Are you daunted by the hundreds of wine terms out there? I know I am. When people talk about the weight of the wine, what does that mean? How about when they say that a wine is balanced?
In this article, I’ll explain a bunch of wine terms, focusing on the terms I hear most often. I’d love your feedback on other terms you think would be helpful for people to know.
A word of advice…If you don’t know a wine term, don’t sweat it. You can always look it up when you get home. Better yet, ask the person who used the term. Nine times out of ten, they’ll be delighted to share their wine knowledge with you. Everybody loves to show off how much they know.
Terms Having to Do with Where the Wine Is Made
- Appellation is the wine region the grapes are grown in. As an example, Napa Valley is an appellation. Within the Napa Valley appellation, there are 15 sub-appellations, or AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Appellations are designated by government agencies or trade bureaus, depending on the country.
- Terroir is a French term that represents the growing environment of the grapes. It encompasses the content of the soil, the slant of the hill, the direction of the sun, the amount of fog and precipitation, and anything else impacting the grape’s growing experience.
- Regional distinctions: For years, the French have seriously scolded the rest of the world when we use their terms. Hence, the U.S. name for Champagne is Sparkling Wine, and the U.S. name for Bordeaux blends is Meritage (rhyming with heritage). While the Portuguese don’t yell at us the way the French do, it would be more appropriate to use the term Fortified Wine to identify US-made Port.
Term Having to Do with When the Wine Was Made
- Vintage is the year the grapes are grown and picked. The vintage year is reflected on the label. If you go to the store and see a 2007 wine on the shelf, you know that the grapes were grown and picked in 2007. But you don’t know whether the wine went through a long aging process and was bottled only recently or whether the bottle has been sitting on the shelf for a number of years. Most still wines have a vintage. Very few Sparkling Wines have a vintage.
Terms Having to Do with How the Wine Is Made
- Fermentation happens when yeast gets added to grape juice and converts the sugar into alcohol.
- Sulfites are byproducts of yeast that occur naturally in grapes and that winemakers add to wine. Many people think that sulfites are bad. They assume that they get wine headaches because of sulfites. Truth be told, very few people have sensitivities to sulfites. And sulfites are very important to a wine’s shelf stability.
- Malolactic fermentation (MLF) is when malic acid is converted to lactic acid and carbon dioxide. When you think malic acid, think tangy and sharp, like a green apple. When you think lactic acid, think milky. A Chardonnay that hasn’t gone through MLF is likely to taste crisp and clean. A Chardonnay that has gone through MLF is likely to taste more mellow and buttery.
Terms Having to Do with the Grapes
- Varietal refers to the grape from which the wine is made. Examples include Merlot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Somebody might ask you what your favorite varietal is. If you are new to wine, you might say that you are exploring many different varietals but that you lean towards the sweeter varietals such as Riesling.
- Blends are wines made from more than one grape varietal.
Terms Having to Do with the Tasting Experience
- Acidity is what makes your mouth pucker when you drink wine. If you smell and taste a lot of grapefruit and lime in the wine, you can expect a fairly acidic wine.
- Legs are the rivulets you see coming down the wine glass. While legs are fun to look at, they don’t tell you anything about the quality of the wine. They tell you about viscosity and alcohol content. As a general rule, the more pronounced the legs, the higher the alcohol content of the wine.
- Tannins are flavonoids in wine that make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth. They are more prevalent in red wines than in whites, because they come primarily from the grape’s skin. High-tanning wines such as Cabernets tend to be more age-worthy than low-tannin wines.
- A balanced wine is a wine where its elements (acids, sugars, tannins, and alcohol) come together in a harmonious way.
- Body describes the weight and fullness of wine in your mouth. A wine can be light, medium or full bodied.
- Finish is the taste and sensation in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the wine. Wines with a longer finish are thought to be higher quality.
- A hot wine is a wine that tastes high in alcohol.
- Mouth-feel is how a wine feels on your palate. Perhaps smooth, silky, oily, velvety or rough.
- Dry wine is the opposite of sweet wine. When you taste sweet wine, you immediately know it’s sweet. When you taste a wine that isn’t sweet, you’re pretty safe to assume that it’s dry. The science behind dry vs. sweet wine is simple: When you add yeast to the grape juice, and the yeast turns the sugar into alcohol, if all of the sugar is turned into alcohol, you have bone-dry wine. If most of the sugar is turned into alcohol, you have dry wine. If much of the sugar isn’t turned into alcohol, you have residual sugar and semi-sweet to sweet wine.
Remember, wine is all about having fun. I hope you learned a few new terms from this article, and I hope you have fun using them.
As an independent wine consultant with WineShop At Home, I absolutely enjoy bringing a taste of the Napa wine country home to you one sip at a time. Whether you simply love to drink wine, seek a special personalized wine gift, or are in search of a new wine jobs opportunity as a wine consultant, feel free to contact me for a truly unique wine tasting experience!
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