete

I would ask what the key is to tasting all this variation -- any insight on flavor wheels and the like?

You can't teach palate, can you?

(DID I FINALLY SPELL that word right?)

said by Jeremy at 2:11 PM Delete

Well ... I suck at that sort of thing. The best way to understand it that way is to go taste wines with a person who can tell you the characteristics of the wine you are tasting.

For the most part, flavor descriptions are pretty literal: oaky, yeasty, fruity, buttery--those all mean just what they say--flavors of oak, yeast, fruit and butter/butterscotch.

The best way to understand the difference between wines that have more abstract descriptions, like harsh, bright, mellow, round, soft, etc. is to take a fairly young wine and get one of those magic wine-ager devices, or borrow one ... whatever. Taste the wine as is and then after being subjected to the device. The wine ager neutralizes tannins and other harsh acids and in effect softens and mellows the wine (which supposedly replicates how the wine would taste if aged naturally). Being able to taste the difference within the same wine is probably the only way I was able to understand it--that difference between harsh, acidic, tannic and soft, mellow, round.

said by KT at 3:16 PM Delete

I just love the homework assignments from these lessons! Keep on going teach!

said by Acme Instant Food at 12:07 PM Delete

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