Wine terms can be a complex maze of technical words and verbose tasting notes. But they certainly don’t need to be. We’re breaking down some of the terminology you might hear when buying wine or attending a tasting to help untangle the tasting notes.
There are two types of acid, Malic, the sharp acid that might be found in granny smith apples or lemons, and Lactic, the acids found in milk, cream or cheese. Often referred to as Malolactic Fermentation, although really it’s more a conversion than a fermentation, the term “malolactic” refers to the process where the harsh malic acids are converted to softer lactic acids. This process is generally encouraged cooler climates, where acidity can sometimes be too prominent. Conversely, winemakers in some warmer climates might even decide to block malolactic to help retain the freshness of the malic acid in the wine. It's worth noting that this winemaking choice is especially relevant in making white or sparkling wines as malolactic tends to always be allowed when producing red wines.
Malolactic fermentation helps to soften the acids in Gusbourne's wines, leading to a rounder, creamy texture on the palate.
Residual sugar is essentially the sugar left in the finished wine after fermentation. In the case of our sparkling wines, the residual sugar also includes any dosage we have added.
Residual sugar – sometimes shortened to RS – is measured in grams (of sugar) per litre (of wine). The higher the g/l, generally speaking the ‘sweeter’ the wine will taste.
All our wines will have a residual sugar level less than 12 g/l, which means they’re classed as dry.
The term dosage refers to the addition of a mixture of wine and sugar to the sparkling wines, post-disgorgement and before putting in the cork.
The dosage in sparkling wine not only helps to balance the acidity of the final wine, but also adds to the texture and will affect the wine as it ages.
Fermentation can take place in many different vessels – from stainless steel vats, oak barrels, or sometimes even concrete. All vessels will impart different characteristics to a wine.
At Gusbourne, we use a lot of stainless steel vats to ferment the wines for our sparkling cuvées. Stainless steel is a neutral material, which means it doesn’t impart any other flavours to the wine and allows the grapes to express more fruit character, leading to more freshness in the wines.
We also ferment a significant amount of parcels in oak barrels. This approach leads to base wines with more complexity, richness and creaminess. The age of the barrel makes a difference to the taste of the base wine. A newer barrel will likely give more vanilla spice notes and an older barrel will create more subtle, creamy base wines.
Titratable Acidity is simply the measurement of the total acidity within the wine. It is determined by a simple titration (for any of us who remember anything of our chemistry lessons!), hence the name.
Acidity is a key component in wines, especially in traditional method sparkling wines, providing structure, freshness and balance. Often, the acidity of a wine will balance any residual sugar resulting from the dosage.
Alcohol is created by the fermentation process. Sugars present in the grape juice are eaten by yeast enzymes and are converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Alcohol levels in wine vary depending on the amount of natural sugars in the fruit – riper grapes will have higher levels of natural sugars present and will therefore produce higher levels of alcohol in the fermenting process.
pH is another indicator of acidity, although different to total acidity (in fact the figures are the opposite way around).
The levels of pH in wine are measured on a scale of 0-14, where 0 is very acidic, 14 is very alkaline and 7 is neutral, as in pure water – remember those science lessons again?!
Typically wines will range between 2.5-4.5 on the pH scale, with zesty, fresh white wines being on the lower end of the scale and fuller, riper red wines toward the higher end.
Normally, the lower the pH, the higher the acidity and vice versa, although this isn’t always the case and sometimes pH and titratable acidity comparisons mean more to chemists than they do to those of us enjoying the wines.
Lots of factors can affect the pH level in a wine, from the type of soil, climate, or the particular features of the year itself.
Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist within grape skins. Wines that are high in tannins tend to leave a dryness in your mouth. A wine tutor of mine once likened it to the sensation of drinking a cup of strong, black tea and I think that’s a clever comparison.
We are most likely to experience tannins in a red wine and certain grapes have higher tannin levels than others. Pinot Noir, as a thin-skinned variety, is a grape that tends to show lower levels. They are more subtle and often described as supple, creating structure without too much astringency.
When people talk about the structure of a wine, it's about linking the acidity, tannin levels, alcohol levels, body, sweetness and length, to create a sense of the wine beyond the aromas and flavours.
A wine can be said to be well balanced when all the key components of its structure are present and in harmony.
It’s often the case that either the acidity (more so in white wines) or tannin (more so in red wines) will act as the backbone for the wine, with the body, alcohol, sweetness levels, aromas and flavours creating the full picture around it. It is also the acidity and tannin that will help a wine to age.
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