The Baker's Dozen Guide To Natural Wine Terms You Need To Know
When it comes to wine, there’s a whole different vocabulary. Here are some of the most important terms, so you can chat with a winemaker or sommelier (or even just your friends) and sound like a total pro.
Before I became a sommelier, I used to love going to wine shops and restaurants and asking questions about wine. I'm sure that I was a really annoying customer but the amount that I learnt from all of these conversations was incredible, but something was missing. I was still unfamiliar with a lot of the terms that industry professionals use in conversations about wine. Doing my sommelier training helped to overcome this; spending time with winemakers in their cellars both in Australia and overseas helped as well, especially when the conversations were accompanied by tastings. To give you a bit of a head-start, here’s a quick guide to some of the wine terms that I think are the most important for you to get your head around.
Polyphenol – Phenols are the third most common compound in nature, and the second most prolific in grapes. They act as both antioxidants and pest deterrents in plants, and have antioxidant properties for us as well. Poly (meaning many) is the term for a molecule or strand of phenols that are bound together. In wine, they contribute structure, flavour, and colour. The bitter flavours that can sometimes be found in wine are attributable to them and they play an important role in ensuring a wine’s natural stability and ability to age. The larger the phenolic structure i.e. the longer the polyphenols are, the more stable that the wine is, although they will degrade once the wine gets to a certain point. This is the key wine’s ability to age.
Tannins – these are polyphenolic compounds that contribute the most structurally to wines. Generally, the more skin contact that a wine has had, the more tannin it will have. The amount of tannins in a wine play a role in determining our perception of a wine’s dryness as well. For example, Nebbiolo is a red grape that’s very high in tannin, and leaves your mouth quite dry as it binds with saliva. It’s often best drunk with fatty foods that counteract the drying effect of the tannins, and it ages incredibly well.
Reduction – Wines that are reductive have what we call a rotten-egg smell when they’re opened. It’s produced in larger quantities in some wines due to the yeast becoming stressed during fermentation due to a lack of nitrogen in the grape juice. Some grapes are more prone to nitrogen depletion e.g. Syrah/Shiraz, but heavy iron-rich soils low in organic matter can be also be responsible for this.
Volatile Acidity – This is generally used to describe the presence of acetaldehyde in a wine. Acetaldehyde is the same compound as the active ingredient in nail polish remover, and is caused by particular yeast strains or in some cases a bacterial infection, which oxidise alcohol. In some wines, a small amount is desirable, and it can actually have a calming effect on our brain. Too much though, and the wine will be abrasive and undrinkable.
Acidity – There are three main types of acidity found in grapes: tartaric acid, malic acid and, in smaller amounts, citric acid. Each of them plays a role in determining the flavour and character of a given wine. The amount of them found in the wine is determined by a number of factors, including grape varietal, climate, sunshine, ripeness at picking and winemaking choices. Riesling is a grape that’s naturally very high in acidity. Some grapes, like Chardonnay, tend to go through secondary fermentation, which converts their malic acid to lactic acid, contributing to a softer acidity and richer mouthfeel.
Oxidised vs. Oxidative – Wines that are oxidised have simply seen a bit too much oxygen. Because the antioxidants in wine (phenols and anthocyanins) readily bind to oxygen molecules, they tend to oxidise pretty quickly when a wine is over-exposed to air, resulting in lacklustre aromas and flavours, what I call a ‘flatness’ on the palate. Oxidative wines, on the other hand, have seen oxygen, but in a more consistent and controlled manner, which actually helps the antioxidants bind to each other and create longer, more complex flavour molecules. White wines from the Jura are the perfect example of this (and are some of my favourite wines).
Fining – The process of removing larger flavour molecules from wine through the addition of protein e.g. egg white or isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes). Larger flavour molecules, which are also antioxidants, can become unstable when subjected to light and/or heat, so some winemakers prefer to remove them. Protein is added to the wine before bottling, so that is binds to these large flavour molecules as it passes through the wine, creating an even larger molecule, which is heavy and then drops to the bottom of the vessel that the wine is being stored in. The wine can then be drawn from the top layers of the storage tank; the slurry at the bottom will then be discarded. Personally, I think that this process leaves the wine stripped of flavour and texture – plus it removes up to 30% of the wine’s antioxidants.
Filtration – Similar to fining, filtration is designed to remove larger flavour molecules from wine. It’s basically the process of passing the wine through a mesh screen that resembles a sieve in function, but much finer than the average sieve you’d keep in your kitchen. Some winemakers use a pretty coarse filter when bottling their wines, so it doesn’t have a drastic effect on the final character of the wine but again, my preference is for nothing, though wines with a bit of residual sugar generally need light filtration for stability.
Residual sugar – In general, most table wines are fermented to dryness, so there is no remaining sugar in the final wine. However, there are some exceptions, simply because a bit of residual sugar is needed to balance the acidity in a grape, or perhaps for traditional, stylistic reasons. In general, we talk about residual sugar in wine as grams per litre (g/L). So if I came across a wine and found that it had 8g residual sugar, it would mean that there is 6g in a standard 750mL bottle. This is a pretty inconsequential amount, although wine is such a delicate product that it can be fairly obvious when tasting, not just because of the flavour but also because it will give the wine a little more viscosity, thus a richer mouthfeel. However, this would still be considered a dry wine. Sweet wines e.g. Sauternes or fortifieds like Port can have residual sugar levels that range from 12g/L right through to upwards of 200g/L.
Sulphur dioxide – Often shortened to SO2, this is the most common preservative added to wine. While it’s a natural by-product of fermentation, the amounts found natural in wine are far lower than what is typically added to conventionally made wines. It’s the reason why we get hangovers from even tiny amounts of wine, because it interferes with our body’s ability to metabolise alcohol. I’ve experienced a pretty nasty hangover from as little as two glasses of sulphur-laden wine.
Terroir – This is the term that confounds a lot of people. It’s a terms that encompasses all of the variables in the grape’s environment that determine its final character e.g. soil, aspect, climate, rainfall, elevation etc etc. Personally, I think that the viticulturalist and vigneron (these are fancy French words for grape grower and winemaker) should be included in the definition too.
Spritz – You know that sensation when you open a wine and the first few mouthfuls kind of tingle on your tongue? The wine is sparkling, but not enough for it to be called a sparkling wine. We call this a spritz (although the term can also be used to describe the bead in some actual sparkling wines as well). It’s basically just a bit of dissolved carbon dioxide, maybe because there’s been a tiny bit of fermentation in the bottle or the wine hasn’t seen a lot of oxygen during bottling and it’s been bottles pretty soon after finishing fermentation. Leaving a bit of dissolved carbon dioxide in wine is actually a technique used by some natural winemakers, to provide the wine with protection, in lieu of sulphur dioxide.
Brett(anomyces) – Ever heard a wine snob talk about a wine being “bretty”, usually with disdain? Brettanomyces is the name of a bacteria that can infect wine. It’s often associated with unsanitary winemaking practices, but sometimes it just lives in the vineyard. It imparts what we call a “barnyard” smell and flavour to the wine, and can play a desirable role in some wines. There are certain parts of France, especially the Rhone Valley, where it’s fairly common and well-accepted. For the most part, though, it’s seen as undesirable.
Of course, I could go on - it’s an endless list, really. But I reckon these are some of the most important ones, especially for the natural wine drinker. Enjoy!