Let’s talk about some winemaking terms that you’ve surely seen on the back of the wine bottle or heard people chatting about, but may not be entirely clear on what it is they mean. Below we’re covering five of the most used technical or 'jargony' wine words and what they mean about the flavour of a wine:
Fermentation is the process whereby happy little yeasts eat the sugars in the grape juice (must), and in turn produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. The yeasts are naturally present in the winery and on the skins of the grapes, and find their way into the wine all by themselves; you will hear this called a “natural fermentation”. Natural Fermentation is popular in the low intervention winemaking crowd and in traditional old world wineries, and many believe it can impart more complex flavours to their wines.
The other school of winemaking will inoculate their juice with a batch of commercially made yeasts, which is more commonly seen, as it allows more control over the winemaking process including the flavours produced. Sometimes, a bit of both happens, a natural ferment topped up with some help from commercial yeasts.
The fermentation process itself can be done in stainless steel tanks, which are efficient and easy to clean, barrels (called a “barrel fermentation”), or even concrete eggs, which mimic ancient clay vessels and are thought to increase circulation of the fermenting must.
Malolactic Fermentation (Malo)
Have you seen a reference to “malo” on your wine label or heard the word at a winery? Malo is a process that happens towards the end of or just after the alcoholic fermentation is done. It is caused by a bacteria which transforms the sharp tasting malic acid present in the wine, into the softer, creamier tasting lactic acid (think of a tart green apple versus a creamy dairy flavour). Most red wines undergo this process, and it won’t necessarily be mentioned in the winemaking notes. Where you will see it is on softer whites such as Chardonnay, where a creamy, buttery flavour can be desirable. Crisp, aromatic whites, such as Riesling, are not likely to go through malolactic fermentation.
Methode Champenoise/Traditional Method
The “Champagne Method” (called the “Traditional Method” when used on non-Champagne sparkling wines), is how makers get the bubbles inside the bottle. This process is a labour of love responsible for the fine creamy bubbles we’ve come to expect from Champagne. Other wines that use this method are French Cremants, Cava from Spain, Franciacorta from Italy, and many new world sparklings.
My favourite new world sparkling wines are Blue Mountain’s Reserve Brut and Summerhill’s Cipes Brut, both from British Columbia. But don't get me started!
After the initial fermentation, winemakers fill the Champagne bottles with the wine, and a mixture of extra yeast and sugar. This allows a smaller second fermentation to happen inside the bottle. As the yeasts eat the sugar within the bottle, they produce carbon dioxide that is trapped and creates pressure that will cause bubbles to form.
The yeasts eventually die, undergoing autolysis (which is where they break down within the wine and give a delicious bread dough aroma and flavour). The bottles are allowed to rest in racks for quite a while, as they are turned a fraction at a time until they are nearly fully inverted, in a process called riddling. The yeast remnants collect into the neck of the bottle, until they are dipped in a freezing solution, and the frozen plug in the bottle neck is disgorged. Extra wine and sometimes sugar, a mixture called dosage, is added to top up the bottle before the cork is applied. With all this to get the bubbles, I bet you can understand why some sparkling wines are more expensive than others!
This is one term you won’t likely see on the label, as some wine folk think it’s a bad thing, but you will definitely come across it in your glass and hear about it from your local wine nerd. Brett is a bacteria that is commonly known by the euphemism “barnyard”. I personally love a touch of the barnyard when I smell a wine, but for some it is off-putting, especially if it's a strong presence in the bottle. I've noticed a wide range of tolerances, for some, even a tiny amount of this smell and it's 'game over' while other people live for it. The Brett bacteria can be present all through the winery, and in small amounts add complexity, but in overwhelming doses is definitely considered a wine fault.
You’ll probably have seen the phrase “new oak”, especially if you are a fan of new world wines. New oak refers to the oak barrels that wine rests in to mellow out before it is bottled and sold. When oak barrels are brand new, they impart a significant amount of flavour to a wine, with aromas like vanilla, toast, and spice. The time in new oak can also smooth out and soften harsh tannins.
Barrels are reused, but most of their flavour is given up in the first two years that they’re filled with wine. After the third year, they can still be used, but they would be called “inert” or “neutral”, meaning they are not imparting much oak flavour anymore. They do however, still have an important purpose for aging the wine: the wood allows a small amount of oxygen to interact with the wine, which will round out the edges on tannins.
You might also see a reference on the wine label to the type of oak used. The two major types of barrels are American and French (although barrels are made elsewhere too). American oak can give vanilla and coconut flavour, and French has a reputation for a finer grained wood which can lend a more elegant finish to the wine.
Barrels are a big expense for a winery, so they are often proud of their new oak. In more commercial grade wines, you can taste the use of cheaper oak chips or oak essence to attempt to replicate the flavours of a new oak barrel.