This article is a part of Wine Week—seven days celebrating all things wine—presented in partnership by our friends at Bread & Butter Wines.
To be an educated wine consumer means you have to speak a bit of a different language. Wine terms can be hard to understand, counterintuitive, and difficult to pair with what you experience when tasting wine. Ultimately, this can leave you feeling like simply ordering the second-most expensive glass on the list. That’s why we put together this no nonsense pocket wine dictionary—so you can feel confident when ordering at a bar or choosing a bottle at your local wine shop.
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The varietal, or variety, refers to the name of the grape used to make the wine. Chardonnay is a varietal, as are Pinot Noir, Syrah, Riesling, and other kinds of grapes.
The cellar is where the winemaking work is done. Grapes come in from the vineyard, and then it’s cellar time. This is where winemakers ferment the grapes into wine and make technical and stylistic decisions, such as the fermentation method, when to press, fining and filtering (tactics to make your wine crystal-clear and free of sediment), etc.
Tannin is a phenolic compound—aka a chemical compound that affects the flavor and texture of a wine—found in plants. In grapes, it’s found in the skins, stems, and seeds. For example, a deeply brewed black tea gets its astringent, fuzzy textural elements from tannin. Red wines have more tannin than white wine, generally. Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are known for their tannin, whereas Pinot Noir and Gamay have lighter tannin. Everyone has their own tannin preference—communicate yours to your bartender to get a glass you’ll love.
The acidity in wine is what makes you salivate—it’s how tart the wine is. A given grape will have a mix of sweet, tannic, and acidic properties, and those elements must be balanced well in order to make a great wine. Acidity can depend on grape varietal and the growing region. Cooler growing regions tend to make higher acid wines, so wines like Riesling (grown in Germany) tend to have higher acidity, whereas Chardonnay (grown in Australia) trends toward lower.
Skin Contact & Orange Wine
Orange wine is not made with oranges. It’s a style of fermentation where the skins of the grapes are left in contact with the juice, allowing for the juice to soak up some of the color, texture, and flavor from the grape skins. When white wine is made, after the white grapes are crushed, the skins are usually separated from the juice so the wine can retain a lighter color, texture, and flavor. White grape skins aren’t really white. They can have a tint anywhere from orange to pink, and they store a ton of flavor and tannin. Skin contact wines can range in flavor including citrus, bitter, floral, and fruity.
Pétillant-naturel, or pét-nat, is a style of sparkling wine. (This is also sometimes called méthode-ancestrale.) Before the wine is fully fermented, it’s poured into a bottle and sealed with a crown cap. The yeast in the fermenting wine keeps working, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the bottle. This method creates a lively sparkler and is always unfiltered (meaning there’ll be some natural sediment at the bottom).
Stainless Steel & Oak
Stainless steel and oak refer to different vessels used to ferment or age the wine. When it comes to vessels, winemakers can choose from oak, steel, clay (amphorae), concrete, or any variety of vessel type based on the flavors and textures they want to see in the finished wine. New oak vessels add texture to wine and give it a toasty, nutty, vanilla flavor, whereas stainless steel imparts no flavor at all. That oaky Chardonnay flavor you’ve likely encountered before? Oak vessels (and sometimes oak chips) are the cause.
In order for a wine to be organic, it has to be made with organically grown grapes certified by the USDA. This means no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used, and it’s important to note that the “organic” term only applies to grapes. (Winemakers can still choose to use flavoring agents, textural agents, or other add-ins in the cellar.) Many wineries will say they use organic practices, but won’t have the USDA sticker on their bottle—that’s because the organic certification is expensive and folks often choose to forgo it. So, just because there’s no sticker doesn’t mean the grapes aren’t organic. Talk to your local wine shop staff and ask for wines made with organic grapes—they’ll know which makers to point you toward. Try Les Lunes, Vinca Minor, or Donkey and Goat, three wineries who only work with organic grapes.
Biodynamic wines are always organic. Winemakers who follow a biodynamics regimen will typically focus on nurturing healthy soils with plant teas and herbs, creating beneficial insect communities, and using farm animals for compost and weed control. They may also follow some esoteric practices, like connecting farming tasks to cycles of the moon. A biodynamic wine will usually not have add-ins during its time in the cellar. Meinklang, La Garagista, and Cowhorn are a few wineries that use biodynamic practices.
Natural wine is a term that’s especially buzzy these days, thanks to the rising consumer interest in wines made sustainably. This term does not have an official definition, but usually refers to wine made without any additives, using organic or biodynamic grapes and native yeast for fermentation—none of the store-bought commercial stuff. These wines can be elegant and reserved, or wild and untamed. Since makers are using wild yeast, which lends very different flavors to wine depending on vintage and region, the variety of what’s in your bottle is endless. Frenchtown Farms, Martha Stoumen, and Ruth Lewandowski are great natural wineries to keep an eye out for.
Understanding these terms and how they apply to what you like to drink will help you make more informed choices when you’re buying your wine, whether at your local wine shop, a wine bar, or a wine social club if you’re lucky enough to live near one. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask wine staff questions! Finding a bottle that you enjoy should be an easy and fun experience, and as a wine professional, it’s my hope that these terms will help you get there.