Do you read the back of a wine label before you take a sip or research your chosen bottle down to the most technical aspects of the winemaking process before you part with your hard-earned cash? Time and money limitations would suggest that people make very speedy decisions when choosing a bottle, often plumping for their usual tried and tested style in the face of way too much information.
If you do delve into the depths of the wine world, you might come across a whole new lexicon of jargon that quite frankly intimidates as much as it enlightens. Winemaking is after all a science – oenology to be exact – and we all know what you are if you’ve got an ‘ology.
Few winemakers would argue that to make great wines, you need great quality grapes but winemaking methods can vary enormously from region to region, making a big difference to the taste of the final wine. As part of our Grape Fantastic event, we’ve decoded four of the most obvious wine terms which all contribute to giving you the best possible taste.
The elephant in the room – the mere mention of oak can make even sensible folk run a mile. Oak barrels are used as vessels to ferment, age and impart flavours in the wine – ranging from vanilla to spice to wood-smoke. The actual extent of that influence depends on the age and ‘toast’ of the barrel (how much the wood has been fired and seasoned). Oak ageing can be very subtle, with some winemakers choosing to age only a small percentage of the wine in oak – or very intense, with the entire production aged in new oak barrels for long periods. As long as there is plenty of fruit and acidity to balance out the oakiness, then this can really take the wines to another level (and it’s no coincidence that the world’s most expensive wines tend to be oak aged).
Maceration (carbonic or otherwise)
If you’re a cook, you’ll know that macerating involves steeping fruit and juices together. The same happens with wine when the grape skins and juices are allowed to macerate for hours, days or weeks depending on the desired effect. Maceration adds greater depth and complexity to the final wine as the grape skins contain all the relevant flavour compounds and tannins to add structure. Spot the words ‘carbonic maceration’ (no not an age-defying beauty treatment) and you’ve got a wine that undergoes maceration in a sealed tank into which CO2 is pumped. The grapes go into the tank whole, meaning that fermentation occurs inside the grape, resulting in wines with very soft tannins and juicy fruit – Beaujolais is the obvious example.
Above sea level
Why does the wine trade (us included) bang on about sea level so much? The influence of the sea on the style of wine cannot be under-estimated, with many of the world’s great wine regions positioned close (but not too close) to the ocean – think Bordeaux, Napa Valley and Stellenbosch to name a few. But how does the altitude of a vineyard affect the quality of the wine? Quite simply, vines need a long, slow ripening season to produce small, concentrated grapes with good acidity. Altitude provides just that – higher vineyards mean cooler temperatures and a greater difference between day and night-time temperatures which allows the vines to cool down at night and heat up during the day – all necessary to bring you the greatest quality wine.
Stirring/ageing on the lees
Not some ancient, pagan ritual involving a bloke called Lee, this is actually a classic method of imparting flavour and texture in wine and is generally used for whites. The lees are the dead yeast cells left in the bottom of the tank after fermentation has finished. Stirring the wine in the tank (the French term is bâtonnage) imparts a richer flavour into the final wine – useful for lighter whites which need a bit of oomph and texture. The obvious example is Muscadet Sur Lie (on the lees), a very light, fresh Loire white which is aged on the lees for the winter following the harvest, or Champagne, where the still wine goes through a secondary fermentation in the bottle, leaving the dead yeast cells to work their magic for years (with regular riddling or turning of the bottles to stir the cells).
And you thought it was just a case of turning sugar into alcohol
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