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Surf4wine - Glossary of wines
Category: Food and Drink > Wine
Date & country: 13/10/2007, UK
The solid stuff left after pressing grapes. The same term is also used to describe the spirit made from distilling this.
Where it comes from: Merlot is on the up. The great red grape of St Emilion and Pomerol, it is now the most planted red grape in the whole Bordeaux region, although to some extent it still lives in the shadow of its illustrious peer, Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot's great strength is that it combines the bold flavours of Cabernet with a softer, more approachable structure, making it an ideal blending partner for Cabernet-based wines as well as a strong performer in its own right. It has the added benefits of ripening a little earlier than Cabernet, and giving higher yields. Flavour profile: Full flavoured but soft-edged red wines with plums and blackberry fruit, often with a leafy edge. Where to find it: Although it is not quite as ubiquitous as Cabernet, Merlot is being planted pretty much everywhere these days. In France, it has spread from Bordeaux throughout the Languedoc and southwest. It is widely grown in Italy, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, too. A strong performer in California and New Zealand, Merlot is also common in Argentina and Chile, and after a difficult start it's beginning to catch on in Australia.
Large-format bottle that holds an enormous six litres of Champagne (eight bottles' worth). Go on, impress your friends. Let's hope it isn't corked, though.
French term which translates as 'mellow', but in the context of wine means sweet or medium sweet. You'll often find this term on bottles from the Loire.
Where it comes from: Sexy red grape variety from the south of France, now very trendy. Flavour profile: Makes dark, herby, meaty, gamey wines with flavours of blackcurrant and spice. Where to find it: Mourvèdre plays its starring role in the Provencale appellation of Bandol, but it is also common in other southern French regions, where is used to add its dark, meaty character to blends. It is very common in Spain, and it is thought that the variety known as Monastrell in the Jumilla region is in fact Mourvèdre. In California, there isn't much of it, but because it does so well it is currently on the increase. In Australia, it used to be a workhorse grape known by the name of Mataro, but since Mourvèdre has become trendy elsewhere, the Aussies are taking it more seriously and are making good wines with it: it's particularly common in blends with Grenache and Shiraz (which are known by the shorthand of 'GSM'). Expect to see more of it in the future.
The mixture of grape juice, stems, pips and skins -- and to a lesser degree, dead insects, bits of leaves and other crud -- that comes out of the grape crusher. Sometimes used more generally to refer to unfermented grape juice. Musty Think of damp cellars, think of mouldy potatoes at the bottom of the bag, think of railway arches -- these smells can be described as musty, and when you encounter mustiness in a wine, it could well be because it is corked.
You'll often names of people in the wine trade followed by the words MW. This stands for Master of Wine, and indicates that these dedicated individuals have passed the gruelling professional exams set by the Institute of Masters of Wine. Only a few hundred people have so far gained this demanding qualification.
Where it comes from: High quality red grape grown in Piedmont, in northeast Italy, responsible for the dense, tannic and long lived wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Flavour profile: Tough, tannic and fruitless in its youth, when aged, this grape gives complex flavours of prunes, liquorice and truffles. Where to find it: The prestige and high prices attracted by the Barolo and Barbaresco has encouraged others to experiment with Nebbiolo. However, it's a fussy traveller, and although it has now been grown with some success in Australia, elsewhere it has disappointed.
French term for someone who deals in wines. Commonly, small growers who lack the facility to make wine will sell their grapes to a négociant, who then makes, bottles and markets the wine.
A term used to describe wines from non-European regions such as Australia, California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.
Famous for being home to the world's most startlingly aromatic expression of the Sauvignon Blanc grape. A good example from the Marlborough region of New Zealand will show a remarkable flavour array of gooseberries, elderflower and freshly cut grass, with grapefruit-like acidity. In addition, New Zealand also produces good-quality Chardonnays. The red wines are not usually up to the same standard, with the notable exception of Pinot Noir, which excels in the Martinborough region.
Imagine the following scenario. It's almost harvest time, and your vines have lovely healthy bunches of ripe white grapes hanging off them. Then, after a succession of damp misty mornings the grapes are infected by a fungus called Botrytis, with the result that they shrivel up and go all furry. A disaster? Quite the opposite. This is what is known as noble rot, and although the grapes look disgustingly inedible, infected bunches yield small quantities of concentrated juice that produces some of the world's most complex, sublime and long-lived sweet white wines. What sort of flavours should you expect in a wine affected by noble rot? There is often the tang of thick-cut marmalade and apricots. The texture will be rich and viscous, and although the wine will be sweet, in good examples there will also be plenty of acidity to give balance. Because of the risk associated with producing these wines and the low yields involved, these wines are invariably expensive, but the Australians are now producing delicious, affordable botrytized wines from grapes that have artificially been seeded with fungal spores. Innovative, eh?
Oak barrels are an important and complicated variable in the production of the majority of serious red wines and an increasing number of whites. Many white wines, and in particular Chardonnays, are fermented in small oak barrels. This adds some complexity to the wine, and also imparts toasty, nutty and vanilla-like flavours to the wine, especially when the barrels are new. Red wines are rarely fermented in barrels, but will often spend a lengthy period of ageing in them. Barrels allow a small amount of oxygen to come into contact with the wine, thus accelerating the development of more complex flavours, and when new oak is used, the wine picks up flavours of vanilla and spice and tannins from the wood. Different effects can be achieved depending on the type of oak used (commonly French or American, but Portuguese oak is quite different and is commonly used in Portugal, and Slovenian oak is often used in Italy). The quality of the wood used is important, as is the size of the barrel. It all gets rather complicated. Oak barrels are expensive, though, and for cheaper wines the effects of barrel fermentation and ageing are simulated by the use of oak chips or even used barrel staves bolted to the inside of stainless steel tanks. This practice is illegal in some more traditional wine-producing countries, and as you might expect, results can be variable.
A pejorative taste term for a wine that has been given too much oak treatment, perhaps through unsuitable ageing in new oak barrels. An oaky wine will usually taste and smell of freshly sawn wood, or may have sweet vanilla flavours. Like many taste judgements, it is a bit of a subjective call: people differ in their tolerance for oaky wines.
You'll often find the term 'old vine' (in French 'vieilles vignes') on the label of a wine; it's becoming an increasingly popular marketing term. There is no legal definition, but it's usually used to refer to wine made from grape vines that are over 30 years old. Older vines, so the story goes, produce fewer grapes but those they do produce are of a better quality than fruit from younger vines.
Catch-all term referring to wines from the classical European wine regions.
A dark, nutty, rich form of sherry that takes most of its flavour from long ageing in an oak cask. Most are dry, although sweetened versions do exist, in which case this will be indicated on the label.
A term describing a commonly encountered wine fault, caused by the exposure of a wine to oxygen, which eventually turns the alcohol to acetic acid. Net result is vinegar (from the French 'vin aigre', or 'bitter wine'). Yuk. A mildly oxidized red wine will have a brownish colour, with high volatile acidity. A mildly oxidized white wine will have a deep yellow/gold colour and unappealing flavours of butterscotch and coffee, perhaps also with some volatility on the nose. The most common cause of oxidation is cork failure, letting air into the wine, although white wines intended for early consumption that have been cellared for too long will also display these characters to varying degrees.
Remember using litmus paper at school? This measures pH, which is a scale for assessing acidity. The lower the pH (red litmus paper), the higher the acidity; neutral pH is 7 (green litmus paper) and higher than 7 is alkaline or basic (blue litmus paper). Most wines have a pH of between 3 and 4, so they are acidic. Nowadays, the use of litmus paper has largely been superseded by snazzy pH meters which give a digital readout.
A truly nasty aphid that just about wiped out the vineyards in Europe in the second half of the last century. Phylloxera has an insatiable appetite for the roots of grape vines, and once a vineyard is infected there is no cure, except for ripping the vines out and replacing them with plants that have been grafted onto resistant rootstock from native American vines, which have strong roots but make crappy wine. As a result, all the vineyards in Europe, with a few minor exceptions, consist of grafted vines. Debate rages about whether the classic wines pre-phylloxera were better than those made today, although there is no evidence that Cabernet grapes, for example, from grafted and ungrafted vines are any different in quality. Chile and Argentina are currently free of phylloxera, and still have ungrafted vineyards.
A really nasty vine disease caused by a bacterium carried by an insect called the sharpshooter. It is currently causing havoc in Californian vineyards, but fortunately hasn't yet spread to Europe.
See Pinot Blanc
Where it comes from: Underrated white grape from the Alsace region of France. Flavour profile: Makes crisp, intense and slightly spicy white wine. Where to find it: In Alsace it is used as a bit of a workhorse variety, although it often produces inexpensive but full flavoured whites, and is also used to make the sparkling Cremant d'Alsace wines. There's a bit planted in Burgundy, but this is on the decline. There's a lot of it in Italy, where it is known as Pinot Bianco, and does best in the Trentino and Friuli regions. However, this grape probably reaches its greatest heights in Austria, where it is known as Weissburgunder.
See Pinot Gris
Where it comes from: Versatile, full flavoured white grape from the Alsace region of France, where it is known as Tokay-Pinot Gris. It is a mutant clone of Pinot Noir. Flavour profile: Makes gently aromatic white wines with rich, fat, smoky bacon and spice flavours of varying degrees of sweetness. Where to find it: It's currently a very popular variety. It is common in Germany and Austria, where it is called Ruländer if it's sweet, but Grauerburgunder if it is dry. In Italy, known as Pinot Grigio, it is common, and there is also some grown in Switzerland. There's also a fair bit in Eastern Europe. It has not really caught on in the new world, presumably because of the dominance of Chardonnay, although it does quite well in Oregon on the west coast of the USA.
Where it comes from: Sexy but temperamental. Pinot Noir is the red grape of Burgundy and one of the planet's most illustrious red varieties. Even in Burgundy it is an unpredictable performer: it is difficult to grow, and you only have to increase yields a little bit for quality to dip sharply. A fussy traveller, it is also rather particular about the climate it is grown in: most new world sites are simply too warm. So why does everyone want to grow the stuff? The answer is that it is capable of making sublime, sexy and addictive red wines that exquisitely express their place of origin. Indeed, once you've tasted a great Pinot Noir you are hooked enough to put up with the inevitable disappointments that this grape will throw at you. Flavour profile: In its youth it displays bright cherry and raspberry fruit, evolving with bottle age to show a complex mixture of gamey fruit with hints of undergrowth and mushrooms. Where to find it: Elsewhere in France Pinot Noir is one of the three key grapes used for Champagne production, and it also makes light, fruity reds in the Loire and Alsace. In Germany and Austria, where it is known as Spätburgunder, there have been some good results. Italy and Switzerland also grow some. Growers in the new world have had a bit of a struggle identifying sites where Pinot Noir will succeed, but good examples are now coming from cooler regions in Australia, New Zealand (especially the Martinborough region), South Africa and the USA (in particular Oregon). Chile has begun to make some inexpensive but worthy Pinot Noir, but Eastern European efforts with this grape have been pretty unconvincing.
Where it comes from: South Africa's 'own' red grape variety, it is the result of a 1920s crossing between Cinsaut and Pinot Noir, now gaining in popularity. Flavour profile: Makes distinctive wines with pungent animal-like gamey notes and plummy, spicy fruit. You either love it or hate it. Where to find it: Rare outside South Africa, although a fair bit is now grown in New Zealand.
The Portuguese are thirsty people, ranking fifth in terms of per capita consumption. This creates a strong domestic demand for the fascinating wines that Portugal produces. For those bored with the flood of 'international' style Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons, Portugal is a happy hunting ground of obscure grape varieties and unusual flavours. Its wines are also often good value for money. The Douro valley, in the north, is home to the Port industry, making fortified wines of varying styles, and increasingly good table wines from the same terraced hillside vineyards. Other regions such as Bairrada, Dão and the Alentejo are producing some exciting wines from traditional varieties. At the bottom end, there's still a lot of rustic plonk being produced, but there's now a growing band of quality minded properties making some serious wines.
Variety of grape common to Southern Italy.
An unpleasant process popular during the Spanish inquisition (though not with non-Catholics, apparently). These days the word is more likely to be used to describe a fundamental winemaking operation in which the clear wine is separated from the accumulated crud at the bottom of a barrel or fermentation vessel.
An obscure tasting term that describes the pungent smell of a (usually fortified) wine that has been intentionally oxidized or exposed to heat. Examples of wines showing rancio include some Madeiras or Australian liqueur muscats.
Another of the big Champagne bottle sizes, this one holds 4.5 litres (six bottles' worth). Enough for a quiet celebration with a couple of friends.
You'll often find the term 'reserve' on the label of a bottle, as it is a term used throughout the wine world. There is no formal definition of what makes a 'reserve' wine: producers usually use this to indicate a wine that is made from selected grapes or has been given lavish oak treatment.
Another statistic you might find on the back of a wine bottle. It refers to the amount of sugar left over after fermentation and is given in grams per litre. Below 2g/l, the wine will taste bone dry. Bear in mind that the perception of sweetness is altered by the other flavour elements in a wine, such as acid, tannin, alcohol and fruitiness.
Where it comes from: One of the classic white grape varieties, capable of making stunning, long-lived wines that span the spectrum of bone dry to lusciously sweet. Riesling vies with Chardonnay for the title of leading white wine grape. Flavour profile: Flavours associated with Riesling include citrus fruits, green apples, honey and flowers. In aged examples a distinct petrolly edge is common. Where to find it: It produces Germany's finest wines, and also excels in Austria and the Alsace region of France. Planted throughout the new world, particularly good examples are made in the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia. Commonly known outside Europe as Rhine Riesling.
Romania has a great tradition of wine production, stretching back thousands of years, and thanks to a large-scale state-driven replanting programme in the 1960s now has the fifth largest area under vine in Europe. Yet in common with other Communist countries, emphasis was on quantity rather than quality, and the few bottles of Romanian wine you are likely to encounter on shop shelves in the UK will tend to be cheap and a bit plonkish. However, given the ideal grape growing conditions that exist in Romania, there is the potential for better things in the future.
Because of the consequences of the deadly root disease phylloxera, most vines in commercial vineyards are now grafted onto a suitable American variety (these are resistant to phylloxera). The precise choice of rootstock is a critical viticultural decision, as they all have different properties.
See Pinot Gris
Where it comes from: The red grape responsible for Chianti in the Tuscany region of Italy. It is the most common red variety in Italy. Flavour profile: Expect wines high in acid, with flavours of plums, bitter cherries, spice and tea, occasionally topped off with farmyard aromas. Where to find it: The merits of this grape are beginning to be recognized elsewhere, and it has now been planted in Australia and California, with good results. It is also found in Argentina.
Where it comes from: One of the most popular white varieties, Sauvignon blanc has its origin in the Loire Valley of France, where it is used to make the well known wines of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre. Since then it has spread throughout the world, most successfully to New Zealand and Chile. Flavour profile: Tell-tale flavours associated with the grape are gooseberries, elderflower, freshly cut grass, grapefruits and, according to some, cat's pee. It is not usually oaked, except in California, where barrel fermentation succeeds in making it taste just like Chardonnay. Where to find it: Although the Loire is its home, many would argue that Sauvignon Blanc reaches its peak in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Examples from the cooler regions of Chile, such as Casablanca, have been almost as impressive. Australian Sauvignon Blanc is improving in quality, and South Africa seems to be getting the hang of the variety. And if you can't stretch to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the Loire is now producing good value for money examples of this grape from the Touraine and Menetou Salon appellations. As a blending partner to Semillon and Muscadelle, Sauvignon blanc is responsible for the white wines of Bordeaux, including the luscious sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.
French term for 'dry', as in the opposite of sweet.
Where it comes from: Worthy but unfashionable. A jack of all trades, Semillon is widely grown, but doesn't really star on its own anywhere, with the possible exception of its adopted home of the Hunter Valley in Australia, where it makes unique, ageworthy white wines. However, it is a key component of the luscious sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac from the Bordeaux region of France, where its thin skins make it susceptible to noble rot, a vital element in the production of these thrilling, complex wines. Flavour profile: Vinified as a dry table wine it makes fresh white wines with tart, lemony flavours. With bottle age these commonly put on weight, developing appealing toasty and honeyed flavours. Where to find it: As well as sweet styles, Semillon contributes to the sea of rather charmless white Bordeaux that is made each year. It's common throughout Australia, and there are plantings in California, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and New Zealand.
A system for ageing sherry, consisting of a series of barrels (known as butts), arranged next to and top of each other. It's all rather complex, but in simplest terms when wine is drawn off for bottling from an old barrel, this barrel is then topped-up with younger wine from another barrel. Thus, if a solera was set up 100 years ago, the wine that is bottled today would technically contain some wine that was 100 years old.
Emerging from the shadow of Apartheid, South Africa is increasingly making better wines which usually represent good value for money at all levels on the quality scale. Although South Africa is classed as a new world region, wines it produces are often nicely poised between the new world and old world in style. Look out for reds from South Africa's 'own' variety, Pinotage, which makes striking gamey and earthy-tasting wines, often with a savoury, cheesy edge to them. The most famous regions are Stellenbosch, Paarl and Constantia, although cooler regions such as Walker Bay are beginning to attract attention.
Surprising fact: Spain has a greater area under vine than any other country, although because the yields from these vineyards are generally low, it only ranks third in the list of wine producers. In the north west, the cool damp region of Galicia produces some fresh aromatic whites from the Albariño grape, and Rueda is beginning to produce tasty, modern whites from Verdejo and Sauvignon blanc. Otherwise, Spain is largely known for its red wines. Rioja, with its attractive, sweetly fruited and oaky reds, is probably the most famous region, but not the best. This accolade is currently being fought over by Ribera del Duero (rich Tempranillo-based reds) and Priorato (small quantities of dense, mineralic wines from low yielding Grenache and Carignan planted on steep terraces). Other regions that deserve a mention are Navarra (easy drinking rosé and full flavoured reds), Penedés (the home of Cava), Somontano (modern varietal wines from the foothills of the Pyrenees), Jumilla (chunky Mourvèdre-based reds) and La Mancha (the vast central plain that produces largely plonk). Spain is also known for sherry: its stunningly unique and undervalued fortified wines from the Jerez.
See Pinot Noir
A German term for late harvest. The Germans love rules, and there are a stack load of regulations that wines labelled spätlese must satisfy. Suffice to say, all the consumer needs to know is that these wines will probably have a touch of sweetness, usually with good balancing acidity, unless they are labelled 'trocken', in which case they will be dry and fresh.
A tasting term that is a close relative of sappy and green, usually used to describe young, raw red wines.
A popular tasting term for the elements of a wine that confer longevity, mainly tannins and acidity. Most Bordeaux style reds will have in their youth a structure mainly comprised of tannins, both from the oak they have been matured in and also the grape skins. In Burgundy and the Northern Rhône, the structure tends to be contributed both by the tannins and also the acidity.
If you find these words on a wine label, it means that the wine was aged on the lees: the gunk at the bottom of a barrel or tank that consists mostly of dead yeast cells. It can add complex, yeasty flavours to a white wine. See also lees stirring.
Where it comes from: Everyone loves Syrah. It combines the sexiness of Pinot Noir with the depth of flavour and structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is now rightly recognized as one of the world's great red grape varieties, but until recently it was somewhat underrated. Syrah's home is the northern Rhône region of France, where it makes the celebrated wines of Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Cornas. Flavour profile: Rich, dark wines with spicy, earthy flavours and aromas of violets and bacon fat. Where to find it: Syrah does well in warm climates, and is now being planted throughout the wine world. From the northern Rhône it has spread throughout southern France, making characterful wines that are often blends with varieties such as Grenache and Mourvèdre. Elsewhere in Europe it has been grown on a limited scale in Spain, where it has done well, and also Greece. In Australia, it is known as Shiraz and is the premier red variety there, making dense, full-on reds which still retain their regional character. In California, Syrah lags behind Cabernet Sauvignon by some distance, but is catching on, often making superb, concentrated wines. New Zealand grows a bit, and there are some good examples coming from Chile and Argentina.
Collective name for a bitter, astringent group of chemicals that are found in skins, pips and stems of grapes, and also in the oak barrels that are commonly used to age wine in. Take a young, dark monster of a red wine and swish it around your mouth. That bitter, tongue curling, tooth-coating, drying sensation you get is from the tannins. Tannins are used in the leather-making industry to turn cow hide into shoes, belts and posh sofas, so no wonder it feels like tough young wines are turning your mouth into leather! However, even though this description doesn't sound too appealing, tannins are a vital component of red wines. They contribute structure, which in turn facilitates ageing and thus the development of the complexity that comes from long-term cellaring. And without tannins to counter the fruit, most red wines would taste flabby and unbalanced.
The most important grape-derived acid in wine. Sometimes you'll find little crystals at the bottom of a bottle of wine: these are crystals of tartarate salts, and they are harmless and flavourless. Because some uninformed consumers worry when they find these in their wine, many producers subject wine to low temperatures before bottling (a process called cold stabilization) to precipitate the tartarates out.
An abbreviation for the chemical trichloranisole, which ruins an enormous amount of wine every year (see corked).
Where it comes from: Spain's classic red grape variety, also commonly known as Tinto Fino and Cencibel. Does best in the slightly cooler regions of Rioja and Ribera del Duero. Although it is a steady performer, Tempranillo is arguably not in the same quality league as the big boys such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Flavour profile: Lacks a really distinctive identity, but attributed flavours include strawberry, spice, leather and tobacco. Tempranillo blends well with other varieties, and is frequently aged in American oak, which can contribute as much to a wine's flavour and texture as the grapes. Where to find it: Found outside Spain in Portugal (where it is known by a variety of synonyms) and Argentina.
Imagine that on your property you have three vineyards, one that has a clay-based soil, one that has a gravelly soil, and one that has chalky soil. Each of these vineyards is planted with the same grape variety, and the grapes are all handled the same way in the winery. Yet when you taste the finished wines from each site, each will have its own unique characteristics. Terroir is a French term which refers to exactly these site-specific differences in wines that are caused by factors such as soil types, drainage, local microclimate and sun exposure. Debate rages about the importance of terroir versus the role of the winemaker, and also exactly how factors such as soils influence the flavour of the wine.
If you ever buy old fine wines, you'll be interested in the ullage level: it refers to the loss of wine from the bottle with time and involves the gap between the cork and the surface of the wine. It can vary widely, even between bottles from the same case, and terms like 'low neck' and 'high shoulder' are used to describe it. These descriptors will probably become less important as a combination of digital photography and the internet will mean that prospective purchasers will soon be able to actually see the condition of any bottles they are interested in.
If you detect the scent of vanilla in a wine, it's a tell-tale sign that new oak (and in particular American oak) has been used at some stage in the wine making process.
A wine named after the single grape variety it was made from. This consumer-friendly practice began in earnest in the USA in the 1950s and is now so popular that the majority of wines from the new world now have the grape variety on the label.
French term for old vines.
Tasting term used for wines that are thick, heavy-textured and concentrated. Sweet wines made from grapes that have been affected by noble rot are commonly viscous.
A wine fault describing a wine with an unpleasant, vinegar-like nose, caused by acetic acid, a volatile acid that is a result of the oxidation of alcohol. Known in the trade as simply VA. All wines have a tiny bit, but too much and the wine is vile, and makes the wine smell vinegary.
See Pinot Blanc
A handy microorganism, without which we wouldn't have bread, beer or wine. Yeasts eat the sugar in grape juice and excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products. They keep going until all the sugar is gone, or until the alcohol level reaches about 16%, at which point they die. The selection of the appropriate yeast strain -- or indeed the decision simply to allow fermentation to occur with the wild strains of yeast that live on the grape skins -- is an important choice in winemaking.
Where it comes from: California's 'own' red grape variety, which has long been of uncertain origin. Molecular biology has recently proved that it is identical to the Primitivo variety of Southern Italy. However, it is in California that this grape makes the most striking, boldly flavoured wines. Flavour profile: Full-on, chocolatey, blackberry-laced reds, often with high alcohol and soft tannins. Where to find it: It's a versatile grape, used to make a range of styles from confected white and pink jug wines, to full bodied, burly, concentrated reds. Outside California, small quantities are grown in South Africa, Chile and Western Australia, with some success.