The ABCs of Wine

The highest honour given to a wine expert is Master of Wine. It’s rather like a PhD in oenology. There are four parts to the course-Certificate: Higher Certificate, Diploma and then, last and greatest, Master of Wine. These courses are so tricky that only 268 brave souls in the world have the stamina and smarts needed to become Masters of Wine.

I am not one of them.

However, I did pass the first two segments and petered out amid the third when I happened upon a copy of one of its final exams. I had never seen so many complicated terms – so many technical and scientific terms – that I got cold feet.

But I am not embarrassed. As I mentioned, only a meagre 268 people, seventy-eight of whom are women, have gone all the way.

Interestingly, two of these hardy and dedicated souls live here in Hong Kong and are both women (yay!): Deborah Meiburg and Jeannie Cho Lee.

But whether or not you intend to become a Master of Wine, as you are a wine drinker or you wouldn’t be reading this far, it would be handy for you to be familiar with at least a smattering of the words used to describe those white and red wines you are currently buying, ordering, serving and drinking and maybe even laying away for another day.

… as you are a wine drinker or you wouldn’t be reading this far, it would be handy for you to be familiar with at least a smattering of the words used to describe those white and red wines

It will round out your viniculture knowledge, and you will feel proud to sprinkle the terms in your conversation, impressing friends and family while pouring your Shiraz or Malbec. And besides, it’s always nice to learn something new to broaden your horizons.

So here goes:

A.       Aromatic – A spicy, floral, perfumy or otherwise positive aroma.

          Acidity – Citrusy dishes with acidity, like lemon chicken, require an equally acidic light white wine for balance or the dish will taste flat.

B.       Bubbles – What tickles your nose when drinking a sparkling wine but is always referred to as “mousse” when talking about Champagne.

          Balance – To me, the most essential factor of wine. The perfect blending of acidity, smoothness, weight, dryness, fruit and tannin.

C.       Crisp – A positive term for dry white wines such as Semillon, Sancerre, Frascati and Soave.

          Chianti – Formerly a cheap red made of Sangiovese grapes sold in raffia-bottomed bottles. It has greatly improved over the years, especially the Chianti Classico, now considered one of Tuscany’s finest.

          Chateaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and corks. Bordeaux Chateaux are still where the world’s best Cab comes from. Cab is here to stay. Corks (although traditional and romantic), on the other hand, are not but are gradually being replaced, even in Bordeaux, by the more mundane but convenient screw tops, preventing wine from going “off.”

D.       Decanter – An attractive glass container with a long neck and fat bottom used for removing the sediment in a vintage red wine.

          Dry – The opposite of sweet. Also referred to as “sec” or Brut.

E.       Elegant – Hard to describe, but you’ll know it when you taste it. Not to be found under HK$ 800 per bottle.

F.       Farmers – What winemakers (who also plant vines) call themselves.

G.       Gewurztraminer – An incredibly aromatic white wine, intensely perfumy in aroma and taste. The best come from the Alsace region of France.

H.       Hermitage – My favourite wine is a Syrah from France’s Rhone Valley. Penfolds in Australia’s Barossa Valley makes a darn good version but can no longer call it Grange Hermitage, for obvious reasons.

I.        Ideal conditions – Wine cellars must be kept at 7-13 C degrees, away from harmful heat or light and with high humidity. In Europe, cold, dank and mouldy caves are commonplace.

J.        Jancis Robinson – A well-known British female wine writer who edited the international, best-selling, highly respected tome The Oxford Companion to Wine, probably in its twentieth printing.

K.       Keep – Instead of drinking that fine bottle of red someone brought to your home, lay it away. It can only improve with age if you store it properly.

L.       Length – A long and pleasant after-taste in the mouth after drinking the wine.

M.      Malo-lactic fermentation – The convergence of the astringent malic acid into the softer lactic acid. They are often induced by adding some bacteria to speed up the process.

N.       Nose – The smell or aroma of the wine.

          Napa Valley – The most famous wine-growing region in the US. Home to Robert Mondavi, Stag’s Leap and Screaming Eagle.

O.      Oak – Most of the world’s serious reds are aged up to two years in new oak barrels (usually French oak, which is the best) to give the wine complexity, and, as oak is porous, a slight but significant and beneficial interaction occurs between wine and air.  

          Openers – Fancy or simple, there are many different kinds to buy and collect.

P.       Phylloxera – Wine’s worst enemy. A horrible pest that infects the rootstocks, munches its way through grapevines and destroys entire vineyards with catastrophic results.

Q.      Quaff – to drink deeply and to drain a glass of wine. To be a quaffer is to be one who really enjoys what they are drinking.

R.       Robert Parker – Wine critic and instigator of the number system for rating the quality of wines on menus and in wine magazines. So, you can order a #97 instead of letting your own taste buds and palate be your guide.

          Riddling – The critical process of turning and upending maturing Champagne to get the sediment to slide into the neck of the bottle.

S.       The Four Esses – Swirling, smelling, sipping, savouring. (I seldom spit.)

T.       Terroir – The combination of climate, nearness to water, temperature, soil and other factors that affect the taste and aroma of all wine.

          Tannin – A necessary evil that comes from the stalks and skins of grapes, coating your mouth in dry fur but giving structure to the wine for ageing. It softens with time. (Don’t we all.)

U.       Uruguay – After Chile and Argentina, the next South American country to make a splash with their wine.

V.       Vinegar – What my bottle of vintage Piper Heidseick turned into when I stupidly left the bottle in my clothes closet for many years.

W.      Water – What to turn to when the wine runs out.

X.        Xtra – One glass of red is good for your health. Then the next one must be xtra good for it.

Y.       Yquem, Chateau d’ – The golden-hued, highly-lauded, most luscious and expensive of all after-dinner wines. Use sparingly.

Z.        Zinfandel – Created in California, it is a rich, robust, full-bodied, spicy red with thankfully supple tannins. Great with grilled and roasted meats.

It’s nice to increase your knowledge of a subject that offers so much.

By Sandi Butchkiss