So you’ve more or less got your head (and tastebuds) around the more important grape varieties. But many wines are blends of two or more varieties, made in a traditional and/or regional style, or they are best described in terms of certain techniques that have been used (or proudly NOT used!) in the vineyard and cellar.
It can all make it quite tricky to work out the contents of a wine bottle from its label, but hopefully the following A to Z of Wine Styles and A to Z of Techniques (focusing on terms that you’re likely to see in South Africa) will help you to cut through all the geek speak.
Blanc de Blancs… ‘White from whites’; a white wine made only from white grapes, sometimes a blend of two or more varieties, most often referring to sparkling wine made from Chardonnay.
Blanc de Noir… ‘White from black’; usually a very pale pink wine (sometimes even white) made from red grapes by removing the juice from the skins immediately or soon after the crush or pressing, thereby reducing the tannins and amount of colour imparted to the wine. Synonyms include ‘blush’.
Blanc Fumé… Dry white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc, generally wooded.
Blends… Most wines are blends, whether different parcels of the same variety or different varieties altogether. The thinking is that the final wine is greater than the sum of its parts. If component parts are named, the largest must be named first. See ‘Bordeaux-style blend’, ‘Cape blend’, ‘Rhône-style blend’.
Bordeaux-style blend… A blend of some or all of the grapes grown in this famous French wine region, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Read more here. The white equivalent is Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillon (see ‘white blend’ below).
Brut… Used to describe a sparkling wine that is dry in taste. See also ‘sugar levels’.
Burgundy… Famous wine region in France. Synonymous with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Cap Classique… See ‘Méthode Cap Classique’.
Cape blend… Increasingly used to describe a red blend that includes Pinotage in the varietal mix.
Carbonated… Beverages impregnated with gas (CO₂), under pressure.
Charmat… A method of producing sparkling wine by allowing a second fermentation to take place in large stainless steel tanks, from which the wine is drawn off and bottled under pressure.
Cultivar… Cultivated variety of grape. See ‘variety’.
Cuvée… A particular lot or barrel selection, or wine from a specific grape variety or blend that’s been kept separate from the bulk of what’s produced.
Demi-Sec… A level of sweetness in sparkling wine. Although French for half-dry, demi-sec bubblies are often semi- to medium-sweet. See also ‘sugar levels’.
Dessert Wine… Collective term for sweet wine styles typically served with dessert after a meal, though sometimes prior to a meal (e.g. together with foie gras). Inclusive of Noble Late Harvest (botrytis) wines, certain Late Harvest and Special Late Harvest wines, Natural Sweet wine, Straw Wine (Vin de Paille) and certain fortified wines. See also ‘sugar levels’.
Doux… Usually relating to sweet sparkling wine. See ‘sugar levels’.
Dry… Describing wine with no perceptible taste of sugar (below 0.7%). See also ‘sugar levels’.
Estate… In South African’s Wine of Origin appellation system, this is the smallest wine production unit, farmed as a unit and with its own production cellar. ‘Estate’ on the label implies that the wine was produced on that estate from grapes grown on that estate.
Fortified… A wine with its alcohol strength imparted or increased by the addition of brandy, grape spirit, or neutral spirit. 15% to 24% alcohol by volume. See also ‘Port’, ‘Sherry’, ‘Muscadel’, ‘Jerepigo’.
Grand Cru… French for ‘great growth’ – a specific area, or wine from that area. In South Africa, the term can infer simply dry white wine. See also ‘premier grand cru’.
Jerepigo… Very sweet fortified wine that involves stopping fermentation in the very early stages – or preventing fermentation altogether – by adding grape spirit to the grape juice or must. Synonyms include Jerepiko or Jerepico (South Africa), and Jeropiga (Portugal).
Kosher… Wine produced in strict accordance to Jewish dietary laws, under rabbinical supervision.
Late Harvest… Points to a sweeter style of wine made from grapes picked later than most. See ‘sugar levels’.
MCC… Méthode ‘Cap Classique’.
Méthode Cap Classique… Sparkling wines produced by the traditional method – known as méthode champenoise until the European Union placed an embargo on the term – which means they undergo a second fermentation in bottle. Sugar and yeast is added to bottles of wine that are then sealed. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of fermentation, is trapped inside the wine under pressure and is eventually released as bubbles (the ‘mousse’) when the sparkling wine is served. The process was made famous in Champagne, France, which is the only place permitted to use the name Champagne. In South Africa it is known as ‘Cap Classique’, for example, in Spain as Cava.
Muscadel… South African term for sweet wine made from Muscat grape varieties, usually fortified. Moscatel in France.
Natural Sweet… Dessert wine, sweeter than Late Harvest, sometimes as sweet as Noble Late Harvest (but usually without the influence of botrytis). See also ‘sugar levels.’
Natural wine… Usually grown organically, these are wines in which nothing that could inhibit the normal processes of nature is added during the winemaking process.
Noble Late Harvest… Sweet wine produced from very ripe, shrivelled white grapes that have been affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. Such grapes have a high sugar concentration due to dehydration caused by the botrytis. See also ‘sugar levels’.
Perlé, petillant… Wines with light bubbles, slightly carbonated.
Port… A fortified wine made famous in the Douro region of Portugal. Port-style wines are also made in South Africa, often using the traditional Portuguese grape varieties but with the word ‘Cape’ having now been adopted to differentiate the local product. The different styles are Cape Ruby, Cape Vintage, Cape Vintage Reserve, Cape Late Bottled Vintage, Cape Tawny, Cape Tawny Dated, and Cape White.
Premier Grand Cru… South African term for austere dry white wine. See also ‘grand cru’.
Reserve… Depending on the producer, it can signify the winery’s best wines. Sometimes meaningless.
Rhône-style blend… While red wines from the northern Rhône are usually made from Syrah (Shiraz), sometimes with a little Viognier added, this term usually refers to red blends of Syrah with Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and/or Cinsault, the style most famous in the southern Rhône (whose most famous wine is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a blend of 13 varieties!).
Rosé… Pink in colour. Can be made by simply blending red and white wine, but mostly made from ‘red’ grape juice left in contact with the skins during fermentation (similar to Blanc de Noir but deliberately ‘pinker’). The juice is then run off the skins and treated the same way as white wine, and can be dry to semi-sweet.
Sec… French for ‘dry’. See ‘sugar levels’.
Sherry… Fortified wine, traditionally made in the Jerez district of Spain. Sherry grapes (white) are dried in the open before being pressed at low temperature, and the product gains its unique characteristics from the addition of flor, a specific type of wine yeast. Types: Fino (dry and light in colour), Oloroso (sweet and fairly dark), Amoroso (lighter in colour and sweeter than Oloroso), and brown (dark and sweet).
Single-vineyard… Wine from an officially registered vineyard, no larger than six hectares in size and planted to a single variety.
Sparkling Wine… Wine (white, red, rosé or Blanc de Noir) that has either undergone a second fermentation in the bottle – see ‘Méthode Cap Classique’ – or in pressure tanks (see ‘Charmat’), or has undergone gas impregnation (see ‘carbonated’). Sweetness levels: brut (extra dry), sec (dry), demi-sec (semi-sweet), doux (sweet). See also ‘sugar levels’.
Special Late Harvest… South African term for dessert wine that is sweeter than Late Harvest, less sweet than Noble Late Harvest. Not botrytised. See also ‘sugar levels’.
Steen… South African term for the variety Chenin Blanc, not to be confused with ‘Stein’.
Stein… Used in South Africa to describe a semi-sweet white wine, of which many examples (not all) have a high percentage of ‘Steen’ in the blend.
Straw Wine… Sweet nectar resulting from late-picked grapes being left to dry and shrivel in the sun on straw matting. Synonym for Vin de Paille (French). See also ‘sugar levels’.
Sugar Levels… Sweetness levels of bone-dry to very sweet dessert wines are measured according to grams of sugar per litre. In South Africa, the sugar levels are defined as follows for still wines: Extra-dry (less than 2.5g/l), Dry (2.5 to 5g/l), Semi-dry (5 to 12g/l), Semi-sweet (5 to 30g/l), Late Harvest (20 to 30g/ll), Special Late Harvest (up to 50g/l), Natural Sweet (over 30g/l), both Noble Late Harvest and Straw Wine (over 50g/l).
Sweet Wine… See ‘dessert wine’ and ‘sugar levels’.
Table Wine… Generally refers to unfortified, non-sparkling, non-dessert wines, i.e. you’d serve it with a meal.
Varietal… See ‘variety’.
Varietal Wine… Wine sold under the name of a particular grape, in which case it must contain a minimum of 85% of wine made from the ’variety’ specified.
Variety… Type of grape or vine plant, such as Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc etc. See A to Z of grape varieties in SA.
Vin de Paille… See ‘Straw Wine’.
Vintage… The year in which the grapes were harvested to make a particular wine. At least 85% of a wine must come from a given vintage for it to be referred to on the label.
White blend… Cheap versions used to be a good way of mopping up leftovers, but some believe a growing number of premium examples have the potential to become South Africa’s ultimate wines. A Bordeaux-style white blend traditionally contains Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, but many top winemakers are basing their wines on Chenin Blanc. Read more here.
Wine… So what’s in a bottle of fermented grape juice? Typically water (over 85%); alcohol (ethyl); glycerol (1%); organic acids (tartaric, lactic, other); carbohydrates; minerals; tannin and colour pigments – also traces of volatile acids (mainly acetic), nitrogenous matter (amino acids, protein, other), esters (mainly ethyl acetate), aldehydes (mostly acetic, vanillin, other), alcohols other than ethyl, traces of vitamins.
Winemaking… The conventional process can be summed up very briefly as follows: Vines are cultivated; grapes are harvested when ripe; grapes are crushed/pressed; the juice or ‘must’ is fermented (usually with the addition of yeast cultures) in steel tanks or oak barrels (and in contact with the grape-skins for some of the time in the case of reds to extract colour and tannin); given oak treatment as required (for most reds and certain whites, in barrel or alternatively with staves or chips); matured in barrel (mainly for better quality reds); the resulting wine then racked and/or fined to remove unwanted matter from the wine; bottled; and finally matured in bottle (in the case of wines made to improve with age).
Wine of Origin… Originating from a particular area. In South Africa, the Wine of Origin Seal issued by the Wine and Spirit Board and attached to the neck or capsule of a wine bottle certifies that the grapes from which the wine was made were grown in the area as claimed on the label.
These are some of the things that can be done or added throughout the winemaking process (things that producers often like to mention on their labels!):
Acid/acidification… Warm climates can result in wines with low acidity, making them taste dull and flat. In South Africa, winemakers are permitted to add acid at any stage during the winemaking process, though quality-minded ones prefer to achieve it naturally.
Ageing… See ‘maturation’.
Barrel-fermented… Fermenting ‘must’ or juice is placed into barrels instead of tank, the idea being that the wine will acquire stronger oak flavours than wines merely aged in oak barrels.
Bottle-fermented… Sparkling wines produced by the traditional method – méthode champenoise – which means they undergo a second fermentation in bottle. Sugar and yeast is added to bottles of wine that are then sealed. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of fermentation, is trapped inside the wine under pressure and is eventually released as bubbles (the ‘mousse’) when the sparkling wine is served. The process was made famous in Champagne, France, which is the only place permitted to use the name Champagne. In South Africa it is known as ‘Cap Classique’, for example, in Spain as Cava.
Batonage… See ‘lees’.
Carbonic maceration… This means that the grapes have not been crushed. Whole bunches, complete with stalks, are placed into a closed vat, and fermentation occurs within the grapes, causing them to burst by themselves.
Cold ferment… In a warm country, keeping the temperature down (between 13 and 16˚C) is a good way to conserve primary fruit flavours during the fermentation of white wines.
Cold soaking… In red winemaking, the unfermented juice is kept in contact the skins for a few days to ensure colour and flavour extraction – but at a cool temperature to prevent fermentation.
Cold stabilisation… The finished wine is kept at about –4˚C for a week, causing the tartaric acid to precipitate out of the wine (which might otherwise happen later in bottle – the crystals are harmless but a bit unpleasant in your mouth!).
Disgorgement… For sparkling wines made in the Champagne method (with a second fermentation taking place in the bottle), disgorgement is the step when the dead yeast cells are removed from the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then sealed under cork.
Filtration… The process that removes any impurities still in the wine, including yeast cells. Some winemakers bottle their wine ‘unfiltered’ believing that filtration removes a wine’s body and character.
Fining… The ‘protein stabilisation’ process used to remove any particles suspended in the wine by adding substances (including egg white, gelatine and milk – which is why most wines are not vegan-friendly!). These bind with the particles and draw them out. Some winemakers bottle their wine ‘unfined’ believing that the process removes a wine’s body and character (or they’re eyeing the vegan market?).
Free-run juice… This is the ‘best’ or most pure juice that runs off once grapes have been destalked and crushed, prior to pressing.
Garagiste… The name of someone making so-called ‘garage wine’, which means in miniscule quantities (sometimes literally in a garage…).
Lees… The dregs or sediment that settles at the bottom of a barrel or fermentation tank made up of dead yeast cells and other matter (grape-skin fragments, grape seeds, tartrates etc). Yeast autolysis or decomposition can impart richness and flavour to a wine (described as being ‘sur lie’), which is why winemakers stir the lees (a process known as ‘batonage’). The term primarily applies to barrel-fermented white wines.
Malolactic fermentation… The chemical conversion of harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid, often shortened to ‘malo’. It’s desirable in most reds but in a warm country like South Africa winemakers usually prefer their whites to retain as much punchy acidity as possible.
Maturation… The ageing potential of red wines is closely related to tannins, of white wines to acidity. No wine will improve with age if it isn’t stored properly.
Micro-oxygenation… Tiny amounts of oxygen are added to the must (juice) or wine, a process which some winemakers believe enhances colour stability and softer tannins.
Made from organically grown grapes… Wine made from grapes farmed in an environmentally friendly way, as opposed to ‘conventionally’ using artificial fertilisers and toxic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides etc. Read more about organic, biodynamic and other green wines here.
Racking… This involves draining or pumping wine from one barrel or tank to another in order to leave the ‘lees’ behind.
Reductive winemaking… This means the wine is made without any exposure to air/oxygen, sometimes through reliance on substantial levels of ‘sulphur dioxide’. After opening, the wines often need some time to open up, or indeed for the pongy sulphur compounds to dissipate.
Skin contact… All red wines have been given skin contact, as this is where the clear grape juice picks up colour, ‘tannins’ etc. Sometimes white grapes are also left with the juice, the thinking being that this will maximise flavour extraction (but other winemakers avoid it, believing that it leads to bitterness).
Sulphur dioxide… Used since ancient times as the wine industry’s all-purpose disinfectant and preservative, its use is now strictly controlled. In South Africa the maximum total SO₂ level is 150-160mg/l for dry wines, 200mg/l for wines with over 5g/l residual sugar, and 300g/l for very sweet botrytis-style wines. All wines with over 10mg/l total SO₂ must carry the warning ‘contains sulphites’ although only a very tiny percentage of people are sulphur intolerant. Wines labelled ‘sulphur-free’ or ‘no-added-sulphur’ have been made without any added SO₂ (though it should be noted that SO₂ is a natural by-product of the fermentation process). Read more here.
Tannins… The phenolic substances that come from the grape skins, pips and stems, as well as from the wood of the barrels in which some wines are fermented and/or matured. Necessary for a red wine’s longevity, they manifest on the palate as a dryness (and a slight bitterness in wines of lower quality), which soften naturally over time through interaction with the fruit acids and minute amounts of oxygen dissolved in the wine at the time of bottling.
Unfiltered… Just that, a wine that has not undergone ‘filtration’. It may have more body and character as a result, but it is also more likely to throw a sediment (and therefore may require decanting).
Unfined… A wine that has not been fined. See ‘fining’.
Whole-bunch pressing… Instead of destalking and crushing grapes (the modern norm), this is the age-old process of placing whole bunches (stalks and all) into the press. Practitioners say it yields fresher, cleaner juice.
Yeast inoculation… Fermentation cannot take place with the presence of yeasts, with most wine yeasts belonging to the genus Saccharomyces (meaning ‘sugar loving’). Although yeasts occur naturally on the surface of grape skins, most winemakers find it more convenient/controllable to inoculate the grape must with commercially cultivated yeasts. Some like to tell you that their wines have ‘fermented naturally’ or using ‘wild yeasts’.