Wine Speak – Five terms that make back label sense

So, you are on the way home from work on a Friday night and fatigued from a week at the coalface, you pull into your local to grab a bottle to go with your Margherita pizza.

You like white, your partner red, so you decide to get a bottle of each – something new and different, a little opportunity to couch-taste and wind down in front of Netflix.

But after pacing the bewildering wall of wine with the even more bewildering back label “wine speak” for 20 minutes, you wander out crestfallen with a four-pack of Midori Disillusion.

Marketers make a lot of assumptions about the linguistic ability of consumers to actually understand their product and nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of wine.

While a verbose back label has been shown to increase a consumer’s willingness to pay, OTT language often just confuses a willing customer.

If you struggle with this problem, here are a few basics that will improve the experience and keep you coming back for more.

Dry or sweet?

The simple idea of winemaking (first discovered by the Mesopotamians) is to use yeast to replace the natural sugars in grapes, with yummy alcohol. A dry wine has no sugar (or very little) because the yeast has chomped it all up – while a sweet wine has a few grams of sweetness either from the grapes or winemaking process.

A dry wine can be white (Australian Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio) or red (Rose, Shiraz, Cabernet, Grenache), whereas a sweet wine tends to just be white (such as German Riesling, or a very sweet Botrytis dessert wine).

Experienced wine lovers tend to drink dry wines as they are a better complement to food, offer more complex flavours – and generally make you appear more grown up. Sweet wines are for children’s birthday parties.

Many Sauvignon Blancs have a little residual sugar, which explains their popularity as a crossover drink between Vodka Cruisers and Chardonnay… and another clever compromise in recent times is Moscato, which is slightly sweet, low in alcohol and has a light sparkle – a three-way bet for ladies under 25.

Champagne or sparkles?

On the subject of bubbles (which requires no explanation) amateur wine drinkers can be made to feel inferior by sniffy wine shop staff when they take their bottle of Prosecco to the counter and call it Champagne.

Since the mid 1990s the term Champagne can only be used to describe a wine made in the French region with that name. Moet, Mumm, Pol Roger, Bollinger, and Veuve Clicquot are Champagnes and will cost upwards of $50 a bottle to more than $1000 a bottle for an aged vintage version.

Prosecco on the other hand is an Italian sparkling wine that comes from the Veneto and Fruili regions (near Venice) in Italy. It has become very popular for its low alcohol and modest price (under $20/bottle) and is often mixed with Aperol to make a refreshing bitter orange spritzer.

Australian sparkling wines (Jansz, Croser, Arras, Grant Burge, Chandon) are made with the same grapes in the same way as Champagne and often taste the same – but they are not Champagne and are generally priced under $50… which makes them a very enjoyable and patriotic celebratory drink.

Vintage or non-vintage?

Most wines have the year of vintage on the front or back label, to record when the grapes were picked and the wine fermented. This helps collectors know when to drink their cellared wines (five to ten years is ideal) and provides them with an opportunity to argue that the 1990 was better than the 1987 at boring dinner parties.

The vintage date should not be confused with the release date of a wine – it is quite common for a red wine to be released three, four or five years after it was made so it is at the optimum drinking stage. Hence the 2013 vintage Penfolds Grange only hit thirsty bottle shop shelves this year.

Non-vintage wines mainly come from Champagne, blends of wines from several different years. The goal here is to achieve a “house style” that is consistent and recognisable by Champagne lovers who drink it by the bucket.

Proving that there is an exception to every wine rule there are also vintage Champagnes, made only in very good years, and sold at a higher price.

The other main non-vintage wine is the old “bag in the box” cask, again a stylistic blend to suit a perennial demand for wines that are not too complex and are easy to drink.

Oaked or un-oaked?

Maturing wine in oak barrels started around the time Egyptian winemakers got sick of seeing their work smashed to pieces in clay pots.

One would think that we had moved on, but surprisingly we still use oak barrels to mature wine because unlike stainless steel tanks or glass bottles, the staves (or strips of wood that make up the barrel) allow the aging wine to breathe.

Oak has been mainly used to mature red wines such as Shiraz, Cabernet or Pinot Noir – it has a softening effect and also imparts some interesting flavours such as spice (French oak) and coconut and vanilla (American oak). Most premium quality red wines have been aged in an oak hogshead (larger) or barrique (smaller) barrels for 12 to 18 months prior to release, and increasingly wineries use a second or third use barrel to make the oak influence more subtle.

It is not uncommon to find white wines that have also been aged in oak (or at least fermented in oak barrels) to impart some extra flavour and complexity. For many years Australian Chardonnay was the main white wine that had oak influence, based on similar practices in France. However, things got a little heavy handed and after a while tasting these wines was like licking a floorboard. Now you’ll find superb Chardonnays across a whole flavour spectrum from fresh unoaked to more complex oaked styles.

Only Chardonnay? Other robust varieties such as Viognier or Roussanne can stand up to some oak treatment without being dominated by wood, but Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc are too delicate for oak. Remember, never, ever, ask for an unoaked Riesling!

Full bodied or medium bodied?

Historically Cabernet (which is used to make French Bordeaux wines) was described as medium bodied and elegant, while Shiraz (which made Hermitage) as full-bodied and textural – a result of the way the wines were made and aged and the ripeness of the grapes at harvest.

“Body” is an attempt at describing the physical properties of a wine – its richness and heaviness, its acidity and tannin and “mouth-feel”, rather than flavour or aroma.

The easiest way to understand the term is to think of tea. Green tea is light to medium bodied – it is refreshing, lean, thin and does not have a lot of tannin (that grainy, dry feeling at the back of the tongue that you need to scrape off with your toothbrush). On the other hand two tea bags of Twinings Extra Strength brewed for ten minutes will be noticeably thicker, stronger and have more tannin and acid – it is a full bodied “breakfast of champions”.

With improvements in winemaking and viticulture there are now young, fresh medium bodied Shiraz, and big, tannic full-bodied Cabernet as well as medium bodied Pinot and full bodied Grenache.

The main thing is to remember the difference… or pay the palate price!

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