August 28, 2020 8 min read
Let’s be real, the world of wine is a convoluted, confusing mess. We mean, just look at how many different brands are on the shelf at your local grocery store. It is baffling! Which wines are good? Is it worth it to buy a $70 Pinot Noir, or will a Pinot noir under $30 suffice? Nobody wants to feel like a confused fool, or overspend on bad wine, but sometimes it seems like you need a Ph.D. to decipher what is said on the wine label (and we’re not even talking international wines, there you need to learn another language).
So, to help you search through the variety of key terms and buzzwords and find the best wine for you at a good price, we decided to create a little glossary to show:
This will be a continuous blog, so stay tuned for more additions to the page as we go on.
When “Estate Grown” is written on the bottle, that usually means that the winery owns or controls 95% of the grapes that go into the bottle. Unfortunately, though, there is no legal definition of the term “Estate Grown”, at least not in the US, so it doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the wine’s quality or value. Therefore,it is best not to make your decision based on this label.
Technically this is not a buzzword because it is rarely on the label, so it is tough to know whether a wine is sourced(Lucky Rock wines are 100% sourced, and we make an effort to put the counties on our label). We use the term “cuvee” Pinot Noir (basically meaning “blend”) to indicate that we take the best-sourced grapes we can find to make our wine. This approach can be less expensive than owning and farming one’s own vineyards and allows more flexibility to balance the price and quality. Despite what your wine snob uncle may say after a few glasses of overpriced Merlot, sourcing grapes is not “bad” or lead to “inferior quality” when compared to estate grapes. But this strategy is almost always more affordable per bottle than estate.
Self-explanatory, right? A single vineyard wine (well technically 95 % of the said wine) comes from a single vineyard. Usually, that means that the winery found this specific vineyard to be of a high enough quality for it to be bottled separately. Because it is from just one vineyard, you will typically see single vineyards as much more expensive than most other wines. These wines represent a time and place and that is what you are paying a premium for. We recommend buying a winery’s “blend” wines (which are usually a blend of multiple vineyards) to see if you like the style, before jumping into the pricey single vineyards.
On the other side of the spectrum from single vineyard wines, come the blends or cuvée wines. Again, this is typically not mentioned on the label, although, we at Lucky Rock are damn proud to display the “County Cuvée” on our label and even tell you which counties in California we blend from and the percentage of grapes from each county. Blended winescan be made using estate fruit and sourced fruit, and, by far and wide,comprise most of the wine market. Because there are so many different cuvée wines out there, there is a wide range of quality. While single vineyard wines can be better for aging and generally are saved for more special occasions, cuvées are your everyday drinking wines and made to be soft and smooth and consumed right after you buy them. So our recommendation is to find a couple of producers that you like.
Disclaimer: Not to be confused with “Red Blend”, which typically goes on the label instead of a varietal for a wine that has less than 75% of any grape (That is a whole other article).
We have previously written about this buzzword, and if you want to see the previous blog post go to this link. We don’t want to drone on, but we feel that sustainability is extremely important, mostly from a philosophical standpoint. What does it mean to us? Well, if a wine is farmed sustainably that means all precautions are taken to ensure that the environment around it- including soils, rivers, and wildlife- isn’t harmed by the farming practices. Can the wine be more expensive as a result? Sometimes. Is sustainable wine always better quality? Not always. It just depends on what your values are.
This one is also an iffy term, but it has a strong association with quality. A wine that is produced from old vines is always better than from newer wines because old stuff is cooler? Because…nostalgia? There are more technical reasons why Old Vine wines might be higher quality as well. For one, older vines have deeper root systems which allows them to pull more nutrients from the ground. They have more “permanent wood”- and no, you don’t have to call your doctor about this- which is basically the heavier branches and the trunk of the vine. This wood holds more carbohydrates, which can mean more energy for the vine to put into grapes. Also, older vines produce less grapes, and coupled with more energy and nutrients that means that those grapes, hypothetically, get more attention and care from the vine. These claims may be real, but they aren’t law, and that is why there is no legislation on the term “Old Vine”. So, if you see a bottle with that label, it wouldn’t hurt to find out “how old” is the average vine age. It could be 100+ years, or 10. There is a difference.
By far and wide, the first term a wine novice learns is “dry”. “But guys…” we hear you say “wine is a liquid, so technically it’s wet.” To that we say, “don’t be a smart @$$” but we digress… Dry in winemaking terms means that the finished wine has les than 1% (or less than 4 g/L) fermentable sugar. It is a technical term, that is irrespective of the actual flavor or perception of the wine, and that is what most consumers find confusing. For example, a Zinfandel can taste sweet because of a high amount of Ethyl Alcohol (the main alcohol responsible for both your wine buzz and subsequent hangover). But the wine can still be dry. Conversely a Cab may have more than 1% of residual sugar left but taste dry because of the tannins. Not to be confused with dry-ing, a sensation you feel when you drink a wine with a lot of tannins and low sugar/ alcohol. Confused yet? Basically, what a consumer needs to remember is that dry wine is not drying wine and some wines that taste sweet can still be dry. Simple.
Oooooo… where do we even start on this one? At Lucky Rock, we have an allergy this term, which just recently popped up. We won’t go too deep into it, and if you want to dive down the rabbit hole, you can check out the article we wrote here. Basically if “Clean wine” is just a marketing term that is supposed to differentiate producers who make wine with a healthier lifestyle in mind. The terms like “vegan”, “paleo friendly”, “pairs with a healthy lifestyle” and “made sustainably” get tossed around like they are a football at a backyard BBQ and they don’t mean a whole lot if you understand how most of the world’s wine is made. Watch this episode of our Youtube Show for more info.
Organic wine follows various organic regulations throughout the grape growing period as well as the winemaking period. Usually, if you see this term on the label, that implies that the winery spent a decent amount of money to receive a certification from an accredited organization. Unfortunately, small businesses utilize organic practices but can't afford to certify their wines since certifications cost $$, and there you will have to do your research.
It's tricky because each organization certifies organic wines differently, but overall, a wine is organic if:
1.It doesn't utilize any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers in the vineyards
"Made with Organically Grown Grapes."
This term [above] is different from being fully organic because it only talks about the grapes in the vineyards, but not the winemaking process. We have done a few wines made with organically grown grapes but chose not to put in on the label because- again- it costs a lot of money to get the vineyards certified. Like with organic wine generally, the focus here is on what kind of pest/weed killers and fertilizers are allowed to use. It's easier to be organic grape growing in California than- say- in England, where it rains every other day, and there is lots of mold and mildew that forms and attacks the grapes.
Once the grapes leave the vineyards and enter the winery, though, all bets are off. Realistically if you make wine with organic grapes, you will not be unnecessarily in-organic in your winemaking. But still, you can use as much sulfur as necessary and any modern tools to assist you in making the best wine possible.
"It's organic wine, plus the voodoo." We joke, of course, but also, we aren't kidding. Biodynamic agriculture adheres to the organic rules and regulations and follows the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. The concept is to create a fully sustainable ecosystem within flora and fauna of the vineyard. Some biodynamic practices include special holistic preparations buried in the vineyard as a natural fertilizer and specific actions based on the moon's cycles. The principal certifying body for Biodynamic winemaking is Demeter
Biodynamic winemaking is as much a philosophy as it is a winemaking style. But does it make wine that tastes better? Unfortunately, just like with organics, there is no conclusive evidence. But it is a good step in preserving mother earth, and many very high-quality wineries are adopting these processes. So who's to say?
We spoke about the mini-trend that is "Clean Wine," now, let's address this gigantic elephant in the room. You may have seen a shelf full of "natural wine" in your local trendy wine shop, with various funky colored bottles and even funkier labels. It's cool, it's funky, a lot of cool people are talking about it, but what the f**ck is it?
More than anything, natural wine is purely a philosophy. There is no regulatory body [outside France] that certifies wine as natural and no actual requirements to follow. So here are some generalizations of what winemakers do, or not do to make their wine natural:
One natural winemaker put it best: "We put the wine into its vessel and walk away." It doesn't seem like an awful idea unless you realize that fermentation and aging is an unpredictable process, and so many things can happen that can easily ruin your wine. But just like with stinky French cheese, a lot of natural winemakers lean into their wine's flaws, saying something pretentious like "you just don't get it." We get it; you made terrible wine.
And there is also the concept of bottle variations: you can have one magical bottle and another that tastes like complete sh*t in the same year.
To conclude our little Natural Wine tirade, see what we think by checking out this YouTube episode where we tried some "natural wine." Sometimes the vibe of some natural producers makes you feel like you must belong to a super exclusive club to appreciate their "art" We believe wine should be appreciated by everyone. So we're not fans.
Hopefully, these explanations will help you better select the best wine on your next trip to the grocery store. If anything, you can ask better questions of the wine steward and they should be able to point you in the right direction. If you have any more key terms that you would like “demystified", Drop us a comment below and we will expand this Blog.
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