Winemaking: Your Easy Guide to Everything You Should Know

What goes into winemaking? While it’s perfectly possible to love a great wine without knowing all the industry ‘jargon’, it sure can help you find the perfect vintage to match your taste and mood. As the home of the best Cape Chardonnay, Louisvale Wines firmly believes that everyone should be able to access and enjoy the wider world of winemaking. Today we’re here with some basic wine terms to help you dive deeper into winemaking- and everything you need to know to pick an ideal match, no matter your tastes or preferences.

It’s All French to Me!

If you’ve ever wondered why so many wine terms seem to be French, it’s because France has a long and rich history of winemaking and has been a major producer of wine for centuries. In fact, France is widely regarded as one of the most important wine-producing countries in the world! Many of the most famous and prestigious wines, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, were first produced there, and were named for the regions that inspired them.

During the Middle Ages, French monks played a crucial role in the development and spread of winemaking techniques, and many of the terms and concepts associated with wine were developed by French winemakers and scholars. As a result, many of the key terms used in winemaking and wine tasting, such as terroir, appellation, and bouquet, are derived from French, although they are used universally in the wine world today. While the world of wine is global today, many winemakers in other countries, including South Africa, use French terminology and techniques in their winemaking processes as a way to pay homage to the country’s rich winemaking tradition and to give their wines a sense of prestige and authenticity.

Key Winemaking Terms to Know

Now let’s dive deeper into some common wine terminology everyone should know. Let’s start with the journey from grape to table.

The terroir of a wine refers to the environmental factors, such as soil, climate, and topography, that affect the growth and flavour of grapes. Fermentation is the process by which yeast converts the sugar in grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide, creating the wines we love so much. Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that can take place after primary fermentation. It converts harsh malic acid into softer lactic acid, resulting in a smoother, creamier wine.

Aging refers to the period during which wine is stored in barrels or bottles before it is ready to be consumed. Aging can enhance the flavour and complexity of wine, but not all wines need to be greatly aged to taste wonderful. Many wines get all their ageing done before they’re bottled, so they’re ready to drink the moment you buy them. In fact, some of the lighter and more delicate wines will lose taste and complexity if you over-age them, and are specifically made for a fast consumption. While it does depend on the variety of wine, it’s typically the heavier reds that can be kept (and improved) for many years in a cellar. Light reds and most whites have a shorter lifespan, so you can drink them as you please.

Why? It mostly comes down to tannins. Tannins are a type of organic compound that are found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. They give wine a dry, puckering sensation in the mouth and help to preserve it. They can be harsh on the throat, however, but this can be offset by a studied and controlled exposure to oxygen, which happens through the cork in storage. Wines with harsh tannins benefit from this steady ageing, while those lighter on tannins may start to taste oxidised with too much exposure. When a wine acquires this mushy, ‘wet dog’ or ‘cardboard’ aroma, it has become corked– a term that doesn’t refer to the actual cork, but rather an unpleasant chemical reaction caused by oxygen over-exposure.

Choosing a Taste

How do you know what you’re getting when you buy a wine? A varietal or single variety wine is made from a single type of grape, such as Chardonnay, Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon.  A blend refers instead to a wine that is made from two or more different grape varieties. Winemakers blend wines to create a desired flavour profile or to achieve a specific style, so don’t assume a blend is lesser than a varietal! The barrel a wine is aged in will also have an impact on flavour. Oak barrels, for example, can add flavours such as vanilla, caramel, and spice to wine, and these wines will be called oaky.

Wine of Origin (WO) means the grapes came from one, very specific, geographic location, and were not mixed with grape varieties from anywhere else. MCC, or Méthode Cap Classique, is the correct term for a local sparkling wine. While we often think of these all as champagne, and they are at the heart, only wines originating from a specific valley in France can actually use the term.

Red wines are typically made with black grapes, while white wines use green grapes. Extraction is the process by which winemakers extract flavour, colour, and tannins from grape skins during the fermentation process. Sometimes the lees, or the deposits formed from yeast, sugar, and the grape skins, are added back to a wine to create different flavours or depths.

Acidity refers to the level of tartness or sourness in wine. High acidity can give wine a crisp, refreshing taste, while low acidity can make it taste flat and lifeless. The taste you’re left with (think smokey, tart, and so on) after you drink is called the finish, while the body is the mouth-feel you get as you drink. It’s usually divided into light, medium, or full.

There’s a wealth of other terms, like complexity, depth, and earthiness, which you will encounter. These are reasonably self-explanatory terms, each giving a better idea of the drinking experience you’ll have. Dry wines are the opposite of sweet wines, with little sugar taste (although they still contain sugar). Earthy wines are the counter to fruit-forward wines- either undertones of berries and fruits, or a delectable bitterness and peppery traces

While having so many terms to describe winemaking and the wine experience can seem intimidating, don’t be scared! While wine lovers can get very romantic with their terminology and descriptions, the Louisvale Wines team is always here to help you find your perfect match.