Yvonne Lorkin at work. Photo: Florence Charvin

[As published in May/June BayBuzz magazine.]

We’ve all been there. 

Picked up a bottle of wine and turned it over to see if we could learn a little more about it from the back label. 

Only to view some sort of vinous verbiage like, “This vintage is truly reflective of its terroir and displays petrichor-pricked aromas alongside modestly moist hay morphing into mineral-laced nuances of sea breeze and followed by a palate powered by citrus complexity, oily oaky-ness and acacia bark fringed with feijoa.” Ummm. Pardon? 

Or you’re sipping something at your favourite Hawke’s Bay cellar door and you ask a simple question like, “How was this wine made?” and the person hosting your tasting whacks you with a word salad of wine tech waffle and expects you to understand it perfectly. 

It can be baffling. I mean, for starters, try explaining what a feijoa tastes like to someone not from New Zealand. That’s next level tricky! 

But there’s actually a whole (dare I say) bunch of grape-related language that’s useful to learn and will help you sound flash in front of your friends. Whether they’re written on bottles or on wine tasting notes, we’re going to break some of them down and explain, in plain English, what they actually mean. We might also bust a few myths along the way. 


The year the grapes were harvested. It’ll be written on the label (front, back or maybe on dinky ribbon across the cap or cork). Some wines (e.g. Champagne and sparkling) may not have a date on the label, instead they’ll say ‘NV’ which means ‘non-vintage’. This happens when the wine is made from a blend of wines crafted during different harvests, years, vintages. 


French for ‘earth,’ the term terroir [tear-WAAAH] in winespeak encompasses aspects of winegrowing like climate, soil type, terrain/altitude and winemaker influence. It’s an umbrella term to describe how those factors affect the wine in the bottle. Climate affects how the fruit ripens and, consequently, the residual sugar and alcohol levels in the resulting wines. 

Soil types like Havelock Hills’ limestone, Bridge Pa’s red metals, Crownthorpe’s sandy loams, SH50’s stony gravels, Central Hawke’s Bay’s argillite shale, Esk and Bay View’s deep sandy and seashell-peppered pockets alongside volcanic ash and pockets of coastal greywacke and clay also contribute to differentiating aromas and flavours of wines from Hawke’s Bay’s different sub-regions. 

Terrain and altitude can explain why, for example, a sauvignon blanc grown in mountainous Central Otago tastes so different from a sauvignon blanc grown beside the sea on the Te Awanga coastline. And winemaker influence is where a combination of treatments and processes is chosen for that wine to undergo as the winemaker shepherds it from berry to bottle.

Crushing and Pressing

Crushing grapes means breaking their skins and releasing the juices so that fermentation can happen. Crushed grapes form a sweet, syrupy pulp of juice and skins called the ‘must’.

Pressing is the separation of grape juice or wine from the solid stuff like skins, seeds, stalks, pulp etc. This solid waste material is known as ‘marc’ or ‘pomace’. It’s also extremely high in nutrients, it’s great for compost and livestock love it as feed. 


A flash word for ‘soaking’, it’s the period between crushing and pressing when the juice still has the skins, seeds and solids floating around in it. That stuff contains colour, tannin and texture, so commercial white wines won’t usually macerate much because absorbing those things could make them bitter and mask their fruitiness. For rosés a short maceration is great to absorb a hint of pinky colour; however for full-bodied, dark reds, maceration can happen pre-ferment (cold soak), during ferment, and up to a couple of months after ferment (post soak). 

Carbonic maceration

Carbonic maceration takes place when whole berries are held in an anaerobic atmosphere (no oxygen). The berries begin to ferment inside themselves without the need for yeast and eventually the grapes burst and normal fermentation can begin. It produces lighter, fruitier red wines and is most famously used in Beaujolais, and pinot noir loves it too.


Fermentation is magical. It’s how grape juice becomes wine. If you’ve ever walked into the Sophia Room at Craggy Range when that ring of twelve 5000 litre open-topped oak fermenters is bubbling away, the spiced berry smell is so intoxicating. Fermentation occurs after the grapes have been picked and crushed, and yeasts convert the sugar in the juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. 

There are two ways it can happen. By ‘inoculation’ (where a winemaker adds commercial or manmade yeasts to the juice to begin fermentation), a process that’s speedy, reliable, clean, and efficient. Or by letting it happen naturally via ‘wild’ or ‘indigenous’ fermentation utilising the yeast cells present on the grapes themselves or in the winery atmosphere. Wild ferments can be unpredictable and tricky, but many winemakers feel they create the most interesting wines.

Malolactic fermentation

Often called malo [may-low] or MLF, it’s a sort of secondary ferment (after the alcoholic ferment) where malolactic bacteria take the edge off a wine’s acidity by converting the sharper malic acid into softer lactic acid (hence the name malolactic). It can inject creamy, buttery layers into chardonnay for example. Next time you’re at the Urban Winery in Ahuriri, ask Tony Bish about the malo regime across his chardonnays – you’ll learn buckets. Malo raises pH and lowers acidity, so it also makes tannins in red wines feel smoother and rounder. Red wines will usually go through malo naturally during Spring. AND if you happen to be in a winery while wines are going through malo, ask for a sample, then put the glass up to your ear to hear it crackle. 


During a ferment, as the yeast cells die, they fall to the bottom of the vessel and form a rather gross-looking, yellowy-grey paste called ‘lees’. What this paste lacks in visual appeal, it more than makes up for in flavour and texture potential. The winemaker can choose to ‘stir’ these lees through the finished wine in a process known as ‘bâttonage’ to add complexity, texture, and a creamy mouthfeel. The longer the wine ages on its lees (or ‘sur lie’ in French), the more intense those aromas and flavours will be. 


It’s just another way of saying ‘aroma’ or ‘bouquet’ or ‘smells like’.


I use the word ‘minerality’ all the time and it’s a term which really rubs some wine folk up the wrong way. Sozz babes. For me it’s a way of describing the stony, flinty, quartzy, crisp and slightly saline aromas, flavours and textures of certain wines. It’s not a provable or a literal way of tasting the actual rocks or minerals found in a vineyard though. I mean, I guess one could go out rock-licking and dirt chomping, but you’d soon attract the wrong sort of attention. 


Chances are you’ve seen someone swirl their glass, hold it up to the light and announce “Wow, that’s got amazing legs!” as if it’s some measure of quality. ‘Legs’ are the lines of liquid that run down the inside of your glass after you’ve swirled the wine. The alcohol immediately starts to evaporate and the remaining liquid condenses into tears and gravity pulls them back down into the glass. So ‘legs’ just means the wine is a bit boozy and not much else.


You’ll see this word used in pretty much every aspect of the wine world. Put simply, when a wine is described as being ‘complex’ it’s got a lot going on. It’s like when you can’t quite pick one aroma, flavour or texture out above all the others. Or if there’s a smorgasbord of stuff leaping out of the glass, then it’s an easy shortcut to say something like “I’m loving the layers of complexity in this wine”.


The ‘body’ of a wine refers to how light or heavy it sits in your mouth. A wine’s body can be influenced by the natural characteristics of the grape it’s made from, the winemaking techniques, its maturity and its alcohol level. The higher the alcohol, typically the more viscous, heavy, and ‘full-bodied’ a wine will be.


Tannins are part of the vital combo of elements that make wine so awesome and unique as a beverage. They’re compounds derived from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes and they’re responsible for the astringent, slightly chewy, cheek-puckering characters found predominantly in red wines. ‘Tannin’ is a centuries old word derived from using plant extracts to cure leather—a process known as ‘tanning’. Plants have tannins to make themselves unpleasant to creatures who might eat them. Tannins can also come from the oak barrels used to store wine. Oak trees are plants. Grapes are plants. Ever chewed on a grape seed? They’re super-bitter. Chew just the skins or stalks of grapes? They leave a dry, furry feeling in your mouth. And yet when they’re released into wine, they contribute hugely to the depth, structure, texture and ageing potential. Tannins can be soft, delicate, silky, round, sinewy, fine-grained, firm, grippy or dusty.


Not a neckline or something you do to your coffee, rather it’s a technique winemakers employ to intensify colours and flavours mainly in red wines. During a red wine ferment, the CO2 produced by the yeast converting sugar to alcohol pushes the skins and seeds to the top of the vessel, forming a ‘cap’. For all their essential colours, tannins and textures to be incorporated into the final wine, that ‘cap’ needs to be ‘plunged’ back down into the liquid and kept wet. Plunging can be mechanized or, if you’re the unlucky cellar-rat, done by hand at regular intervals until your arms fall off.

Fining and filtration 

If you’ve ever tasted a wine straight out of the tank or barrel, chances are it was a tad cloudy in the glass. Yet by the time it ends up in a bottle, it’s clear as a bell and stable as hell. That’s because it’s likely been through a fining and filtration process. 

For most commercial white wines, it’s standard practice to clarify and stabilise them with products like egg white, casein, isinglass, gelatin or vegan options like bentonite, carbon or silica. Technically, no trace of these fining agents should remain in the finished wine, but as a safety precaution, some countries require allergen warnings to indicate whether certain products were used. 

Many big, bold red wines are now being released ‘unfined’ and ‘unfiltered’ as winemakers may prefer to retain the pure, true character of the wine rather than worrying about it looking bright and glossy. Invivo’s Hawke’s Bay Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 is bottled unfined and unfiltered for example.

Acidity or TA (titratable acidity) 

This tells us the concentration of acids present in wine. Typically, wines range between 4 and 8 grams per litre. 4 is fresh, 8 is getting to the squinty side. 


The pH level tells us how intense the acids taste. The relationship is inverse so the lower the pH number, the more intense the acids in the wine will taste. And (here’s some science), each number is logarithmic (sorry, maths too), so a pH of 3 has 10 times more acidity than a pH of 4. The pH range goes from 0 – 14, with 7 being neutral. (You can do this.) pHs of less than 7 indicate acidity, whereas a pH of greater than 7 indicates alkali. (Tighten your straps.) pH is actually a measure of the relative amount of free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions in the wine. (Breathe. It’s over now.)


Pronounced ‘bricks’, it’s a measurement of the percentage of sugar in the grape juice and tells us how ripe and sweet the grapes were when they were picked. Multiply it (sorry more maths) by 0.6 and you see the potential alcohol. So when your Bridge Pa-based winemaker mates start raving about their merlot reaching 24 Brix with a pH of 3.3 you can anticipate 14.4% of sippy salubriousness.


This stands for Residual Sugar and it’s the measure of sweetness in wine. Typically, wines with less than 10 g/L are considered dry … meaning less sweet. 


If you’re still with me and still wondering what that weird word in that opening wine tasting note meant, here it is. Petrichor is that awesome scent of rain falling on hot rocks, dry soil or warm asphalt and it’s a scent present in loads of different wines. 

Yvonne Lorkin is a wine writer, the Co-Founder and CTO of WineFriend (NZ’s No.1 personalised wine subscription service) and she’s a proud, born and bred Hawkesbaylien.

winefriend.co.nz or yvonnelorkin.com


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