Wine for women who do extraordinary things, every day.

What wine descriptions really mean

Wine should be fun to choose, but sometimes there are words we don’t understand on the labels and it can get a bit confusing as we think to ourselves, “What does that mean?” We’ve picked a few to explain, so if you’ve ever seen these on bottles and wondered what they refer to, you might just find the answer here…


No, not a reference to the winemaker, merely informing you that the sparkling wine you are considering, is dry.


The mass of skins that form on top of the red wine as it ferments (I say red wine as when making white wine, the grapes are pressed and skins removed before fermentation). The cap needs to be regularly pushed down into the wine to extract colour, flavour and body. Often done by hand with something resembling a large rubber thing you unblock sinks with, it’s referred to as ‘plunging’. Alternatively, you can pump wine from the bottom of the tank up and over the top, pushing the cap down as the wine is sprayed onto it. This is called ‘remontage’ and occurs roughly twice a day. 


Often on French wine labels, particularly Bordeaux, Chateau is roughly the equivalent of ‘House of…’ so just forms part of the wine’s name. Usually conjures up images of majestic, turreted buildings with shuttered windows, grey slate roofs and topiaried hedges. While this is true for a number of properties, particularly through the prestigious Medoc region, it can also be a tumbled down pile of stones.


Refers to a particular blend – often seen on sparkling wine.


Not the online version (which doesn’t have the ‘e’ on the end) again, this term is often found on French wines, more likely Burgundies and wines from southern France. An alternative to ‘Chateau’.

Late Harvest  

As it suggests, Late Harvest refers to grapes that have been left out on the vine and harvested late. Not forgotten by the producer, but left to develop more concentrated flavours and sugar levels needed to make sweet wines.


This is the sludgy stuff that drops to the bottom of the tank as a wine ferments. It’s dead yeast cells mainly. Depending on the style of wine being made, the lees might be stirred up (called battonage) to add more body, extract and texture to the wine, or the wine left to settle ‘on its lees’, again, to give more flavour.

Malolactic fermentation

This takes place after the first fermentation – the alcoholic one – and isn’t really a fermentation, but about swapping a sharp acid – malic – for a softer acid – lactic. Red wines and some white wines, particularly Chardonnay undergo ‘malo’ (though with Chardonnay it is often only a % of the wine rather than the whole lot).

Méthode Traditionnelle      

This is a method of making sparkling wines that is the same as the one used to make Champagne. But because you are not allowed to use the word ‘Champagne’ unless you are referring to ‘Champagne’ (the real stuff from France) we now use Méthode Traditionnelle. The main principle is that the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in bottle in order to create the all important bubbles.


This refers to grapes that are affected with noble rot. This charming little fungus, also called botrytis, attacks grapes when the weather is warm and moist. It pierces the skin allowing the water to evaporate and the sugars to concentrate. What’s left are some dreadful-looking grey, hairy, shrivelled up things that look like they might have come from a science experiment, but in fact, they make some of the world’s finest wines. Think Sauternes, Barsac, Tokaiji and some of Germany’s fine sweet wines and NZ’s delicious noble Rieslings plus Australia’s rich noble Semillons.


This involves two barrels or two tanks or any combination of each, and a pump (plus some common sense – see earlier). The objective is to move the wine off its lees (see above) and into a clean barrel/tank. This may happen more than once depending on the wine.


This word is perhaps one of the most confusing in the wine world. You’d be quite forgiven for thinking this word referred to a better wine – a special selection of some sort – wine that was held back and released as ‘Reserve’ because the winemaker deemed it to be of a higher quality than the regular blend, it was perhaps barrel-aged for a while. Well, sometimes this is the case, but not always and you’d be hard-pushed to tell. If the wine is cheap, then the chances are the word is being used to cajole you into buying it – to make it seem like a bargain – a ‘Reserve’ wine at a cheap price. If the wine is expensive, ‘Reserve’ probably is exactly as you’d hope – a special parcel that has undergone additional care and attention, and is hopefully worth the higher price tag.

In other countries such as Italy, (Riserva) and Spain (Reserva) the application of the word is strictly controlled and can only be used on wines that have reached a particular quality status and had extra aging usually in both barrel and bottle and in some cases, has an extra .5% or more of alcohol.

Residual sugar

Fruit sugars left over once the fermentation process has ended. Yeast converts the natural sugars into alcohol (hence the riper the grapes the more potential alcohol), so when the yeasts stop working, any sugar left is ‘residual’. Fermentation of every day table wines will just carry on until the wine is dry (when the yeast has converted all the sugar), though the winemaker does have the choice to stop the ferment, therefore leaving some sugar in the wine in order to make a sweeter style. For wines made with grapes affected by Noble Rot (see earlier) they are so ripe and so packed with sugar that the yeast don’t stand a chance of ever finishing the job and die off long before they can convert all the sugar.


A natural compound found in the skins and pips, tannin is the stuff that dries your mouth out and makes your teeth feel furry when you take a swig of red wine. It is a natural preservative and much needed in red wines destined for the cellar. Too much of it can make a wine harsh and mouth-puckeringly astringent, but in balance with the fruit it provides structure and definition. I say red wine, because with white wine the skins have been removed so tannin content is minimal (though a small amount of tannin can be gained from oak, but shouldn’t be obvious).


That wonderful time of year when winemakers grow beards (usually just the men) and bags under their eyes while their partners are referred to as ‘vintage widows’. After tasting their way through numerous bunches of grapes in deep discussion with the viticulturist, it’s as if someone blows a whistle and the big harvesters come trundling in, straddle each row and shake the fruit from the vines and into receival bins. It’s usually about 3am so that the grapes come in chilled, and this continues until all the fruit is picked – for some this is a few days and for others, a few weeks as different grape varieties ripen at different times. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are usually among the first on the list whereas Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are towards the end. Hand-picking is a far more genteel approach with lots of people equipped with snippers shuffling along the vines carefully cutting bunches off and laying them in a small bin. Used for high quality, smaller quantity wines (that’s not to say machine harvesting doesn’t produce high quality – if does, but this method is just gentler, more selective (able to leave the odd unripe bunch behind) and certainly more expensive.

If you have any specific questions about wine terminology, feel free to ask us in the comments section below and we will answer as best we can.