Wine 101: Understanding Wine Labels 2


“Whole cluster pressed, settled overnight and racked to barrel for non-inoculated primary and secondary fermentation. Barrel aged 14 months, racked twice, assembled and tank aged for 2 months prior to bottling.”

Last week, I began to tease out the information contained in this not-so-simple little sentence. It's a fairly typical example of a good, informative wine bottle back label. It shows that the winery is really trying to help the consumer by offering all these winemaking details, but what does it really mean? To decipher this sort of wine speak, one needs to have a good understanding of the vocabulary of winemaking, which is often complex, and highly confusing!
We left off last week's Wine 101 having discussed whole cluster pressing, setting, and racking, all steps of winemaking that one can encounter before the fermentation begins, so it only makes sense that our next term should be:

Non-inoculated primary fermentation

Yikes – do I really want to drink this? Well, while it may sound a bit off-putting, it’s really a very interesting and valuable phrase. What it means is that the winemaker has chosen to use the natural yeast that floats around the winery and among the vines to convert the sugar in the grapes into alcohol.

The alternative is for the winemaker to use commercial or cultivated yeast. These two terms aren’t really interchangeable, but are used that way nonetheless. Commercial yeast are just what they sound like: Yeast strains that are propagated commercially and sold with the promise of specific, consistent performance traits. They may promise to produce a fruitier wine, or to withstand alcohol levels that naturally-occurring yeast strains might not be able to survive. I won’t pass blanket judgment on all commercial yeast, for some applications they may very well be the right choice, but I think I can tell when some producers use them. For example, when I smell passionfruit in my Barolo barrel sample!

Cultivated yeast does generally refer to those self-same commercial yeasts, but not always. Some wineries cultivate their native yeast strains so that they can get fermentation started quickly. When one relies on the sometimes-modest numbers of yeast cells living among the vines, fermentation can sometimes take a bit too long to get started, increasing the risk of oxidative and volatile acids faults in the finished wine. By increasing the population of the native yeasts in a fermentation vessel a winemaker can get the fermentation going more quickly without changing the flavors of the final wine.

Secondary Fermentation, AKA Malolactic Fermentation

Malolactic fermentation generally follows the alcoholic fermentation, though they can be made to begin at virtually the same time. Simply put it is the conversion of the hard, sharp malic acid that gives green apples their tart bite into the softer lactic acid that gives yogurt and some soft cheese their zesty edge.

Unlike the alcoholic fermentation, which relies on yeast, this conversion is performed by bacteria. In general, red wines undergo malo, as it’s commonly referred to, though many white wines, which depend much more on their acid for structure, flavor and mouthfeel, are prevented from undergoing malo.

Malolactic fermentation changes a wine in several appreciable ways. First, it lowers the perception of acidity, and in fact lowers the totally acidity in a wine since malic to lactic is not a one-to-one conversion. Secondly, it allows for the creation of several important flavoring compounds. The most important of these is probably Diacetyl, or in layman’s term, that delicious buttery smell!

Barrel Aged

Another pretty self-explanatory phrase, it simply means that the wine was aged in a barrel, but it doesn’t specify what size or type of oak.  One reason why wine is aged is oaked in wood barrels is that there is a slow exchange between the wine and oxygen through the porous wood staves of the oak barrel. Now you’re right if you’re thinking, "Didn’t he just say that winemakers try to prevent the oxidation of their wine?”

That certainly holds during the winemaking process, but once the wine is finished the slow and controlled introduction of oxygen allows the tannins to soften, and even promotes color retention and adds to the flavor of the wine. It should come as no surprise then that barrel aging, as opposed to barrel fermentation, is a term usually, but not always, associated with red wines. That vanilla, toast, and chocolate you might have noticed in your wines is most likely the result of time spent in new, toasty barrels. As barrels are used, these flavors lose intensity, with many winemakers calling barrels that have been used for 4 vintages neutral.

Assembled and Tank Aged

Well, those barrels that most winemakers are using range roughly between the most popular 225-liter Barrique, and Tonneaux of several hundred liters. Of course, most commercially available wines are produced in greater quantities than that. So, how does a winemaker make one consistent wine from a number of barrels? It’s simple -- use a bigger barrel! Actually, in this case "vessel" is probably a more appropriate term since it’s probably a stainless steel or even concrete tank that will be used to marry the wine from all of the smaller barrels. Those extra 2 months of aging can make all the difference in allowing all the disparate elements of the component wines to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts!

Wow, I never thought that little sentence would end up expanding into such a lengthy piece, but I do hope that my brief explanation will help you next time you’re faced with a jargon-laced wine back label!

Mentioned in this article


  • Another informative and interesting article. Most serious wine drinkers are aware of these terms you touched on, but probably don't understand the underlying concept behind them and why they're so important in the wine-making process. That includes me. I can tell if some white and red wines have been barrel aged as opposed to steel tank aged (hints of butter, vanilla or caramel on the nose and palate come to mind), but with all of wine's subtleties I'll be the first to admit many of them remain a mystery...which is what makes wine such a fascinating thing to enjoy.

    Jul 26, 2010 at 1:43 PM

  • Snooth User: Sullylv
    69723 125

    To expand a bit on your comments relating to Barrel aging...A few years ago I visited the caves at Del Dotto winery in Napa, and had the great fortune to be shown around by David Del Dotto. It was a truly memorable time and David talked about the differences in how the oak is "toasted" providing samples of the same wine from a "light' toast "medium toast" and "dark toast" oak barrels. The difference was easily discernible, as was using French oak or American oak.
    Matt S. Las Vegas

    Jul 26, 2010 at 4:02 PM

  • Snooth User: phantu
    475762 1

    one question can we define oak wine? is it fermented and aged in oak berrels???do all wine hv to go the last step which is assemble and tank aged???tks

    Jul 26, 2010 at 5:09 PM

  • Snooth User: Sullylv
    69723 125

    I would think it is two very different things , and that quantity probably has a lot to do with it. There is (to my knowledge) no "appellation" or something called "Oak Wine" they would describe a wine as "aged in oak". that would be where the article is talking about oak barrels...then there would be the tank aged which the author (Gregory) was describing as being in a "vessel" or large vats.
    I would not think that all wine is taken out of oak barrels and then tank aged. Just one or the other.

    Jul 26, 2010 at 5:53 PM

  • Snooth User: samantha gaw
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    356700 354

    Good article. One thing that always bugged the pedant in me is that malolactic fermentation is not actually a fermentation. Alcohol and the other stuff are not produced from sugars during the process. It should be malolactic conversion, or something.

    Jul 26, 2010 at 6:30 PM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 6,197

    Well you seem to be doing well with some of the backlabel details, especially issues in winemaking. But before getting to that level of knowledge, how about the more basically pertinent information on the front labels, esp. those in non-English languages, and even distinctions between such terms as 'produced', 'vinted', 'made', and 'bottled' that often involve the roles of negociants? When I first saw the title of these articles, but before opening them to read, my guess had been you'd be discussing the front labels first....

    Jul 26, 2010 at 7:04 PM

  • Snooth User: flyfrog
    364243 1

    Isn't there an introduction of a seperate flavor when the wines are placed in a concrete tank. I mean concrete is an even more porous material than oak; would it not impart a different flavor to the wine; and the thought of cement particles in my wine gives me shivers

    Jul 27, 2010 at 3:05 PM

  • Nice article.
    Now on Samantha's comment:
    "malolactic fermentation is not actually a fermentation. (...) It should be malolactic conversion, or something. "
    Wrong. Ethanol, lactic and malolactic conversions are all fermentative. Fermentative conversions are not exclusively alcoholic. Malolactic conversion is always a fermentation.

    Jul 27, 2010 at 9:04 PM

  • Somebody familiar with concrete vessels please try to answer Flyfrog's question. Does concrete impart a flavor to the wine made/stored in it? Curious minds want to know.

    Jul 28, 2010 at 1:32 AM

  • Snooth User: tripsim
    483085 21

    Concrete tanks do not impart any flavors on the wine and are used in the fermenting process because of their slight porosity that gives the wine the richness of barrel fermentation without the oak.

    I've had some delicious white wines that were fermented and aged in cement tanks; the wines were rich and full bodied, the aromas and flavors were unique nothing like I had tasted in other wines - no manipulation of wine character through oak and not austere at all ( a trait of stainless steel fermenting)

    Here's an interesting article regarding the usage of cement tanks (it's a lot more prevalent than you think):

    Jul 28, 2010 at 11:07 AM

  • Snooth User: gustinz
    420043 3

    A frustration that I always have is trying to find a bottle of highly rated, full-bodied, buttery, oaky Chardonnay that is really affordable (under $15). It seems there are plenty of cheaper (yet good quality) crisp, nicely acidic, no malolactic fermentation, steel barrel aged Chards. What is it that drives up the price of highly rated, buttery, oaky, malolactic fermented Chards? Is it demand? Is it the cost of malolactic fermentation? Is it the cost of oak barrels? Am I not searching right? Help!

    Jul 28, 2010 at 1:31 PM

  • ok, let's say something about concrete.

    "I mean concrete is an even more porous material than oak;" (flyfrog)
    Wrong. But even the "experts" and professionals fall into this confussion. Alan Viader of Viader winery: "The porous nature of the concrete does keep some yeast in there but that doesn't bother me. It's not an issue."
    Concrete has a specific gravity of 2.4, it weights 150 lb. per cubic foot. Specific gravity of oak wood is about 0.7 (44 lb. per cubic foot).
    I can understand what they're trying to say: Is the surface of concrete more porous that that of wood? Well, it can be. It depends on the purpose and the way you produce it. Concrete for retaining walls or foundations tends to have a rough appereance. Have you been to the Louvre in the last 20 years? The team coordinated by Pei made a great job with all the concrete used in the reception area, it's almost as smooth as polished marble.

    Aromas, flavors, richness?
    "Concrete tanks do not impart any flavors on the wine and are used in the fermenting process because of their slight porosity that gives the wine the richness of barrel fermentation without the oak." (tripsim).
    Nonesense. But, again, you're not alone.
    "Cement has an ability to breathe, so I think it will produce a richer blend.
    (Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars in Oakland)
    The main factor to consider is, again, density, which makes concrete tanks more temperature stable than wood. This can add to some aromatic variety and definition during fermentation.

    Anyway, wood seems to be the best option for great quality. And yes, it's more expensive. Production of stainless steel and concrete tanks is industrial and cheaper. Wood barrels are still hand made. Many producers that don't use wood try to compensate the absence of natural mycro-oxigenation by hiring some wine consultant that will manipulate the process and induce artificial mycro-oxigenation. Long live azzhowls like Michel Rolland!

    Jul 28, 2010 at 7:11 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Hi everyone.

    Sorry I haven't been participating here but I am on the road with not much time to play.

    About concrete, the tanks are lined, usually with resin or glass. They are particularly neutral tanks, and as Critov points out, they are favored primarily for their ability to absorb fermentation heat, and allow for slower temperature changes.

    I would not necessarily say that wood is the best option for great quality. It is a toll, like stainless and concrete.The quality comes from the vineyard, and through the intelligent use of these tools.

    The Sauternes Ch. Gilette is probably the most famous wine that uses concrete, in that case for decades. A very interesting wine that is both typical and unique for Sauternes!

    Having said that, much fine wine sees wood at some point in it's life but the vast majority is fermented in stainless, or increasingly, in concrete.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 12:48 AM

  • Tripism, thanks for the link to that article on the concrete tanks. It was very informative!

    Jul 31, 2010 at 6:30 AM

  • Snooth User: Cat X
    538127 6

    This discussion about the effect of aging wine in concrete is fascinating. I was looking for material on this topic for my wine blog and this was by far the best information and discussion I could find.

    The topic came up because I was stunned by the concrete wine vats in Argentina. Some seemed to be so old and in such bad shape that I wondered how they could continue to use them. Winery spokespeople told us they were epoxy lined, so I've always wondered if that would have any effect on the taste.

    One other thing I heard in Argentina surprised me. Apparently they get the oak taste in some of their wines through cheaper methods than using oak barrels--they use oak staves.

    Aug 01, 2010 at 9:44 PM

  • Based upon the information here and elsewhere it appears that some but not all concrete tanks are epoxy lined. Which method seems to be the trend of the future, lined or unlined?

    Aug 02, 2010 at 9:35 AM

  • By the way Cat X, I checked out your wine blog and found some great reading, thanks!

    Aug 02, 2010 at 9:39 AM

  • Snooth User: April Yap
    546515 4


    I have always wondered on how wine is being processed aged and how the taste of wines is being created. Thank you so much for this informative blog. I have learned so much!

    April Yap
    Grotto Custom Wine Cellars

    Aug 03, 2010 at 1:24 AM

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