Traversing wine geekdom: How to use wine terms fluently

Wine bottle pictureNavigating the wine world’s vernacular can be tricky. Word landmines lurk on the tongue of many wine enthusiasts, whether delivered helpfully or haughtily. I’m here to expose what lies beneath the pedant’s talk.

Malolactic Fermentation. Even Microsoft Word swiggly-lines “malolactic,” a scientific word previously confined to a winemaker’s lab. Malolactic fermentation, or “Em El” (get it, M-L?) in wine circles, got released to the wild when Americans fell in love with buttery, oaky wines. To the science-challenged people among us, it’s a confusing term that begs, “Huh?” Basically, malolactic fermentation is the transformation of malic acid – a tart, bitter substance found also in green apples – into creamy, buttery lactic acid (of dairy product fame). Some wines, after undergoing the initial, alcohol-producing first fermentation end up tasting harsh and biting. So winemakers add a dose of bacteria (or rely on those floating in the air) to initiate Em El and smooth out the sharp edges. Without it, many reds and whites, especially chardonnays, would be an acidic, tongue-desiccating mess.

Sur Lees. The French have a way of romanticizing even the most disgusting things (consider the snail). “Lees” is a lovely, innocuous French term for the goopy leftovers from fermentation. Made up of dead yeasts and other particles, it resembles liquid tofu. When winemakers want to add creaminess and body to an otherwise dull white wine, instead of draining or “racking” off the goop, they allow the liquid to stew with the lees for a few weeks, sometimes months, stirring occasionally to expose as much of the wine to the substance as possible. Yes, it may sound like soaking in a tub when you’re filthy, but like a lavender milk bath for skin, it does groovy things to wine.

Hot, tight. Although they sound like a promising first date or Brad Pitt’s butt after a workout, these terms relate to wine’s flavor not appearance. I have no idea when or why someone sniffed a wine, noticed it reeked of alcohol and uttered, “It smells hot.” But that’s what the term means in today’s wine-tasting jargon. Maybe it’s because the heady, grain alcohol whiff almost burns your nose hair. Usually though, the smell dissipates as it mixes with air. Tight wines, on the other hand, are like my skinny jeans fresh out of the dryer – they don’t give. Flavor, that is. These specimens normally need to sit for a while to relax and stretch a little before you sip. Younger, tannic reds have this issue mostly, like Bordeaux, some California cabernets or Spanish Riojas.

Chocolate, cherry, caramel, blackberry, etc. When I spout off descriptors like this, it’s not the ingredient list on a label. Legally, a winery cannot add anything to the grape juice other than a list of unpronounceable substances that adjust acidity, sugar levels and other stuff too science-y for an English major to comprehend. The interesting and generous flavors come from the natural fruit and winemaking techniques. Makes the beverage that much more interesting, huh?

A useful video about malolactic fermentation

More about Lees and why they are important


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