From 'malo' to 'pet nat': Eight cool buzzwords every wine drinker needs to know

It's easy to feel out-of-the-loop in the fast-moving and trend-driven world of contemporary wine, to feel like you might need a pocket dictionary to decipher the wine list, or a science degree to understand the sommelier's explanation of what she's pouring into your glass.

At a fancy degustation for a friend's birthday recently, the young sommelier instructed our group that, between courses, he was going to take us "on a journey from one end of the Pyrenees to the other," to a place where we would "feel the salt spray on our faces." He used words such as "tension" and "electricity" to describe the wine we would be drinking, and flashed around terms like "malolactic fermentation." No-one really had a clue what he was talking about.

So, to help dispel the collective angst around contemporary wine terminology, we picked the brains of some of the hottest producers of natural wine to explain the meaning of some of the current wine buzzwords:

1. Natural Wine

Alastair Reed, Konpira Maru wines:

"Natural wine is the umbrella term for wine production termed minimal intervention which seeks to eradicate the use of additives in the vineyard and winery. The chief target is the preservative sulphur, which is added to wine as an anti-oxidant and anti-microbial agent, normally in the form of potassium metabisulphate."

2. Whole Bunch Fermented

Gary Mills, Jamsheed wines:

"The process of fermenting red (or white grapes) with the grape berries still attached to the stem. Also called 'whole cluster' or 'stem inclusion'. As opposed to de-stemming where the berries are removed and the stems discarded, the inclusion of the stems brings about a different flavour and tannin profile. Weirdly, it is now considered 'avant garde' although the practice is actually one of the oldest pre-industrial methods of winemaking."


3. Orange Wine

Alastair Reed, Konpira Maru wines:

"Orange wine is a subset of natural wine that utilises oxygen during and after fermentation more than traditional winemaking, as well as fermenting whites on skins, normally only done with reds. This makes for wines with a very different flavour profile than traditional modern wines, often with less primary fruit characters but some alluring oxygen and tannin influenced components."

4. Pet Nat (short for Pétillant Naturel)

Gary Mills, Jamsheed wines:

One of the hottest trends in wine right now. There are many names for the same process, methode ancestrale, methode rurale etc. Again, as with most things in wine, it is a very old practice made new again. A way of making sparkling wine by completing fermentation in the bottle and thereby trapping the CO2 inside the bottle that releases on opening to make a 'bogan champagne'.

5. Wild Fermented

Alastair Reed, Konpira Maru wines:

"Grape sugars are converted to alcohol by the single-celled fungi, yeast. Yeast are everywhere, and if you have ever lived in a share house then you'll know that given time nearly anything ferments, including bed sheets and velvet couches.

In the winery it is common to add a known yeast most often purchased from a winery supplier. However there are many yeasts that can ferment grape sugars and often naturally occur in the vineyard. So some winemakers do not innoculate their ferments with commercial packaged yeast, instead rely on the yeast that came in with the grapes or floating around the winery. Doing this can delay the start of ferment however hypothetically leads to more complex wines as a diversity of different yeasts help get the job done."

6. Carbonic Maceration

Gary Mills, Jamsheed wines:

This ties in directly with whole bunch fermentation whereby the grape undergoes an anaerobic fermentation inside the berry itself as opposed to the more conventional oxygen rich yeast fermentation that most red (and white) ferments undergo. It is a practice most often associated with the variety Gamay in the Beaujolais region, although it is now practiced widely around the world and across the grape variety spectrum.

Life is far too short to list the set of processes that occur in "Cab Mac" but the key elements are a shift to lower acidity and the production of a few notable compounds that give cab mac wines their signature flavour, notably ethyl cinnamate (strawberry/raspberry) and benzaldhyde (cherry/kirsch). I would advise caution before going down the rabbit hole of discussing carbonic maceration, it is the bastion of the true wine geek.

7. Malolactic Fermentation

Alastair Reed, Konpira Maru wines:

"Malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur in nearly all reds and some whites, notably chardonnay. The big change is the reduction in noticeable acid on the palate because lactic acid is a weaker acid than malolactic. It can also change the flavour spectrum of a wine subtly or dramatically. Many Chardonnays that have undergone MLF develop a buttery character from the compound diacetyl, which is so untrendy it will soon become trendy again.

8. Unfiltered

Steve Crawford, Frederick Stevenson wines:

I come from the land of Coopers Pale Ale, grew up in the Riverland and always drank pulpy orange juice, so I was confused about why we needed to always filter the crap out of our wines. Too much solid is like exfoliating your mouth or drinking Murray River water, but a little bit is fine. I try to focus on texture throughout my wines and filtering always takes some of this away.