A Brief Guide to Wine Abbreviations

The more you learn and immerse yourself in the world of wine, the more terms you’ll come across. By now you may know your tannins from your terroir, but what about the endless abbreviations which pepper everything from wine labels to tasting notes to articles on the internet? We’re here to demystify some of the most common wine abbreviations you’ll encounter. Here are some of the usual suspects and their meanings.

RS – Residual Sugar

That hint of sweetness present in certain wines is none other than residual sugar. Oh, it’s a polarizing thing. Some love a little sugary kiss to their wines while others abhor it. Residual sugar is the sugar remaining in a wine once fermentation is complete. If a wine is fermented to total dryness, all the sugars present in the sweet grape juice will be converted to alcohol by yeast. However, it’s possible for fermentation to stop before this happens. Alcohol is actually quite toxic to yeast, so once a wine’s alcohol level reaches upwards of 11 to 14 percent, the yeast cells begin to die off. If they die before all the sugars are converted to alcohol, the wine will have some residual sugar and likely be a little bit sweet. Wines with higher levels of RS are usually labelled ‘off-dry’ or sold as dessert wines, but you can have dry wines with as much as 3 grams per litre RS present. Typically, the more residual sugar in the wine, the lower in alcohol a wine will be.

ABV – Alcohol by Volume

This one’s pretty straightforward. Alcohol by volume or ABV simply refers to the alcohol level of your favourite libation. Generally speaking, wine ranges from 8 percent ABV to 14.5 percent, although some wines are made at both lower and higher ABV levels. As we discussed above, yeast tends to die at higher alcohol levels, so wines of 16 percent ABV and up (such as Port or Sherry) are often fortified with grape spirits.

VA – Volatile Acidity

Volatile acidity is the vinegar or nail polish remover aroma present in certain wines. It’s caused by bacteria present in the wine which converts alcohol and sugar into acetic acid and ethyl acetate when exposed to air. Wineries which employ older barrels or eschew the modern ultra-sterile approach are more likely to produce wines with volatile acidity. However, this isn’t always a given. In lower amounts, it’s virtually undetectable and can add a savoury sort of complexity (not unlike balsamic vinegar) to a wine. High levels of VA are considered a flaw because no one wants to drink a glass of pure vinegar.

MLF – Malolactic Fermentation

Despite its name, malolactic fermentation isn’t a true fermentation. Rather it is a conversion which takes place in the wine, from ultra-tart malic acid to the rounder, softer lactic acid. Think of a just ripe green Granny Smith apple compared to a glass of full-fat milk. Red wines almost universally undergo MLF. It’s far less common in white wines; winemakers often choose to let their Chardonnays go through malolactic fermentation and occasionally other whites like Viognier will see it as well. MLF gives wines a rounder texture and in Chardonnay, is responsible for that buttery flavour which some people love (and others don’t.).

There are plenty of other wine abbreviations you’ll encounter. AOC, DOC/DOCG, DO, AVA and VQA all refer to controlled appellations in their respective countries. These are your quality controlled wines which must adhere to delineated rules in order to be eligible to put the name of the regional or communal appellation on their labels.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the information floating around in the world of wine, but don’t let it intimidate you. At the end of the day, wine is nothing more than a beverage made from fermented grape juice. So whether you like a little MLF in your Chards, some VA in your Cab Sauvs or a bit of RS in your Rieslings, it’s all about enjoying what’s in your glass.

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