ACIDITY: The acidity of a balanced dry table wine is in the range of 0.6 percent to 0.75 percent of the wine’s volume. It is legal in some areas–such as Bordeaux and Burgundy, Australia, California–to correct deficient acidity by adding acid. When overdone, it leads to unusually sharp, acidic wines. However, it is illegal in Bordeaux and Burgundy to both chaptalize and acidify a wine.
ALCOHOL: Ethyl alcohol, a chemical compound formed by the action of natural or added yeast on the sugar content of grapes during fermentation.
ALCOHOL BY VOLUME: As required by law, wineries must state the alcohol level of a wine on its label. This is usually expressed as a numerical percentage of the volume. For table wines the law allows a 1.5 percent variation above or below the stated percentage as long as the alcohol does not exceed 14 percent. Thus, wineries may legally avoid revealing the actual alcohol content of their wines by labeling them as “table wine.”
AMERICAN OAK: Increasingly popular as an alternative to French oak for making barrels in which to age wine as quality improves and vintners learn how to treat the wood to meet their needs. Marked by strong vanilla, dill and cedar notes, it is used primarily for aging Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel, for which it is the preferred oak. It’s less desirable, although used occasionally, for Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Many California and Australia wineries use American oak, yet claim to use French oak because of its more prestigious image. American oak barrels sell in the $250 range, compared to more than $500 for the French ones.
AMERICAN VITICULTURAL AREA (AVA): A delimited, geographical grape-growing area that has officially been given appellation status by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Two examples are Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley.
AMPELOGRAPHY: The study of grape varieties.
APPELLATION: Defines the area where a wine’s grapes were grown, such as Bordeaux, Gevrey-Chambertin, Alexander Valley or Russian River Valley. Regulations vary widely from country to country. In order to use an appellation on a California wine label, for example, 85 percent of the grapes used to make the wine must be grown in the specified district.
BARREL FERMENTED: Denotes wine that has been fermented in small casks (usually 55-gallon oak barrels) instead of larger tanks. Advocates believe that barrel fermentation contributes greater harmony between the oak and the wine, increases body and adds complexity, texture and flavor to certain wine types. Its liabilities are that more labor is required and greater risks are involved. It is mainly used for whites.
BLANC DE BLANCS: “White of whites,” meaning a white wine made of white grapes, such as Champagne made of Chardonnay.
BLANC DE NOIRS: “White of blacks,” white wine made of red or black grapes, where the juice is squeezed from the grapes and fermented without skin contact. The wines can have a pale pink hue. (ie. Champagne that is made from Pinot Noir).
BOTRYTIS CINEREA: Called the “Noble Rot.” A beneficial mold or fungus that attacks grapes under certain climatic conditions and causes them to shrivel, deeply concentrating the flavors, sugar and acid. Some of the most famous examples come from Sauternes and Germany.
BOTTLED BY: Means the wine could have been purchased ready-made and simply bottled by the brand owner, or made under contract by another winery. When the label reads “produced and bottled by” or “made and bottled by” it means the winery produced the wine from start to finish.
BRIX: A measurement of the sugar content of grapes, must and wine, indicating the degree of the grapes’ ripeness (meaning sugar level) at harvest. Most table-wine grapes are harvested at between 21 and 25 Brix.
BRUT: A general term used to designate a relatively dry-finished Champagne or sparkling wine, often the driest wine made by the producer.
CELLARED BY: Means the wine was not produced at the winery where it was bottled. It usually indicates that the wine was purchased from another source.
CLONE: A group of vines originating from a single, individual plant propagated asexually from a single source. Clones are selected for the unique qualities of the grapes and wines they yield, such as flavor, productivity and adaptability to growing conditions.
CRUSH: Harvest season when the grapes are picked and crushed.
CUVEE: A blend or special lot of wine.
DEMI-SEC: In the language of Champagne, a term relating to sweetness. It can be misleading; although demi-sec means half-dry, demi-sec sparkling wines are usually slightly sweet to medium sweet.
EARLY HARVEST: Denotes a wine made from early-harvested grapes, usually lower than average in alcoholic content or sweetness.
ENOLOGY: The science and study of winemaking. Also spelled oenology.
ESTATE-BOTTLED: A term once used by producers for those wines made from vineyards that they owned and that were contiguous to the winery “estate.” Today it indicates the winery either owns the vineyard or has a long-term lease to purchase the grapes.
FERMENTATION: The process by which yeast converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide; turns grape juice into wine.
FILTERING: The process of removing particles from wine after fermentation. Most wines unless otherwise labeled are filtered for both clarity and stability.
FINING: A technique for clarifying wine using agents such as bentonite (powdered clay), gelatin or egg whites, which combine with sediment particles and cause them to settle to the bottom, where they can be easily removed.
FORTIFIED: Denotes a wine whose alcohol content has been increased by the addition of brandy or neutral spirits.
FREE-RUN JUICE: The juice that escapes after the grape skins are crushed or squeezed prior to fermentation.
FRENCH OAK: The traditional name wine barrels, which supplies vanilla, cedar and sometimes butterscotch flavors. Used for red and white wines.
GROWN, PRODUCED AND BOTTLED: Means the winery handled each aspect of wine growing.
HALF-BOTTLE: Holds 375 milliliters or 3/8 liter.
LATE HARVEST: On labels, indicates that a wine was made from grapes picked later than normal and at a higher sugar (Brix) level than normal. Usually associated with dessert-style wines.
LEES: Sediment remaining in a barrel or tank during and after fermentation. Often used as in sur lie aging, which indicates a wine is aged “on its lees.”
MACERATION: During fermentation, the steeping of the grape skins and solids in the wine, where alcohol acts as a solvent to extract color, tannin and aroma from the skins.
MADE AND BOTTLED BY: Indicates only that the winery crushed, fermented and bottled a minimum of 10 percent of the wine in the bottle. Very misleading.
MAGNUM: An oversized bottle that holds 1.5 liters.
MALOLACTIC FERMENTATION: A secondary fermentation occurring in most wines, this natural process converts malic acid into softer lactic acid and carbon dioxide, thus reducing the wine’s total acidity. Adds complexity to whites such as Chardonnay and softens reds such as Cabernet and Merlot.
MERITAGE: An invented term, used by California wineries, for Bordeaux-style red and white blended wines. Combines “merit” with “heritage.” The term arose out of the need to name wines that didn’t meet minimal labeling requirements for varietals (i.e., 75 percent of the named grape variety). For reds, the grapes allowed are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec; for whites, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon. Joseph Phelps Insignia and is an example of a wine whose blends vary each year, with no one grape dominating.
METHODE CHAMPENOISE: The labor-intensive and costly process whereby wine undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the bottle, creating bubbles. All Champagne and most high-quality sparkling wine is made by this process.
MUST: The unfermented juice of grapes extracted by crushing or pressing; grape juice in the cask or vat before it is converted into wine.
NEGOCIANT (NEGOCIANT-ELEVEUR): A French wine merchant who buys grapes and vinifies them, or buys wines and combines them, bottles the result under his own label and ships them. Particularly found in Burgundy. Two well-known examples are Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot.
NONVINTAGE: Blended from more than one vintage. This allows the vintner to keep a house style from year to year. Many Champagnes and sparkling wines are non vintage.
OXIDIZED: Describes wine that has been exposed too long to air and taken on a brownish color, losing its freshness and perhaps beginning to smell and taste like Sherry or old apples. Oxidized wines are also called maderized or sherrified.
PH: A chemical measurement of acidity or alkalinity; the higher the pH the weaker the acid. Used by some wineries as a measurement of ripeness in relation to acidity. Low pH wines taste tart and crisp; higher pH wines are more susceptible to bacterial growth. A range of 3.0 to 3.4 is desirable for white wines, while 3.3 to 3.6 is best for reds.
PHYLLOXERA: Tiny aphids or root lice that attack Vitis vinifera roots. The disease was widespread in both Europe and California during the late 19th century, and returned to California in the 1980s.
PRESS WINE (or PRESSING): The juice extracted under pressure after pressing for white wines and after fermentation for reds. Press wine has more flavor and aroma, deeper color and often more tannins than free-run juice.
PRIVATE RESERVE: This description, along with Reserve, once stood for the best wines a winery produced, but lacking a legal definition many wineries use it or a spin-off (such as Proprietor’s Reserve) for rather ordinary wines. Depending upon the producer, it may still signify excellent quality.
PRODUCED AND BOTTLED BY: Indicates that the winery crushed, fermented and bottled at least 75 percent of the wine in the bottle.
RACKING: The practice of moving wine by hose from one container to another, leaving sediment behind. For aeration or clarification.
RESIDUAL SUGAR: Unfermented grape sugar in a finished wine.
SULFITES: Naturally occurring component produced by the yeast during fermentation. Sulfites are found in nearly all wines.
TARTARIC ACID: The principal acid in wine.
TARTRATES: Harmless crystals of potassium bitartrate that may form in cask or bottle (often on the cork) from the tartaric acid naturally present in wine.
VINICULTURE: The science or study of grape production for wine and the making of wine.
VINTAGE DATE: Indicates the year that wine grapes were harvested. In order to carry a vintage date in the United States, for instance, a wine must come from grapes that are at least 95 percent from the stated calendar year.
VINTED BY: Largely meaningless phrase that means the winery purchased the wine in bulk from another winery and bottled it.
VINTNER: Translates as wine merchant, but generally indicates a wine producer/or winery proprietor.
VINTNER-GROWN: Means wine from a winery-owned vineyard situated outside the winery’s delimited viticultural area.
VITICULTURAL AREA: Defines a legal grape-growing area distinguished by geographical features, climate, soil, elevation, history and other definable boundaries. Rules vary widely from region to region, and change often. Just for one example, in the United States, a wine must be 85 percent from grapes grown within the viticultural area to carry the appellation name. For varietal bottling, a minimum of 75 percent of that wine must be made from the designated grape variety.
VITICULTURE: The cultivation, science and study of grapes.
YEAST: Micro-organisms that produce the enzymes which convert sugar to alcohol. Necessary for the fermentation of grape juice into wine.