Yes, there are people out there that get off on the pomp and ceremony of drinking wine and showing off their wine knowledge. Yes, grounded wine drinkers dislike these people as much as you do.
Like so many fields and interests, the world of wine is booby-trapped with jargon. That winemakers often use a combination of French and English doesn’t help novice drinkers. This glossary is less about technical terms such as “battonage” and “autolysis” and more about the language heard in bars, restaurants and bottle shops: the sorts of words you might use to tell someone what you look for a glass.
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As fun as it is to describe wines in forensic detail – I’ve been in tastings where people have likened a wine’s aroma to “fresh-baked blueberry muffins” – it’s perhaps most useful to think about wine in terms of weight or “oomph”. Or in wine-speak, its body. A light or medium-bodied wine, for example, might be something such as a delicate pinot noir or fine-boned riesling. A muscular cabernet sauvignon or a ripe chardonnay, on the other hand, are on the heavier or bigger-bodied end of the spectrum.
Also: how does a wine feel in the mouth? Is it juicy? Is there crunchy acidity? Is it silky and seamless? Does the wine grip the inside of your mouth and dry it out? (That’s tannin, a compound extracted from grapes that softens as wines age.)
Many of the terms here belong to the realm of lo-fi, “natural” wine: a concept that, at its simplest, is about creating wines that best express their site and where the grapes are grown. Classic wines, of course, are still very much relevant, but the widespread use of these terms reflects the growing interest in this new wine movement.
I understand this sounds daunting, so here’s some good news: learning about wine is one of the more enjoyable forms of extra credit study you can undertake. And the more you “practise” (i.e. drink), the more you learn.
A clay vessel used in Eastern European countries to ferment wine (and known in Georgia as kvevri). While most wines are fermented and/or aged in barrels, a growing number of winemakers are experimenting with amphora and other older stone-based materials such as concrete eggs. Fans believe the composition and shape of these vessels build additional texture in the wine.
A form of organic agriculture developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Biodynamic farming is based on a closed-loop system involving soil health, plant care and livestock welfare. Devotees and zealous natural-wine drinkers swear by its ability to produce healthy, beautiful crops. Detractors will usually make jokes about cow dung and “root days”.
A blend of different varieties – and sometimes, a blend of white and red grapes – that are picked and fermented together rather than picked individually, fermented and then blended. While fermenting grapes separately affords winemakers more control when assembling a finished wine, field blends are exciting and offer a taste of vineyard.
When wine is aged in a barrel, the age and size of the barrel will influence the finished wine’s flavour. Newer, smaller barrels impart stronger biscuity, coffee and vanilla flavours in a wine. Older and larger barrels will produce softer, oak-derived flavours since there’s a smaller ratio of wine to wood. More winemakers are fermenting and ageing wines in older oak barrels to emphasise the flavour of the grapes rather than the oak.
Grape-growing and winemaking that’s free of synthetic pesticides, fertilisers and additives. While there are a handful of organic certifications in Australia and abroad, some producers practice organic winemaking without certification (which can be prohibitively expensive to obtain). Others, unfortunately, say they do, but actually don’t.
Short for pétillant naturel, which means “natural sparkling” in French. This fizzy wine is made by bottling the wine while it’s still fermenting. Fermentation is completed in the bottle, trapping the carbon dioxide inside and carbonating the wine (as distinct from the more complicated méthode ancestrale used to produce champagne).
A white wine made in a similar style to red wine, where the juice is kept in contact with the skin to extract additional flavour, colour and texture when compared to a conventionally made white wine. The resulting wines are orange(ish) rather than white or clear. Confusingly, in Australia, “Orange wine” can only legally be used to describe wines (of any kind) produced in the Orange region in New South Wales, so it’s best to clarify that you mean “skin-contact” when you’re at a restaurant or bottle shop.
As advertised. A wine that’s (too) easy to drink. Typically these wines are refreshing, lively and at the lighter end of the weight and texture scale. See also gluggable; “park wines”; and the romantic French term, vin de soif (“thirst wine”).
A wine, usually small-scale in production, made with grapes from a single vineyard. (Big-volume wines often contain grapes from different vineyards, growing regions and even states.) While blending lets winemakers shape the taste of a wine, single-vineyard wines are prized by drinkers for their ability to represent a single site.
Also known as “sulphites”. While these compounds occur naturally in wine, most modern winemakers tend to add more as a preservative. Natural wines have only small amounts of added sulphur, if any. Some people believe this reduces their next-day headache.
You know those cloudy white wines that look more like cider or apple juice than a pristine, sparkling white wine? That’s an unfiltered wine, and those cloudy elements are dead yeast cells, grape skins and other elements. By leaving wines unfiltered, some winemakers believe the wine will have more flavour. A related term, “unfined”, refers to a wine that hasn’t been clarified with the help of fining agents such as egg whites or isinglass (fish gelatine).
A wine fermented using the yeast that naturally occurs on the grapes, instead of an introduced, often lab-cultivated yeast. While cultivated yeasts provide winemakers with extra control and consistency, wild ferments are believed to create more complex flavours and better reflect a vineyard’s flavour.