Tannins: The mouth-puckering polyphenols, most prominent in red wines, that are derived primarily from grape skins, seeds and stems, but also from oak barrels. Tannins are an important component of a wine's structure and texture, and act as a natural preservative that help wine age and develop.
Aggressive: Unpleasantly harsh in taste or texture, usually due to a high level of tannin or acid.
Astringent: Describes wines that leave a coarse, rough, furry or drying sensation in the mouth. Astringency is usually attributed to high tannin levels found in some red wines (and a few whites). High tannin levels are frequently found in Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Backbone: Describes the structure of a wine, referring to balanced acidity, alcohol and, in red wines, tannin. Wines lacking structure are thin or flabby.
Balance: A wine is balanced when its elements are harmonious and no single element dominates. The "hard" components—acidity and tannins—balance the "soft" components—sweetness, fruit and alcohol.
Bite: A marked degree of acidity or tannins. An acid grip on the finish should be more like a zestful tang, and is in general prized only in richer, fuller-bodied wines.
Coarse: Usually refers to texture, and in particular, excessive tannin or oak. Also used to describe harsh bubbles in sparkling wines.
Drying Out: Losing fruit (or sweetness in sweet wines) to the extent that acid, alcohol or tannin dominate the taste. At this stage the wine will not improve.
Grip: A welcome firmness of texture, usually from tannin, which helps give definition to wines such as Cabernet and Port.
Hard: Firm; a quality that usually results from high acidity or tannins. Often a descriptor for young red wines.
Lees: Sediment—dead yeast cells, grapeseeds, stems, pulp and tartrates (harmless tartaric acid crystals)—remaining in a barrel or tank during and after fermentation. Immediately following fermentation, wine should be racked off of the gross lees, the large particulate matter such as seeds, skins and stems, which are rich in spoilage organisms. The wine may be aged for an extended period on the fine lees, however, in what's called "sur lie" aging. Fine lees, the dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation, can enhance an aging wine with added richness, flavor and aroma complexity, and can also bind with excess tannins.
Maceration: This process, used primarily in making red wine, involves steeping grape skins and solids in wine after fermentation, when alcohol acts as a solvent to extract color, tannins and aroma from the skins (aided by heat, the amount of skin contact and time). Cold maceration (steeping when the must is not heated), takes place before fermentation.
Press Wine (or Pressing): The juice extracted under pressure after pressing for white wines and after fermentation for reds. Press wine has more flavor and aroma, deeper color and often more tannins than free-run juice. Wineries often blend a portion of press wine back into the main cuvée for added backbone.
Soft: Describes wines low in acid or tannin (sometimes both), making for easy drinking. Opposite of hard.
Structure: Related to the mouthfeel of a wine, provided by acidity, tannin, alcohol, sugar and the way these components are balanced. Wines with low, unbalanced levels of acidity or tannin can be described as "lacking in structure" or "flabby." When the acidity or tannin levels are sufficiently high, a "firm structure" is the result.
Supple: Describes texture, mostly with reds, as it relates to tannin, body and oak. A positive characteristic.
Ageworthy: Describes the small number of top wines that have sufficient flavor, acidity, alcohol and tannins to gain additional complexity with time in the bottle. Most popular wines are meant to be enjoyed shortly after release and will only diminish with age.
Barrel Aged: Denotes a wine that has spent a period of time in barrels before bottling. This affects wine in numerous ways—the flavors in newly blended wines knit together, tannins in red wines soften and white wines become richer and more full-bodied. Aging in new oak barrels (barrels used for the first few times) can add aromas and flavors of vanilla, spice and smoke.
Destemming: The process of removing the grape berries from the stems once the grapes have been harvested and brought into the winery. The goal is to minimize the amount of astringent tannins that stems can add to wine.
Disjointed: Describes wine with components that are not well-knit, harmonious or balanced. The timing of the components may be off; upon tasting, a disjointed wine might first reveal big fruit, followed by a blast of screeching acidity and finishing off with a dose of tannins.
Mouthfeel: Describes the sensation of wine in the mouth. Most descriptors are related to texture, for example: silky, smooth, velvety and rough. Mouthfeel is influenced by wine components, as acidity can be sharp, alcohol can be hot, tannins can be rough and sugar can be thick or cloying.
New Oak: Refers to the first time a barrel is used, when it has the greatest impact on wine. With successive uses, the wood imparts fewer flavors and tannins. Flavors associated with new oak include vanilla, cedar, toast and smoke. The wood tannins in newer barrels add firmness to the wine's structure. As with most components in wine, moderation and balance are key; new oak can be a positive or a negative influence, depending on whether it subtly enhances the wine or overpowers the fruit flavors.
Punch-Down: Also known as pigéage, the process of breaking up the thick layer of skins, stems and seeds that forms at the surface of fermenting red wine and submerging it during fermentation to extract color, tannins, flavor and aromas from the grape solids.
Ripe: The stage at which the grapes' many components have reached maturity. As a grape ripens, sugar content increases and acidity decreases. Flavor compounds develop and the stems turn from green to brown, indicating that the tannins in the stems, seeds and skins are softening.
Rough: Describes the drying, gritty or furry mouthfeel associated with higher levels of tannins and coarse tannins.
Sediment: As red wines age, color pigments and tannins bond together and fall out of solution, producing a natural sediment. While the sediment is not harmful, it tastes bitter and adversely affects the wine’s mouthfeel. Sediment is most frequently found in older (10-plus years), darker red wines, which typically have more color pigments and tannins, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux and Port. Rarely will lighter reds throw sediment.
Tannic: Used to describe a wine high in tannins or with a rough mouthfeel.
Umami: Although there is no direct English translation, umami is essentially the fifth taste. Discovered and noted by Chinese gourmets more than 1,200 years ago, the concept is fairly new to western scientists and gourmets alike. Mushrooms, consommés, long-cooked meats, cured meats, shrimp, dried tomatoes and soy sauce all contain umami. This taste tends to bring out tannins or the oaky character in wines.
Gelatin: The same active gel found in Jell-O, this animal product is used in the fining process to bind with excess tannins so that they may be removed during filtration.
Micro-oxygenation: This technique, used almost exclusively on red wines, allows winemakers to control the amount of oxygen that wines in tank are exposed to. The apparatus involves chambers connected by tubes and valves to an oxygen tank. Small, measured amounts of oxygen are allowed to pass through the wine via a porous stone or ceramic plate at or near the base of the tank. The benefits of this type of oxygen exposure include prevention of oxidation and reduction as well as promotion of healthy yeast cultures, which prevent stuck fermentations. Micro-oxygenation is also believed to soften tannins and, in conjunction with the use of oak chips, is frequently practiced as an alternative to oak barrel aging.
Polyphenol: Chemical compounds found in plant life. In grapes, polyphenols are responsible for skin pigment, tannins and flavors—all of which fall under the category of flavonoids—as well as resveratrol, the compound associated with many of wine's health benefits, and which falls under the much smaller polyphenol category of non-flavonoids. Pertaining to wine, grape skins, seeds and stems contain the highest concentrations of polyphenols.
Devatting: Also known as délestage, the oxidative winemaking process in which, after the cap of grape musts, skins, seeds and stems forms on the top of a vat of fermenting wine, the wine is drained through a valve at the base of the tank into another vat and reserved while the remaining solids are allowed to drain for a few hours. The reserved wine is then pumped back into the original tank over the top of the drained skins, seeds and stems. Like punch downs and pump overs, the purpose of devatting is to increase the extraction of color, flavor, tannins and aromas from the solids, as well as aerate the fermenting wine.
Orange wines: White wines made with extended grape skin contact during fermentation or maceration, imparting an orange hue to the finished wine, along with tannins. The practice originated thousands of years ago in the Caucasus, but has more recently regained popularity in Italy's Friuli region and the neighboring Brda district of Slovenia.
Roto-Fermentor: A programmable, mechanized fermenting tank that rotates on an axis to mix the cap and grape must during fermentation to facilitate extraction of color, tannins and flavor.
Whole cluster: This can refer to whole-cluster pressing and/or whole-cluster fermentation, where pressing and/or fermentation happen without the stems having been removed from the berries. Stem inclusion can add more tannins and structure to the finished wine, but can also impart additional flavors. If the clusters are picked early in the maturation process, the greener, more flexible stems might impart vegetal or herbal notes. If the clusters are allowed to hang on the vine longer, given time to achieve full polyphenolic ripeness and lignification of the stems (turning rigid, brown and woody), the flavors imparted will be more mellow, earthy and spicy.
Extraction: The process by which pigment, tannins and flavor and aromatic compounds contained in grape skins are dissolved into wine. Extraction is most commonly achieved through maceration (soaking the skins of the crushed grapes in the wine after fermentation), during which alcohol helps dissolve flavor, aroma and especially tannin molecules—as with a steeping tea bag, the longer and warmer the maceration, the greater the degree of extraction. During fermentation, punching down the cap (floating layer of skins, seeds and stems) and pumping liquid from the bottom of the tank over the cap (pump-over) are other methods of extraction. For reds made in lighter-bodied styles such as Pinot Noir, a pre-fermentation cold soak of the skins in the grape juice can extract water-soluble flavor and pigment molecules while limiting the amount of more alcohol-soluble tannins released into the wine.
Reverse osmosis: In wine, a technique by which alcohol levels are reduced. It's typically employed by winemakers who wish to achieve the flavor of ripe grapes without the increased percentage of alcohol that results from fruit with higher levels of sugar. The reverse osmosis process involves passing wine through a filter that separates water and ethanol from tannins and other elements responsible for pigment, flavor and aroma. The water and alcohol solution is then distilled to separate the two, with some of the alcohol being removed, and the remaining solution is added back to the other elements previously separated out.