Guest Post by Etty Lewensztain
Becoming proficient in the language of wine is a skill that can take years upon years of arduous learning (i.e. drinking) to hone. From the agricultural terminology winemakers use to describe the ins and outs of vineyard management, to the acronyms sommeliers sling when waxing poetic about the vinification process, “geek speak” can be incredibly overwhelming. In the interest of time, study this handy list of wine colloquialisms and soon enough you’ll be fooling even the most discerning wine snobs.
When consumers describe a wine as dry, what they’re really trying to say 99 percent of the time is that the wine is tannic. Dryness, technically speaking, refers to the absence of residual sugar in wine, not to the drying effects of tannins.
There are two types of tannins found in wine: grape tannins and wood tannins. Grape tannins are natural compounds that originate in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes and can cause a sensation of mouth-puckering dryness or astringency. Wood tannins come from the oak barrels used to store and age wine and can cause a similar sensation of dryness. The best way to differentiate between grape and wood tannins is to pinpoint exactly where in your mouth you’re feeling that velvety friction. If you feel the dryness on your gums, the tannins are most probably wood-based, and if you feel the dryness on the insides of your cheeks, the tannins are most probably grape-based.
Lees are the dead yeast cells that result from the fermentation of grape sugars into alcohol. Despite the immense romantic appeal of dead yeast, these cells actually play an instrumental role in the texture or mouthfeel of a wine, as well as in a wine’s aromatic and flavor profiles. Battonage, French for “stirring of the lees,” is a process wherein the dead yeast cells are literally stirred together with a wine, releasing compounds that attribute creaminess and roundness to the end product. Battonage can also impart aromas and flavors of bread, brioche and biscuit to a wine.
Champagne is known for its “leesy” or yeasty character since the wine’s second fermentation (the process by which bubbly gets its bubbles) occurs in a sealed bottle, thereby trapping the lees and allowing the wine to soak up all of that bready, biscuit-y goodness—champagne’s hallmark. After the wine is aged, the bottles are riddled or inverted (this is called remuage) so that the lees or “yeast plug” moves into the neck of the bottle where it gets frozen and ejected from the wine (this is called disgorgement or dégorgement in French)
This is simply a snooty way to describe a red wine made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre grapes. This blend is very characteristic of red wines that hail from France’s Languedoc, Roussillon and Rhone regions. Want to sound extremely cool next time you’re getting the cold shoulder from a wine director who thinks he’s cooler than you? Ask for a GSM blend.
Saignée, which means “to bleed” in French, is a traditional method by which rosés are produced. After red grapes are pressed, and while the juice is macerating on the skins to extract color and tannins, a portion of the wine—still pink at this point—is “bled off” and fermented separately as a rosé. Rosé made using this technique is considered a byproduct of the primary red wine. There are wineries, however, that produce nothing but rosé. These wineries stop the maceration process at the pink stage and dedicate the entire vat to rosé production.
Brett, which is short for Brettanomyces, is a type of fungus or yeast that can grow in wine, causing all sorts of interesting aromas to develop including that of Band-Aid (seriously), barnyard or horse stable, horse saddle leather, bacon, smoke, cloves and even cheese. While Brett is widely considered a flaw in wine, many winemakers (and wine geeks including myself) favor the earthy, animal aromas that Brett imparts.
Brett can be introduced to a winery by fruit flies that carry the fungus or via used wine barrels that were previously tainted with Brett, and once a winery gets contaminated, the fungus is very difficult to stamp out. Brett has a tendency to appear in barrel-aged reds, but can also appear in white wines such as chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
ML stands for malolactic fermentation, which is the process by which the malic acid (the type of acid that’s found in tart granny smith apples) present in wine converts into lactic acid (the type of acid that’s found in milk or yogurt). ML causes a wine’s acidity to soften and mellow, yielding a rounder, creamier wine with a rich and buttery mouthfeel. ML can occur naturally in wine or can be initiated deliberately by a winemaker to enhance a wine’s luxurious texture and minimize the harsh flavors associated with high acidity.
Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.
Editor’s Note: You loved the 1st article in Etty’s 3-part guest series. Stay tuned for the final installment next week, and show Etty some love in the comments below!