There is a famous story in the Talmud about a non-Jew who came to one of the greatest sages of all times – Hillel – and asked to be told the entire Torah as he stood on one foot. Hillel said to him “that which you hate, don’t do to others; that is the entire Torah, the rest is simply an explanation”. Describing a whole body of knowledge/thought in one sentence is impossible and obviously Hillel didn’t think the individual was that serious. That said, the story got me thinking – how would I describe the world of wine in one sentence? I think it would have to be that “the best wines are the ones you enjoy the most”. Loyal reader ZH suggests “don’t give a bottle to someone that you would not drink yourself”.
As any reader of this newsletter knows, describing anything with one sentence would probably be a great difficulty and thankfully I don’t have to. Below is a mini-glossary of wine terms from A-Z which I hope will be helpful and you will enjoy (comprised of two seperate newsletters). Obviously there any many terms not included below and future newsletters will include additional terms.
Acidity. There are many acids occurring naturally in a wine, with some major ones being but the principle ones are acetic, malic, tartaric, lactic, citric and carbonic acid. Acidity is a significant component in a wine’s balance and longevity and it is crucial to have it in the right proportion. It also contributes to a wine’s “food-friendliness’ by producing a mouth-watering effect that stimulates the senses. Wines lacking in acidity are referred to as “flabby”, bad enough in dry wines but a disaster in sweet dessert wines. A wine’s acidity is detectable on ones palate as a sharpness in the mouth, particularly around the front sides of the tongue but shouldn’t be overly noticeable.
American Viticultural Area (AVA) is the controlled appellation system used in the United States (similar to the AOC in France but significantly less strict). There are currently 198 AVAs, which are defined as a specified grape-growing region distinguished by geographical features. Unlike most European wine appellations of origin, an AVA specifies only a geographical location from which at least 85% of the grapes used to make a wine must have been grown and does not limit the type of grapes grown, the method of vinification, or the crop yield. Kosher wine comes from many AVA’s including Lodi, Santa Cruz Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River and of course – Napa Valley.
Appellation is where the grapes came from – the more specific, the better. The French were the first to create an appellation system (commonly referred to as “AOC”) in 1935 as a means of identifying a wine of particular grapes from a specific place, and there are currently over 500 appellations in France alone. This method of classification has been used as a model for systems around the world including in the United States and, to a lesser extent, Israel, although the French system remains the most rigid by far.
Balance. The balance of a wine contributes to its taste and longevity and is probably one of the most crucial aspects in a wine. A balanced wine is one in which all its various components (tannins, acidity, body, aromas and flavors) live harmoniously together.
Beaujolais is a French appellation that produces young, fruity red wines from the Gamay grapes although there are Grand Cru versions as well that are more serious wines. Beaujolais is the most popular vin de primeur (a wine released in the year it was harvested). The wine is fermented for just a few weeks then officially released for sale on the third Thursday of November – a day known as “Beaujolais Nouveau Day” which sees heavy marketing from the producers, with races to get the first bottles of the vintage to different markets.
Biodynamic is somewhat controversial method of farming that, similar to organic, uses no chemicals or fertilizers, a minimal (or no) filtration and sulfur, and only natural yeast. Strict biodynamics can also incorporate some strange practices (like burying cow horns in the vineyard and an adherence to lunar cycles), which tends to turn many people off. I am in the process of writing a piece on organic and biodynamic wines so stay tuned.
Blanc de Blanc is French for “white of whites”, and refers to wine made solely from white wine grapes. It is most commonly used to refer to Champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes.
Blanc de Noir is French for “white of blacks”, and refers to a white wine made from black or purple grapes. It is most commonly used to refer to Champagne made exclusively from Pinot Noir grapes (the wine remains white as the skins are immediately removed and the juice of (almost) every grape is clear).
Brettanomyces is commonly referred to as Brett and is an offshoot of yeast that grown on the skins of fruit and can grow in a wine as well where it can alter the flavor and aroma compounds. While many wine makers and other experts agree that a certain low level of Brett can have an enhancing effect on wine (and some well-known wines such as Château de Beaucastel rely on Brett for their individuality), in any material amount, the wine is considered to be spoiled (the amount of Brett that will spoil a wine for someone is completely individual, at least up to a certain level). Sweaty leather, metallic, band-aid and barnyard are all aromas that are associated with Brett and while most common in red wines, Brett has been known to appear in Chardonnay and other white wines as well.
Burgundy is a French appellation that is best-known for red wines, primarily from Pinot Noir and white wines from Chardonnay. Burgundies are considered the most heart-breaking of all, as they are notoriously difficult TO produce – but the successes are deemed by many to be the greatest wines of all. Unfortunately, as opposed to Bordeaux, there are very few quality kosher true Burgundies.
Cava is the term used for Spanish sparkling wine (similar to Italian Prosecco and French Champagne).
Chablis is a French sub-appellation (that is part of Burgundy) making wines primarily from Chardonnay, typically with little to no oaking. Historically, in the United States the term was generically used to reference cheap white wines. However, at their best, the wines are pure with bright acidity and flinty minerals, and are considered prime matches with many types of seafood.
Champagne is a region in France that produces the world’s most luxurious (and expensive) sparkling wines. As with most French appellations, Champagne is highly regulated (and protected) and is made solely from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
Corked is used to describe a wine that has been spoiled by a bad cork. A corked wine tends to smell like wet dog or cardboard and is caused by contamination by trichloroanisole (better known as TCA), a chemical compound that is produced by moldy cork. The percentages of wines affected by this is the stuff of urban legends but is said to be between 5-10%. A dominant reason for the push towards synthetic corks and screw caps.
Decanting means to pour a wine from its original bottle into a separate (typically elegant glass or crystal) vessel. The two main purposes of decanting are to remove sediment, which accumulates primarily in older vintages, and to aerate the wine (meaning to allow as much of the wine’s surface to come into contact with air to breath and “open” to release its many aromas and flavors).
Disgorgement. Part of the process of making Champagne. The neck of the Champagne bottle is frozen, the bottle is then opened and the plug of frozen wine is extracted from the neck (this ice cube contains the dead yeast from the “second” fermentation which occurs in the bottle). The bottle is then topped up and resealed.
Dry is a tasting term that is basically the opposite of sweet (even though dry wines will typically contain some sugar). The term is also used to describe the tannins or mouth feel of a particular wine when referring to the dry, puckering sensation the wine imparts.
Eiswein is a type of sweet dessert wine that is made from grapes that have frozen on the vine, principally in Germany and Austria, but also in Canada where it is called Icewine. The grapes are harvested during the cold of winter, facilitating the removal of much of the water as ice, intensifying the remaining sugar and flavor. The process is extremely labor intensive resulting in expensive (and delicious wines).
Enology is the study of (and the science behind) winemaking. Sometimes referred to as viniculture or oenology.
Extracted. Refers to wine that is very concentrated and intense. Many folks feel that, as a result of trying to appease Robert Parker, wines have grown too extracted.
Fermentation is one of the processes in winemaking whereby the sugars in the grape are converted into alcohol by way of the yeast (either naturally present or introduced in a controlled process by the winemaker) in an oxygen-free environment.
Filtration refers to the process of straining out solid particles in wine (stems, pits, etc.) which are left over after the fermentation process is completed.
Finish. A critical component of tasting a wine which refers to the lingering taste in your mouth and on your palate after you have swallowed and how long the flavor of the wine persists. A long finish is generally seen as a sign of higher quality, as long as it’s a pleasant on
First Growth refers to the five “best” Château in France. These were determined in the famed 1855 classification (although Mouton Rothschild was only added in 1978 after heavy lobbying by its owner – Baron Philippe de Rothschild). The five are Lafite Rothschild, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Mouton Rothschild.
Gewürztraminer is a type of white wine with peppery overtones and a specialty of the French Alsace appellation. Its spiciness makes it a good match to Thai and other Asian cuisines. The Israeli Golan Heights Winery makes a great version under their Yarden label but it is unfortunately not imported into the United States.
Grand Cru. Like “Reserve” this is a term used to describe certain wines that is only regulated in certain parts of the world, leaving consumers exposed to misleading marketing attempts. As an example when used to describe Burgundy wines, the term refers to the vineyards on the slopes of the Côte d’Or (generally considered the best) while St Emilion wine use the term to describe the majority of vineyards rendering the term significantly less useful.
Hollow describes a wine which lacks both flavor and body even though it might have a great nose.
Hot is a tasting term used to refer to a wine that has an excess of alcohol that is off-balance with the wood, fruit and the rest of the wine’s components. Not all high-alcohol wines are “hot” wines, which has a negative connotation – for example, see the Brobdignanian Syrah I recently reviewed.
Imperiale refers to a large format Bordeaux bottle that is equivalent to eight regular 750 milliliter bottles. In Burgundy and Champagne this size is called a Methuselah.
Integrated. A tasting term used to indicate how well the various components of the wine (which are described above under “Balance”) are playing together. These components may be in balance with each other immediately upon bottling, but many wines require additional aging in the bottle in order for the components to fade into each other as the wine develops and present the magnificent picture the winemaker anticipated for you to enjoy.
Jammy is a tasting term which means having a think and concentrated aroma of berries or jam. Also used to refer to a wine having the thick, rich and mouth filling texture of jam. Full-bodied rich Zinfandel wines are often referred to as being Jammy.
Jeroboam. A significant number of those cool large-format bottles were named after ancient Jewish kings and the Jeroboam is the most confusing of the all since it means different things for different wines. In Bordeaux it is equivalent to six standard bottles, but in Burgundy and Champagne it contains only four bottles.
Krug is one of the famous Champagne houses (i.e. producers), and is currently owned by LVMH. Their Champagnes are very distinctive and easily recognizable due to the house’s policy of complete barrel fermentation and very extended lees aging. It is one of the most obviously oaky of the Champagnes, and is almost invariably dry
Late Harvest refers to a wine produced from grapes that were left on the vine longer than usual. This process ensures a higher amount of sugar in the grape which in turn results in a higher level of residual sugar in the wine after fermentation, leaving us with a sweet / dessert wine.
Lees are the sediments that settle out of the wine during the fermentation process and typically consist of dead yeast cells, grape pulp and so on. Many winemakers allow the wine to ferment and remain “on the lees” for a period of time (although they are obviously removed at some point) in order to impart extra flavor and body to the wine (especially if the lees are periodically agitated by stirring or the like). Removing the lees must be done very carefully in order to ensure no extra oxygen creeps into the wine (or stir the lees, which can take weeks to settle). The process of siphoning the wine from the lees is known as racking.
Legs. A relatively useless tasting terms that seems to persist. It refers to the tear-like marks a wine leaves on the sides of a wine glass following a swirl. Historically it was thought to signify a high-quality wine but in reality it relates to the alcohol or glycerol content and has very little to do with the quality of the wine.
Meritage is term used in the United States for wines that are comprised of blends made solely from the Noble Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay which are supposed to be the best wines of the vintage. However, as with most unregulated wine terminologies (like Reserve); they are often abused as marketing ploys so, as always, caveat emptor!
Moshiach Wines. A term I use in my newsletter to describe extra special wines. These are wines I would be proud to serve the Moshiach (Messiah) were I ever be so lucky for him to grace my table. Typically enjoyed by me and my parts of my extended family over Pessach.
Négociant is a wine merchant or broker who purchases wine or grapes, usually from smaller growers but also residual product from larger producers, and bottles the wine under his own label. Many Négociants are actual winemakers who simply don’t own their own vineyards (although many also own their own vineyards) or prefer to selectively source grapes from specific vineyards for specific wine (in selected years). Famous Négociants include Louis Jadot, Georges Duboeuf and Joseph Drouhin. Kosher Négociants include Shimshon Welner (behind the popularly priced Tierra Salvaje label), Roberto Cohn (who produced a lot of dreck back in the day) and Oeno-J, a new Négociant who has produced kosher Cuvées from the likes of Château Larrivet Haut-Brion, Château Quinault and La Fleur Chantecaille.
Nose. The various smells a wine gives off.
Oak. The type of wood primarily used in the barrels used to age wine before it is bottles. The type of barrel (old or new) and how much “toast” or “char” it is subjected to are significant contributors to a wines taste and other attributes. Oak is the primary driver in aromas and tastes of smoke, vanilla, wood and other similar attributes.
Oxidized refers to a wine that has been exposed to excessive amounts of oxygen which typically imparts a tired or stale aroma to the wine. An oxidized bottle of wine will smell like a bottle of Sherry that has been left open on someone’s sideboard for way too long.
Paris Tasting of 1976. An extremely cool, blind tasting, conducted in 1976 which had California and French going to head-to-head. At the time Californian wines were not highly regarded and their besting the French wines was a huge turning point for U.S. wines. The topic of a cool movie – Bottle Shock and newsletter #82.
Pinotage is a red wine grape that is South Africa’s signature varietal. A cross between Pinot Noir and Hermitage, Pinotage wines are known for their smoky and earthy flavors. Despite widespread criticism of the wine swelling like acetone and too-sweet fruit, Irit Boxter-Shank, a winemaker at Barkan and the youngest in Israel, believes it will be Israel’s next best thing and Barkan’s Superior Pinotage is truly delightful.
Phenolics or Phenols refers to certain chemical compounds in a wine which are derived from the skin, seeds and stems of the grape. Phenols include tannins and the color and flavor compounds in a wine.
Phylloxera is a tiny louse that was originally native to North American and which attacks the roots of vines and single-handedly almost destroyed a huge swath (between 66-90%) of Europe’s vineyards (mainly in France). It was introduced into France in the mid-19th century by way of vines imported from California (where the vines had developed a certain resistance to the bug). These pests were widespread during the late nineteenth century and were ultimately halted by grafting hardy California rootstock onto the French vines.
Prosecco is the name of sparkling wine created in Italy (typically the Veneto region). It is typically well-priced, a great match to food and easy to drink which has resulted in a popularity surge over the last few years.
Quinta is a Portuguese term used to describe a farm, estate or vineyard in connection with Port houses.
Reserve. As with the term Grand Cru above, a term that means something in certain countries where wine descriptive are highly regulated but has no official meaning in others like the U.S. and Israel where it can often be used wantonly to mislead the naive consumer.
Rioja is a Spanish appellation best-known for producing red wines with a heavy oak influence, and is divided into three sub-districts: Alta, Baja and Alavesa. While historically Rioja wines were comprised of blended grapes from all three regions, Rioja has followed the recent trending towards single district-wines. Rioja white wines have been shying away from heavy oak in recent years, trying instead to emphasize the vibrancy of their fruit. Rioja reds are classified into four categories: Rioja (less than a year in oak), Crianza (aged at least two years, at least one of which in oak), Rioja Reserva (aged at least three years, at least one in oak) and Rioja Gran Reserva (aged at least two years in oak and three years in the bottle) – Reserva and Gran Reserva wines are not necessarily produced each year .
Safe Bet Winery is a term I use in my newsletter to describe über dependable wineries from whom you can purchase basically any of their offerings, year after year, and be assured of getting a decent quality wine. Recent years have seen some tectonic shifts in this regard as industry stalwarts such as Ella Valley, Galil Mountain and the Golan Heights Winery lost the title with Dalton, Flam, Gvaot, Recanati, Tzora and Yatir all generally falling into this category.
Sauternes is a sub-appellation of Bordeaux and also refers to the incredible dessert wines produced in the region made by harvesting grapes infected with Botrytis (a fungus otherwise known as the “Noble Rot”). Known for their incredible aging ability, an 1847 Château d’Yquem (arguably the best wine on the planet) is supposedly still drinking nicely.
Sediment is naturally occurring, brownish flakes or chunks that show up in the bottom of some bottles which is completely harmless. It doesn’t taste very good and the wine should be decanted or care should be taken when pouring. Sediment typically occurs in older bottles but can also show up as a result of little or no filtration in the wine making process (which typically allows for more bottle development).
Sulfites are a naturally occurring substance in all wines. Sulfites are often added to many wines as a preservative and are mistakenly blamed for wine-related headaches. A minuscule number of people are actually allergic to sulfites. Look out for an upcoming newsletter with a comprehensive review of sulfites and organic wines.
Super Israeli is a term based on the “Super-Tuscan” concept. As used in my newsletter, it refers to the new(ish) breed of Israeli wines that have extreme depth and complexity as well as the ability to age for many years and getting even better with time. These wines are typically very expensive (even for Israeli/kosher wines).
Sur lie is French for “on the lees” and refers to a method of wine making where the wine is left in contact with the dead yeast cells (which remain after fermentation and are not racked or otherwise filtered out). Most commonly used with white wines, the practice provides additional body or richness to many white wines and can impart a nuanced and slightly funky flavor to the wine. It is a normal part of fermenting red wine and is therefore not usually mentioned when referring to red wine.
Tannins are a substance that is present on grape skins and an integral part of wine that helps give wines their balance and contributes to their longevity. Naturally occurring substances that give red wines their backbone and often their longevity. Tannins will be noticeable on your palate by causing a dryness or puckering sensation similar to lemons.
Terroir refers to the soil in which grapes grow but includes the total package contribution to the grapes development – geography, soil and climate. This has become a fad of late (but a real and positive one), in which many more winemakers are attempting to grow wines that are expressive of the terroir in which they are growing.
Toasty is a tasting term that refers to the smell or taste of toast which is evident in a wine. This is usually a function of the severity of toasting to which the barrels were subjected which is done by placing the wooden barrels near the fire where the heat and flames can substantially alter the composition of wood which in turn has a great effect on the wine.
Typicity is a wine tasting term used to imply that a certain wines is loyal (or typical) to the region it came from, the vintage year, the grape or the wine making technique from which it was derived.
Ullage refers to the air at the top of the bottle between the wine and the cork. When purchasing older bottles, the ullage can be an indicator of the quality of the wine since a large ullage suggests deterioration of the wine through oxidation. It’s definitely a price indicator as older wines with a lot of ullage will fetch a much lower price than those with wine up to top-shoulder or into the neck of the bottle.
Urban wineries. Refers to a winery located within a metropolitan area, far removed from the vineyards and seems to be a growing phenomenon. City Winery in SoHo, NY is a great example.
Vegetal is a tasting term used to describe a wine with unpleasant aromas typically reminiscent of stewed vegetables, bell peppers, asparagus, artichokes and similar notes.
Vintage refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. Every year harvest can be better or worse depending on a multitude of factors but primarily driven by the weather. Israel, which has more consistent weather patters, is significantly less affected by vintage years than France. That said, “better” years will produce better wines with longer aging capabilities. A n.v. wine (common for Champagne) refers to a non-vintage wine in which grapes from multiple vintages are combined which is a technique for achieving a consistent house blend year in and out without regard for the success of any single vintage.
Weight is sometimes also referred to as a wines body and is used to describe how it feels in your mouth. The amount of tannin, alcohol and flavor in a wine are significant is determining whether a wine is full or medium bodied.
Wine Press is a mechanical device that comes in many different forms and is used during the wine making process to extract juice from the grapes by crushing them into a pulp and allowing the juice to run off. The trick is in controlling how much pressure is applied in order to allow the extraction of the juice without crushing the pits or stems or mutilating the skins. Many ancient wine presses have been discovered throughout Israel.
Yield is used to describe the amount of grapes (or wine) produced per surface unit of the vineyard and is expressed in hectolitres per hectare in Europe and tons per acre throughout most of the New World production countries. Yields are also viewed as a good indicator of quality, with lower yields generally providing more extracted and rich wines.
YH Best Buy. A term I used in this newsletter to describe a great wine that also provides particularly good value for its money. While these wines will typically be on the cheaper side, it can also be used to describe an exceptional, awesome wine that is well priced even if it isn’t cheap.
Zinfandel is a type of grape that is considered the original American varietal, even though studies have shown it to have originated in Croatia. At its best, Zinfandel provides a rich, robust alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon or Australian Shiraz and will typically have peppery notes. White Zinfandel, a wine-related abomination, is made by allowing the juice only minimal contact with the skins, which provide it with some body and color. I find it terrible that White Zinfandel outsells its far superior red brother almost 7 to 1.