Category:Wine terms

Wine terms: Residual sugar

Residual sugar in charts and graphs

Or, in laymen ?s terms, how much sugar is left in the wine after fermentation is complete. The amount of residual sugar tells you how sweet the wine is going to be.

This is not a difficult concept to understand, though we do have to make a brief detour through chemistry class. Wine is made by adding yeast to grape juice from the crushed grapes. The yeast converts the sugar in the grape juice to alcohol, which is the process of fermentation. It ?s similar to bread baking, in which the yeast eats the sugar in the flour and expels carbon dioxide, which makes the bread rise.

Fermentation can end naturally, when the yeast eats all the sugar and dies. When this happens, the wine has very little residual sugar, higher alcohol levels, and is considered dry. Or the winemaker can end fermentation early, before the yeast eats all the sugar. These wines have higher residual sugar, lower alcohol levels, and are sweet. (For the difference between sweet and fruity wines, go here.)

All wine, even the most dry reds, has some residual sugar. That ?s because some sugars can ?t be converted to alcohol (why that is requires another chemistry class, which we ?ll skip). What this means to wine drinkers is that most wines with one percent residual sugar or less are dry, and those with a higher RS (at it is sometimes known) are sweet.

So why didn ?t you know about this before? Because most wines don ?t list residual sugar on the label, and they don ?t even want to tell wine writers unless we ask. That ?s because winemakers know how fussy Americans are about sweet wine, and assume that if we see a label that says 2.12 percent residual sugar, we ?ll recoil in horror and assume it ?s as sweet as white zinfandel. The RS for white zinfandel, in fact, can be as much as double that of a dry wine.

Also important: There is a trend in California to add sugar to dry wines after fermentation is complete, which gives winemakers the opportunity to make high alcohol wines with higher sugar levels. These wines are still technically dry, but the added sugar (in the form of white grape juice concentrate) brings out more fruit flavor. You can replicate this technique at home when you make a vinaigrette. Mix the oil and vinegar and taste it, and then add sugar and taste it again. The sugar takes the edge off and rounds out the flavors, and the vinaigrette is still not really sweet.

Adding sugar after fermentation is an especially popular technique with less expensive wines from the largest producers. That way, they can use grapes of lesser quality and still get decent flavors.

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Wine terms: Hybrid and native grapes

The wine grape world is divided into three main categories ? vitis vinifera, or European-style wine grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay; native grapes like concord and catawba; and hybrid grapes like chambourcin, and seyval blanc.

Why don ?t you hear more about native and hybrid grapes? Because most wine made in the world is made with vinifera. It ?s the easiest to grow in most of the important wine regions, easiest to make wine with, and mostly makes the best wine.

But this doesn ?t mean that hybrids and native grapes (the ultimate list is here) aren ?t legitimate wine grapes. More, after the jump:

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Wine terms: Palate

Everyone who drinks wine has a palate. Because, simply, all that means is that you can decipher what the wine tasted like and decide whether you enjoyed it.

Easy enough, eh? The catch ? and this is where the wine snobs like to get involved ? is that everyone ?s palate is different. Some people like tannic wines. Some people like sweet wines. Some people like citrusy wines. Some people have been drinking wine for years. Some people have just started drinking wine. All of this plays into your palate.

And you know what? It ?s OK that everyone ?s palate is different.

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Wine terms: Private label and store label

Retailers love private label and store label wines for two reasons. First, the profit margins are better than those on national brands. And second? You can’t buy them anywhere else.

In this, private label and store label wines are becoming increasingly popular as the recession takes its toll on the wine business. A retailer can sell a store or private label wine for less than the similar national brand and make more money. That way, the consumer is happy and so is the retailer.

What these brands are — exactly — and how they affect you:

Private labels are not new. They are products made exclusively for one retailer that no one else sells. A store label is a specific kind of private label, one that carries the retailer’s name ? Kroger peanut butter, for example.

Sears has been selling private labels for decades (Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances), and one of the reasons for Costco’s success has been its Kirkland label. I did a Costco story several years ago for the American Airlines in-flight magazine, and Costco boss Jim Sinegal told me that its customers love the Kirkland products so much that the chain doesn’t even bother to carry some national brands. No one was buying them.

What is new — or at least what’s becoming more common — is private label wine. At the beginning of this decade, few retailers bothered with them, save for Trader Joe’s and its Two Buck Chuck. If business is good, it’s easier to carry a national brand like Kendall Jackson and not worry.

But when business isn’t good, and it isn’t now, private labels look much more attractive. Generally, they’re twice as profitable as a national brand and usually retail for as much as 10 percent less. So you’re seeing more retailers make a push to private label wine, whether it’s national retailers like Whole Foods and its 365 brand, or smaller, regional retailers (though the latter usually don’t put their name on the wines). Costco has even made efforts to sell Kirkland wine. One of my favorites is a private label from Spec’s, a leading Texas retailer, which sells an Australian private label called Yellow Bird. Yellow Bird, Yellow Tail — get it?

How can you tell a private label if it doesn’t have the retailer’s name on it? The wine will sometimes have a line on the label that says “Made exclusively for….” Also, it will usually be displayed prominently in the store, often at the end of an aisle (the display is called an endcap).

The other question, of course, is whether private label wine is any good. That depends on the retailer, as well as the kind of wine they’re competing against. Cheaper does not always mean better, although if the price is low enough, most of us don ?t much worry about quality. The only way to be sure is to taste the wine — which is always good advice.

Wine terms: High alcohol

This is one of the most controversial and divisive issues in the wine business today. In fact, there isn ?t even any agreement about what defines high alcohol ? those who make this style of wine, as well as those who drink them, consider them to be normal.

But there is a starting point. Generally, white wines with an alcohol level higher than 14 percent and red wines higher than 14.5 percent are considered high alcohol. In this, they are each 1 to 1 1/2 points more than what was considered high alcohol 10 to 20 years ago.

The question of whether these levels are too high to produce quality wine is something for another day (though the Wine Curmudgeon ?s preference for traditional alcohol levels are well known). It ?s enough in this post to discuss what ?s going on, which comes after the jump:

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Wine terms: Blind tasting

There is one way to solve all of the problems caused by scores, the Wine Magazines, and snobby wine writers. It's blind tasting.

The Wine Curmudgeon was reminded of this twice last week. The first time came when I was doing a wine tasting as part of the Two Wine Guys. We ran through our paces and took questions at the end, as we always do. And the questions, as they unfortunately too often do, started with "My husband and I only drink cabernet sauvignon. …" and "Can you recommend any $30 wine, because inexpensive wine isn't any good …"

Then, over the weekend, I judged the San Diego International Wine Competition, put together by the inestimable Robert Whitley (which was much fun and where I learned quite a bit, which I'll write about later). When one judges, one tastes blind. That is, you know it's chardonnay, but that's all you know. What don't you know? Where the wine is from and and how much it costs, the two factors that unduly influence too many wine drinkers — even  experienced ones.

After the jump, how blind tasting works and why everyone should try it:

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Wine terms: Cheap wine

cheap wineSay cheap wine to someone in the business, and they get insulted. I used to make that mistake all the time. Say cheap wine to a wine drinker, and their eyes light up. Isn ?t that why most of you are here?

That ?s because wine drinkers understand what industry types don ?t: That cheap wine is about more than a price. When it ?s done properly, it ?s a style of wine that is consumer friendly, well made, and offers value. Equally as important, cheap wine isn ?t associated with any of the snotty, winespeak, score-driven attitude that affects too much of the U.S. wine business.

It ?s also the Wine Curmudgeon ?s reason for being. After the jump, a few thoughts on what makes great cheap wine:

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