As with any occupation, winegrowing jargon can be both extensive and forbidding, so here's a quick look into some of the terms used by the people in Life in Vine. Since the documentary covers only part of the winemaking process (growing grapes and processing them, not really winemaking itself) this guide is by no means exhaustive. There are as many vineyard management techniques and variations as there are growers and winemakers, so a breezy overview like this one could never hope to capture them all -- for that, the comprehensive Oxford Companion to Wine should weigh down your shelf. But if learning the jargon is half of turning pro, this glossary will put you a quarter of the way there.
AcidAcid -- think of lemon juice or orange juice -- is one of a few elemental components in grapes and ultimately in wine. Generally speaking, growers and winemakers are looking for balance in what they taste: enough acid to make flavors vivid, but not so much puckering is the only recourse. Like tannins, acids help give wines structure.
The level of acid is also an indication of ripeness. As grapes approach ripeness, the amount of acid in them drops as the sugar in them rises: winemakers want to pick when the two are in balance, and while lab work will usually tell them when they're close, it's ultimately a matter of experience and preference.
BeerA fermented malt beverage critical to the winemaking process, especially after a late night crush.
BehindHow can a crop be "behind" schedule, and who cares if it is? The issue is at the heart of why '99 was such a cliffhanger of a year in Northern Oregon's Willamette Valley, and it boils down to this:
- every region has a certain window of time during the year when it's warm enough for seasonal crops to grow. In the Willamette Valley, where Life in Vine takes place, it's about 7.5 months, and it doesn't change much from year to year.So, crunching the numbers with Einstein-like speed, we see that 7.5 months of growing season minus the 7.5 months it takes to ripen Pinot Noir doesn't leave a lot to work with. So, if some milestone in the vines' year is delayed -- budbreak is late because it's too cold; it takes the vines longer to flower because it's raining, and so on -- then the time it takes for a vine to go from budbreak to ripeness takes more time than will fit in the growing season. In that case, growers can watch, powerless, as winter storms bear down on their not-quite-ripe fruit, knowing that there might not be enough warmth left in the year to get them the ripeness they need.
- unless some stage in its development is delayed, every grape variety requires a certain amount of time to grow and produce ripe fruit, and this is also fairly constant. For Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, it's about 7.5 months from budbreak to harvest.
This misalignment of growing season and grape ripening -- where the grapes are behind -- is essentially what drives the story of Life in Vine.
BloomSometime in the late spring, the vines will offer up spindly little pod clusters. Ultimately, these will bloom into flowers, each of which, in turn, will turn into a grape if growers are lucky. Growers refer to the whole process as bloom. In Life in Vine, Westrey's David Autrey says that despite how late the flowering occurred in 1999, Abbey Ridge Vineyard "bloomed very quickly and very evenly."
Brix, DegreesIf you only hear it and don't read it, brix is one of the oddest terms winemakers use. Bricks of what? But "brix" is really a measure of the amount of sugar in juice. Since the process of fermentation takes the sugar in juice and turns it into alcohol, brix also tells winemakers how alcoholic a wine will be.
BudThis little fellow is the smallest unit of currency on a vine, and the beginning of a year's worth of growth. See budbreak, and in another sense, see beer.
Bud positionIt's done a little differently everywhere, but in general, when growers prune their vines, they cut away everything but a few good-looking canes and lay them down on a trellis wire. These select canes are often very long, so they need to be trimmed, and one way growers determine where to cut is to count the number of nodes -- or bud positions -- on a cane. These are like knuckles on a hand, and it's from these periodic lumps along a cane that shoots will grow. If you leave too few, you get less fruit; if you leave too many, you get a sun-blocking forest of leaves, and the vine has to divide its energy between more clusters, producing poorer fruit.
BudbreakSometime in the early spring after the sap begins to flow through the trunk and canes of a vine (usually when the average ground temperature hits 50 degrees or so), nondescript bumps on the canes will begin to swell and buds will emerge. Soon, they'll break open and shoots will begin to, well, shoot upward. From a bunch of spindly sticks to shoots, it all happens pretty fast, so Eyrie's David Lett is right when he says in Life in Vine, "there's a lot of magic in there."
CaneA cane is like the limb of a vine. Pruners take a cane sprouting from the trunk of a vine and lay it down on a trellis wire. They count the number of bud positions, and trim the cane accordingly, and from these bud positions, shoots will emerge and thicken to canes themselves, reaching for the sky and ultimately setting 1-3 clusters of grapes. After harvest, growers will choose one of these canes (now called a fruiting cane), cut away the rest, and lay it down on the wire to begin the process again. Deja-vu, anyone?
Cannon (Propane)As harvest approaches, visitors to vineyards may think they're entering a war zone, but it's really just propane cannons going off. The idea is to scare the bejeesus out of birds who might otherwise be tempted to stop in vineyards for a snack as they migrate north. Unfortunately, this trick doesn't always work: I've seen birds become so acclimatized to the cannon that they'll perch on the weapon itself, hopping a few inches in the air as it goes off before settling down again.
CapOnce fermentation begins in red wines, yeasts produce heat and CO2 as they convert sugar to alcohol. This gas rises to the top, pushing grape skins to the top of the fermenter, and this thick layer is called a cap. To keep the ferment from getting too hot, and to extract the right amount of color and tannin from the grape skins, this cap must be broken (punched down) at least twice a day. In Life in Vine, Westrey's David Autrey does this with a large metal plunger, but as you see from his efforts, it's pretty hard work. Wines made in larger fermenters can produce caps so thick and hard that they need hydraulic plungers to break the cap -- some can get so thick you can almost walk on them.
Incidentally, not everyone punches down: some winemaker simply pump wine from the bottom of the fermenter and pour it over the cap. That's pretty tricky, but it's nothing compared to the traditional method of breaking the cap, practiced in some wineries around the world to this day: use your body as a human swizzle stick. If you like wine, it doesn't get any better than immersing yourself in what is essentially a hot tub of it.
Carbon dioxideA clear gas which is the byproduct of fermentation. As yeasts work their way through the must gobbling up sugar, they produce both alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since CO2 is heavier then air, it tends to well up in the top of an actively fermenting fermenter, so winemakers must be careful their wineries are well aerated.
CrushThis term is used specifically to describe the de-stemming process (see crusher), but it's also used generally to indicate the entirety of grape processing, from the time they enter the winery to the time they're safely in barrel. Winemakers often try to get unsuspecting friends and associates to "work a crush", but while it's hard, sticky work, the atmosphere is always festive. And it tends to produce future winemakers...
CrusherWhen grapes come into a winery, winemakers usually (though not always) want to separate the berries from the stems, since stems left attached can impart a green, woody flavor to the finished wine. Depending on the kind of grape variety they're fermenting, they may also want those berries broken open a little so yeasts can get right to work on the juice.
In days of yore, winemakers accomplished this potentially tedious chore by simply dumping the grape clusters into a vat and walking on them, fishing out stems as their winemaking style (and the amount of wine they drank during this especially festive time of the year) dictated. Thus the purple feet winemakers are famous for having, even if virtually none of them do anymore. That work is more efficiently done by a "crusher", which doesn't actually crush the grapes but (depending on how expensive a model you have) gently sucks them off the stems and breaks the berries just enough to let in the reveling yeasts.
FermenterThe vessel in which fermentation occurs. Like you couldn't have guessed that, but you may not have known that fermenters come in all shapes and sizes, from towering stainless steel cylinders to 5-foot-tall plastic boxes to concrete vats to food-grade garbage cans.
FlowerWhen I was first told I was in a flowering vineyard, I thought I must be missing something. I looked everywhere, but I couldn't find any of the lush, big-petaled flowers I was sure a wine-producing vine must surely have. When the grower pointed out the actual flowers, I thought he was joking.
It is true that if your sweetheart is mad at you, a bouquet of grape flowers probably won't do the trick -- they're small, spindly, and attached like lint to green, cocktail-weenie-like cores. But it's from each one of these tiny flowers that a grape will grow if pollinated successfully, so they're critical to the grape growing process.
That's a pretty big if, by the way. Wind, rain, or cold weather can deter flowers from pollinating, and that can set crops behind schedule if not severely limit them. It's the part of the year in which growers feel the most powerless: all they can do is watch and pray for warmth and calm.
Free RunWhen a red wine is finished fermenting, it must be separated from the grape skins it's been soaking in. A wine press does this pretty well, but a press will also tend to squeeze out more tannins from the skins than a wine can handle. That's why winemakers often let the juice drain from the fermenter first: this "free run" wine will generally make a more balanced, fruitier wine, though winemakers may add some of the subsequent "press run" to the blend to give it some tannic backbone.
Fruiting CaneSee cane.
Fruit flavorsWhen winemakers say they taste banana or raspberry -- or old socks, for that matter -- they're not saying that those things have actually been squeezed into grapes or wines. As grapes ripen, and as they become wine, their chemical composition changes, and some of these chemical compounds are remarkably similar to those of other, non-grape flavors. They're so similar, in fact, that they trigger an association in the person tasting. In the case of old socks, this is not always a good thing.
Marginal climateWhen Eyrie's David Lett says that Oregon and France's Burgundy region are "marginal climates," he's talking about how tricky it is to get fruit ripe in these areas. These areas are far enough north (or in the case of New Zealand in the southern hemisphere, south) that fruit barely has enough time to get ripe before winter cools things down and stops the show. Some winemakers -- especially Lett, who planted the first Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vines in the Willamette Valley more than 30 years ago on the principle -- believe this makes for better, more complex wines. It also makes for a wilder ride, as Life in Vine shows.
MustAfter winemakers crush their grapes, but before they have actual wine, they have must. It's into the must that they'll pitch their yeast to start fermentation. A term in use for at least a thousand years, its origin is unclear. Perhaps: "this must be a mess of grape goo!"?
NugginsA highly technical wine term used by a winemaker in Life in Vine to describe a part of his naked body. Perhaps you'll have to buy a copy of the documentary to find out which part...
Oak (Barrel)Much, but by no means all wine is stored and aged in oak barrels. Lightly charred on the inside, they may impart a toasty, vanillin smell to the wine and help it mature. Winemaking usage often includes "on oak", as in "we put the Pinot Noir on oak for 10 months." If winemakers put too much oak on, usage can further be modified to "so much oak it's like sucking a 2x4."
pHFor many, pH is the Rosetta Stone of winemaking. It measures the concentration of hydrogen ions in grapes, wines or soils, which is to say, their active acidity. In juice or wine, a low pH indicates that the acids are still high and the liquid will taste tart, while a high pH means they're low and the liquid will taste flat. In Life in Vine, when Cameron Winery's John Paul says his pH is 3.14 and "nyaaaah", he's saying that it's still a little lower than the ideal of somewhere between 3.2 and 3.4.
Picking WindowThe picking window is the time between when the grapes are ripe enough to use and when winter, rain or birds yank the ripe fruit away. Depending on where grapes are grown, it might be large enough to walk through, or small enough to fit only a piece of paper scrawled with a prayer. In Life in Vine, winemakers are worried that because the grapes are behind schedule, their picking window may not even open.
Pinot Noir"Pee-no nwar" is a kind of grape, or variety. There are literally thousands of grape varieties in the world, but the most commonly known in the US are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot. Pinot Noir is the grape used to make red wines in France's famous Burgundy region, but it is also planted in other cooler climates around the world like coastal California, New Zealand, and most famously (after Life in Vine) Oregon.
PressAfter stomping grapes with your feet (which is rarely done these days, and then only for show), pressing wine may be the practice most famously associated with making wine. It's a way of squeezing everything you can out of a grape, and after it's finished, the remains can feel nearly bone dry.
Pressing happens at different stages in the winemaking process depending on whether white or red wine is being made. In many ways, it's a matter of how long you want the juice in contact with the skins of a grape. Since white winemakers want a light, clear wine, they crush the grapes and send the goo directly into the press for squeezing. Only then do they add yeast and get fermentation going. Red winemakers like those featured in Life in Vine, however, want the color and tannin that prolonged skin contact provides, so their crushed grapes go into a fermenter, where yeast is added to start fermentation. Only when fermentation is over is the wine pressed.
PruningPruning can be a cold, wet, and unglamorous activity which is nevertheless critical to a good harvest. Pruning essentially cuts away enough of the vine so its energy can be focused on ripening fruit efficiently. In general, growers cut away most of the canes left over from the previous year's activity, leaving a few which will, in turn, produce shoots which grow into canes which produce fruit. As Eyrie's David Lett says in Life in Vine, "pruning sets the stage for harvest."
Punch downDuring fermentation, carbon dioxide pushes grape skins to the top of the fermenter, forming a cap. Left undisturbed, it becomes a kind of blanket and temperatures can get disastrously high underneath and all kinds of unpleasant microbial activity can result, changing the taste of the wine for the worse. So, usually twice a day at least, winemakers must "punch down" the cap to ensure a healthy fermentation, which also extracts more color and tannin from the skins as a bonus. Depending on the size of the fermenter, the cap can be so thick and solid that you can literally stand on it, but no matter what size, punching down is hard work. Many winemakers have hydraulic gizmos to help them, or they use pumps to "pump over" juice from underneath the cap over its top. In Life in Vine, Westrey's David Autrey does it the old fashioned way.
RainIf you're used to rain saving the farm, the idea that it can be bad for an agricultural crop may sound a little strange. It is true that rain is important to vines, especially over the winter and early spring, when the water soaks into the ground and, ideally, is stored for use through at least some of the dry summer months. But once harvest draws near, rain is a predator. At best, rain brings with it cooler weather, and that can slow the ripening process, pushing harvest closer and closer to cooler weather when the grapes will simply stop ripening. But rain can also dilute grapes, making watery wine, and worse, it can swell the grapes so much that they burst and expose the grapes to rot and other disease, compromising the whole crop. If it's late September (in the northern hemisphere) and it's raining where you are, a grower somewhere is probably grumbling.
Red grapesRed grapes are, uh, grapes which are red. To this soaring platitude I add: red grapes are different from white grapes. What do I win, Johnny?
As dumb as it might sound, however, it's important to make a distinction between red wine grapes and white wine grapes, for the simple reason that they're processed differently and make different wines. Both kinds of grapes follow the same arc of budbreak to flowering to ripeness, though growers may coax them along with different techniques, and they may be picked at different times. And at the winery, the first stop for both will usually be the crusher (with some variation based on the style and flavor of the wine envisioned), which will separate the berries from the stems.
But once the grapes have run this harrowing gauntlet, their fates diverge. That's because of their skins. Grape skins give wines much of their tannin, which can add backbone and a little longevity to the finished wine. White wines, however, get most of their backbone from acid, and in fact, too much tannin can make a white wine kind of gritty (yum). So as soon as the grapes safely pass the crusher, winemakers will want to separate the juice from the skins as quickly as possible, so they send them directly to the press. After press, the juice goes straight to the fermenter to begin its transformation into wine.
Where red wine grapes are concerned, by contrast, winemakers want tannin. In fact, they crave it -- so much that some will let the juice soak on the skins for weeks before they even pitch any yeast. In any case, red winemakers (like those in Life in Vine) send the whole mess, skins and all, straight to the fermenter. This goo, by the way, is called a must. Only after fermentation is complete does the wine see the press.
Renewal SpurDuring winter pruning, growers cut back a vine to a few bare canes. This is done differently all over the world, but in Northern Oregon, it often results in a kind of T shape, leaving a main trunk and two canes each heading different directions down the trellis wire. From these canes new canes will sprout in the spring, and one of these will in turn get laid down on the wire to begin the process again the next winter. Nevertheless, some growers like to have a little insurance that they'll have quality canes close to the trunk, so they leave little spurs behind in addition to the two canes. Usually, these little spurs are short enough they'll only produce two sprouts, but the two canes that grow out of them are nicely positioned for the following year.
Residual SugarResidual sugar is sugar left un-converted by yeasts during fermentation. Given the right conditions, once the yeasts get to work in a fermentation, they usually tear off the rear view mirror and don't stop until they've converted all the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. But it's important for winemakers to know whether they've finished or how far they are away from doing so, because once they stop, they'll stop producing CO2, which protects the new wine from the ravages of oxygen. Some winemakers also like to finish the last little bit of fermentation in a barrel to help soften the wine. Whatever the reason, they often take repeated measurements of residual sugar as the end of fermentation draws near, usually with a diabetes test kit, as it turns out. In Life in Vine, Doug Tunnell's wines have reached .1% residual sugar, which is the point at which he wants to press.
See also sugar.
RipeAs Shakespeare's Edgar says in King Lear, "Ripeness is all!" Though the character is actually talking about something else (death, despair, fate, the usual peppy Lear topics), he couldn't have described the ultimate goal of grape growing more perfectly. The trouble is, however, that there's no objective standard of what's ripe. As we see in Life in Vine, while Westrey's David Autrey and Amy Wesselman take a similar tack as Cameron's John Paul about deciding when to pick, they each have their personal strategies based on their experience and the wines they like to make. Fifteen years ago, many winemakers simply went by the numbers: when grapes reached 23 Brix (for instance), they came off the vines with no ifs, ands or buts. But these days, higher-end winemakers rely on their sense of taste to decide ripeness, looking for ripe and mature berry flavors with no green vegetal components.
RotRot -- or botrytis bunch rot -- is the scourge of late harvests, and it can wipe out whole vineyards in a few days. This fungal disease can take many forms, but at its worst, it spreads over berries and breaks down the skins, and the result is downright ugly. Worse, it can give wines made from the grapes it infests a moldy, vinegary taste, so winemakers who spot it will often spend untold hours sorting their fruit in a grim attempt to minimize the damage. In general, rot flourishes in moist, still, and lukewarm environments as the grapes near ripeness, so growers often pay special attention to retaining airflow around their grapes.
As an aside, not all rots are shunned. One form is called noble rot, and winemakers bent on making sweet, late harvest wines welcome it. Coveting botrytized grapes is most famously practiced in Sauternes, a region within the Bordeaux appellation in France, but late harvest winemakers in Germany and the US also seek it out.
SetAlso known as "fruit set," this is a term used by growers to refer to how successfully a the flowers in a vineyard have pollinated -- as in, "we had a good set this year". In other words, since these flowers will grow into grapes, the quality of the set will determine how good the crop will be months later.
ShootThis term for the part of the vine which emerges from a young bud is no understatement. Unless the weather is unforgivingly cold, shoots will literally shoot upwards, growing perceptibly in just one day.
SprayingEspecially in Oregon, but in other wine regions as well, growers can't simply prune the vines and then kick back until harvest. Among other things, they need to constantly monitor the vines for disease, which means they need to spray their vineyards periodically. In Oregon, the chief scourge is powdery mildew, which many growers combat by spraying sulfur every 1-2 weeks like clockwork. While there are other more high tech chemicals available, sulfur is gentler on the vineyard's ecosystem, and promotes fewer side effects. In fact, spraying sulfur is even considered "organic."
SugarIn many ways, sugar is the reason you're here, reading this glossary. It's certainly the engine that drives the wine industry, because without sugar, yeasts would yawn at the sight of grapes and never transform them into wine. The chemical evolution of sugar (or glucose) into alcohol is complex, but it occurs naturally and almost anywhere -- the spritz you taste in the apple cider you left too long in the back of the fridge tells you that you probably have a little less sugar in the juice than when you bought it.
See also Residual Sugar.
TanninTannin is the primary culprit behind a surprising amount of wine babble -- "structure", "backbone", even "grip". But that's because tannin is so central to the way a (red) wine tastes, and therefore, how critical it is in the winemaking process.
If you can imagine over-steeped tea -- or sucking on a tea bag -- that's tannin. Of course, any wine that tastes like over-steeped tea would be a difficult sell, so winemakers try to get just the right amount, enough to add a firmness to the wine without making the wine bitterly astringent.
Tannin is most often found in red wines, and that's because most of the tannin in grapes comes from the skins -- in general, red wines ferment on the grape skins, white wines do not. But prolonged storage in new or newer oak barrels can also infuse a wine with tannin, so winemakers will decide how long to keep a wine in barrel in part to determine how much tannin they want in the wine.
By the way, tannin isn't the only component in a wine that gives a wine "structure": Acid plays a part, too. Together with tactile impressions of body or alcohol, they're like the framework of a building, and they're what hold a wine together.
VarietalSome writers make a distinction between "varietal" and "variety" (a varietal wine being one which is marketed and sold on the basis of its variety), but the distinction is blurring. At the core of both is a reference to the kind of grapes used in making a wine. The most famous (and best-selling) varieties in the marketplace are Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Merlot. They're grown all over the world, but they were made famous in France: Cab (you may have been the victim of bad puns leeched from this abbreviation) and Merlot are two major components in Bordeaux, while Chardonnay is the grape used exclusively in white Burgundy.
Pinot Noir, the red wine grape featured in Life in Vine, was also made famous in Burgundy, and it is notoriously difficult to grow well. This, and the popularity of the so-called Big Three varietals mentioned above has kept Pinot's market share comparatively low. In fact, as vineyards around the world are being replanted with the Big Three because they're such cash crops, some people are anxious about a future barreling increasingly toward monoculture. There are thousands of grape varieties in the world (most famously in Italy, with thousands alone), each creating a different kind of wine, and many represent specific regions so exclusively that their wines are essentially the flavor of their towns or districts. As growers see how much more money they can make growing Cabernet, some often uproot their old, characterful vines along with centuries of tradition, propelling the world one bit closer to bland uniformity.
But I don't really have any opinion on this...
VeraisonVeraison ("vuh-RAY-zon") is a truly magical time in the grape growing year. Before veraison, red wine grapes are green, bitter and hard, poor fodder for glossy coffee table books. But toward the end of the summer, over about a week or so, their color changes to a more appetizing deep purple. On the way, vineyards are decked multicolored clusters, since each grape within a cluster changes on its own timetable. With a little backlighting, the result is amazing to behold.
Veraison tells growers that the ripening process which will culminate in harvest has begun, since red grapes change color when the sugar in them increases to 5-10 brix. White wine grapes also change color about this time, but the change is much more subtle.
VintageVintage sounds like a word you'd say with your nose in the air and an ascot tied around your neck. But this snobby-sounding word is used by winemakers in a much more functional way to essentially indicate a winemaking year. Life in Vine, for example, covers the entirety of "the '99 vintage."
On the shelf, wines are often classified by vintage, both to keep one year's produce separate from another, and to indicate a certain quality level. If you don't see a date on a bottle of wine, it's what's called a "non-vintage" wine, which means it's a blend of wines from at least two different years. When wineries issue both vintage and non-vintage wines, the vintage-dated bottles are almost marketed as better wines, but at a higher price.
ViticultureViticulture is the science and practice of growing grapes, most famously taught in the United States at the University of California at Davis. Compare to "enology," the science and practice of making wine.
White GrapesSee Red Grapes.
YeastYeasts are the high livin' dynamos that take gray, mucky grape juice and transform it into wine. Yeasts are everywhere. There are untold strains of them in the world and they float around virtually everywhere, poised to ferment something at a moment's notice.
The popular conception that yeast gobble up sugar and spit sugar, heat and carbon dioxide out the other side isn't exactly right, but it's close enough (a mercenary enzyme also plays a part). But as festive a process as that might be, it ultimately ends in tragedy -- as the yeasts convert sugar to alcohol, the alcohol level rises, and after a while, it actually kills them off. How's that for a morality play?
That's why winemakers must always be careful which yeasts dominate their fermentations. Not only will different yeasts impart different flavors to a wine, but they'll also give up at different alcohol levels. If a wimpy yeast gets the upper hand in the fermentation, they might stop after processing only half the sugar. The result is a "stuck fermentation", and that is a winemaker's kryptonite (though it is what gave us Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay).
The danger of a stuck fermentation is why many winemakers use yeasts isolated and cultured in the lab -- they know what they're going to get. But more and more winemakers (and many in Life in Vine) like the complexity and naturalness so-called "wild yeasts" give to a wine. Luckily, yeasts which successfully dominate a fermentation tend to hang around for more action the following year, so wineries tend to maintain a population which can do the job. Nevertheless, many winemakers have cultured yeasts on standby in case the unthinkable should occur.
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