When hearing words like “bouquet” or “tannins”, it can leave even the most excited wine lover shaking in their boots. After all, there’s nothing seemingly more unattractive than the phrase “noble rot” which is a real thing. UGH. Really?
Listed below are some of the most common wine terms and lingo that might help you navigate your way through the wine world better. Some of these you may never see, but others you may see frequently on your wine bottles. If you have any suggestions to add to this list, let me know in the comments section and I’ll be sure to add them!
Common wine terms:
What you might see printed on a bottle or label…
• Cuvée: wine blended from several vats or batches, or from a selected vat. Also used in Champagne to denote the juice from the first pressing of a batch of grapes.
• Blanc de Blancs: A white wine, usually sparkling, made exclusively from white grapes, often Chardonnay.
• Blend: When a wine isn’t overwhelmingly made from a single grape variety. In the US, a wine is a “blend” when less than 75% of any single grape variety is used.
• Brut: a French term for a very dry champagne or sparkling wine. Drier than extra dry.
• Fortified: A style of wine where extra alcohol is added in the form of a spirit. While table wines are typically between 10 percent and 14 percent alcohol by volume, fortified wines are typically 15 to 22 percent alcohol by volume. Sherry, madeira, and port are all fortified wines.
• Reserve: A term that is SUPPOSED to describe a wine maker’s most prized wine, but it’s really an overused term. It’s not always indicating the best or the finest a winery has to offer.
• Reserva: Spanish and Portuguese term for a reserve wine.
• Magnum sizing: An oversized bottle that is the equivalent of two standard-size (750ml) bottles. These are the gigantic bottles you sometimes see in wine shops and restaurants on display.
• Oaked aged: Both white and red wines can be aged in oak barrels. Oaked wines are sometimes described as having notes of vanilla, butter, or caramel.
• Steel tank aged: This means that the wine was aged in a giant steel tank as opposed to an oak barrel. This is very common with some white wines such as Rieslings or even Sauvignon Blanc (among others.)
• Varietal: A single variety of grape. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is a varietal. Chardonnay is a varietal.
• Vintage: The vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested and began aging such as a “2014” Merlot. A nonvintage wine comes from grapes that were harvested over two or more years. Champagne is typically nonvintage (or NV), and you won’t generally see a year on those bottles unless they are crazy expensive.
When tasting and serving…
• Acidity: How much acid is in a wine that gives it that tart, puckering brightness. Pinot Grigio is a great example of a wine generally high in acid.
• Aeration: Exposing wine to oxygen to let it “breathe” and mix with air. This opens up the wine’s aromas. You’ll see people do this when swirling their wine in a wine glass or pouring into a large decanter.
• Balance: The term used when elements in a wine are harmonious; when no one part overpowers the other. Acid should balance against sweetness; fruit should balance against the oak and tannins; alcohol balances against acid and flavor.
• Body: How heavy or full a wine feels in the mouth. Wine is often described as light-, medium-, or full-bodied.
• Bouquet: Not related to flowers although some wine varietals do smell like flowers occasionally. However, this actually refers to the overall collection of smells that come from wines.
• Chewy: When a wine is rich or dense, almost enough that it seems like it has a thick texture.
• Crisp: The word Crisp with wine is more often used to describe a white wine, usually high in acidity. Many people describe white wines that are “cripsy” when they have a green apple or fresh taste about them.
• Decanting: Pouring wine from the bottle into a decanter allowing the wine to “breathe.”
• Earthy: A smell or taste related to the earth, such as soil, leathery or woodsy. This is opposite of something described as “Fruity” which is listed below.
• Finish: A term used to describe how long a wine’s flavor lingers in your mouth after swallowing. Wine’s can either have a short or long finish.
• Fruity: A commonly used descriptor for wines that have intense notes of fruit like plums, berries, pears, apples or other fruits.
• Jammy: A term used to describe red wines with a cooked fruit flavor.
• Legs: Contrary to popular belief, this does not refer to the quality of a wine. The legs are the trickles that run down a glass after you swirl it. It gives clues to how much alcohol or residual sugar the wine contains; thicker, slower legs indicate a wine with more alcohol or residual sugar.
• Minerality: Similar to a wine’s earthiness, a wine with strong minerality tastes of the earth, though minerality typically refers to the flavor of stones rather than dirt. This term is more commonly used to describe white wines, though it can be used to describe reds as well.
• Toasty: Toasty is most commonly a reference to a wine that’s oak-aged long enough to take on some of the taste of the oak. Sometimes it can actually seem to taste like buttered toast, but it’s more likely to be picked up as a vanilla or caramel taste in the finish.
In growing and production…
• The Appellation: A specific geographic region where a wine comes from. For example, Stag’s Leap is an appellation in Napa Valley where some very famous wineries are located (such as Clos du Val.)
• Fermentation: The process where yeast turns grape sugars into alcohol.
• Oxidation: A reaction that occurs when wine is overexposed to oxygen, which causes it to lose brightness in both color and flavor. While this is an undesirable quality in table wine, controlled oxidation is a part of the sherry production process.
• Sediment: Particles that settle at the bottom of a bottle of wine.
• Tannins: Bitter compounds in the skin and seeds of grapes that give red wine structure. (White wines have little to no tannins as they’re typically not fermented on the skins.) While some tannins are desirable, overly tannic wines can cause a drying sensation in your mouth.
• Terroir: Terroir refers to the growing region of a wine whose unique environmental attributes (soil, climate, etc.) defines the taste of a wine. For example, Bordeaux and Burgundy are terroirs in France. Chianti is a terroir in Italy. These are not grapes but regions that define their wines.