Three Ways to Impress a Sommelier

July 3, 2007

I was at a barbecue a couple of weeks ago with a bunch of wine types, blissfully gnawing on my ribs, when I realized that the conversations swirling about me sounded like they were being spoken in a foreign language. Someone had their nose in a glass of Pinot Noir and was talking about “toast.” Another commented on the “ML” in a Chardonnay after swishing a sip between his teeth. Yet another asked, “is there any RS?” with regards to a Riesling. No wonder people think we’re snobs here, I thought. Everyone’s speaking in code!

Well I’m going to de-code those three terms for you so you can use them too—in your own backyard, at a friend’s barbecue . . . even while chatting up a sommelier.

Toast — No, this doesn’t refer to well-bronzed bread. Nor does it necessarily speak of a flavor or scent inherent on the wine (although toasting does impart distinct characteristics onto a wine including, occasionally [surprise surprise], a toast-like note). Technically speaking, toasting is a step in the barrel making process where the inside of the barrel is charred—or toasted—over an open flame for a given length of time. This layer of toasted wood acts as a barrier between the alcohol in the wine and the tannins in the wood. So a lighter toast means a more tannic wine with more straight-on oaky flavors. A darker toast tends to impart less tannins and more complex flavors, like cigar, spice and coffee.  

ML — ML refers to Malolactic Fermentation (sometimes called a Secondary Fermentation) and you’ll hear it bantered about often over Chardonnay. Malolactic Fermentation, despite the moniker, is not actually a fermentation process. ML occurs after the initial fermentation (of sugar to alcohol), and is actually a conversion of malic acid to lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Malic acid is inherently more acidic than lactic acid, so as ML occurs, the wine’s acidity decreases and results in a smoother, rounder mouth-feel. Most acidic reds are put through ML, as are some particularly acidic whites—most notably Chardonnay. When the process is taken too far, though, too much acidity is lost and an excess of diacetyl is produced. This is what creates the overbearing butterscotch aromas and flavors in some Chardonnays, which is what most people are talking about when they say they can “taste” the ML on a wine. 

RS — RS stands for Residual Sugar. As I mentioned above, all wines go through an initial fermentation process that converts the sugars in the grapes to alcohol. In dry wines, nearly all the sugar is converted; in sweeter wines, the process is halted before all the sugar is converted, although the wines may not taste sweet depending on their acidity and tannin levels. Think of sugar and alcohol as opposite ends of a continuum—the higher the sugar level, the lower the alcohol content; the lower the sugar level, the higher the alcohol content. Residual sugar is not inherently good or bad, although when you see someone make a face while referring to the RS in a wine, it probably means the sugar is heavy-handed and cloyingly sweet. However, wines with a touch of RS can also be exceptionally well-balanced (between fruit and acidity) and complex.

I’ll keep an ear out for other terms that might seem confounding, so stay tuned for further demystification. In the meantime, any questions of your own?


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3 Responses to “Three Ways to Impress a Sommelier”

  1. foodette Says:

    Thank you for this post. I am new to wine drinking, and feel like I never really know what to say when describing wine. This was very informative and helpful. I can’t wait to try this out on someone!

  2. lia Says:

    I’m so glad Foodette! Welcome, and let me know how it goes!

  3. […] of stainless steel tanks. Inside each, freshly pressed wine was bubbling and churning as it ferments the sugars in the grape juice into alcohol. All in all, the process takes about 6–7 days for a red, so there’s a lot of pumping […]

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