Like any area of interest, the wine world includes many words and phrases that may be unknown or misunderstood by people just beginning to explore wine (or even those with more familiarity). Here are a few that I think every educated wine drinker should be familiar with:
Acidity is one of wine’s essential components, along with others such as tannins, alcohol, and fruit. But a wine should have just the right amount. Too high, and the wine will be tart, biting, and sharp. Too low, and it will be dull and flat, commonly characterized as flabby. In dry table wines, appropriate acid levels are between .6 and .75 percent. Sweet wines go a bit higher, with a range of .7 to .85 percent. As important as acidity is, its contribution should be subtle.
Aeration is the process by which air is deliberately introduced to wine, sometimes called letting a wine “breathe.” While air in a sealed bottle is anathema to wine, many are convinced that aeration, especially for young, high-tannin red wines, softens them and opens their flavors. This is the main reason for decanting or swirling the wine in the glass. There are also a number of gadgets available to hasten the process. Some people even suggest whirling a bottle of wine in the blender!.
Aging a wine allows it to mature, especially high-quality red wines. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is aged in barrels or casks (usually oak). This time spent in wood softens flavors and adds tannins. After some months, the wine is bottled and further aging can occur in the bottle. If a producer chooses to bottle age, it will increase a wine’s cost, as the winery must maintain the inventory. Fortified wines such as port and sherry can be, and often are, bottle aged for years.
American Viticultural Area or AVA is an American wine-growing region classification system inspired by the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC, but without the French rigor. An AVA simply defines a geographic area, and omits grape varieties, maximum production per acre, alcohol levels, etc. The only requirement for wine with an AVA designation is that 85 percent of the grapes used must be grown there. AVAs range in size from several hundred acres to serveral million; some reside within other larger AVAs.
Alcohol by Volume, or ABV is the percentage of alcohol in any alcoholic beverage. In the U.S., table wines must have a minimum ABV of 7 percent, and a maximum of 16 percent (but the actual alcohol content of the wine can legally be up to 1.5% higher or lower than the alcohol content stated on the label.) Fortified wines such as sherries and ports will usually have ABVs of 17 to 20 percent.
Amaro (Italian for “bitter”) is an Italian herbal liqueur that is commonly drunk as an after-dinner digestif. It usually has a bittersweet and sometimes syrupy flavor.
An aperitivo (in Italian) or apéritif ( in French) is a light alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite, and is therefore usually dry rather than sweet.
Appellation in the wine world is a designated growing area governed by rules and regulations that vary from country to country. The goal can be to define and maintain quality, to demark a unique growing area, or both.
Appellation d’Origine Contrôleé The top category in the French system for ensuring quality wines, and translates as Controlled Appellation of Origin.
A Barrique is a 225 liter (almost 60 gallon) oak barrel used for storing and aging wine.
Bâtonnage is the French term for stirring settled lees (the sediment of winemaking, usually made up of dead yeast and bits of grape seeds and solids) back into wine. Winemakers sometimes like to keep some of these solids in contact with the wine as a way to extract flavor, aroma, and texture. The solids can then be filtered or fined out before bottling, or the wine can be racked, leaving the solids behind.
Botrytis is a fungus that can be either friend or foe to a winemaker. In its benevolent form, it is known as noble rot. It causes grapes to shrivel, concentrating both sugar and flavor, while the acid level remains high and deters a cloying sweetness. Dessert wines particularly benefit from botrytis, most famously Sauternes. Too much moisture just before harvest, however, can cause botrytis, which is then called gray rot, to destroy an entire harvest.
Brix is the system used in the U. S. to measure the sugar content of grapes and wine. The grapes of most table wines have about 20 grams of sugar to 100 grams of juice. About 55 percent of the sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation, so juice with 20° Brix will result in about 11 percent alcohol. Brix measurements are taken throughout the growing season.
Brut A label term applied to the driest champagne and other sparkling wines.
A Bung is a plug, usually cork, used to seal the bung hole in a wine barrel. The winemaker periodically removes wine through this hole to check its progress in barrel.
The Cap is the mass of grape solids that float on the surface of red juice during fermentation. The cap needs to be frequently agitated to help extract color, flavor, and tannins. Traditionally a long paddle was used to submerge the cap several times a day, but pump overs are more common today.
Yes, Cat pee is a legitimate wine term. It is a classic aroma description for Sauvignon Blanc and is comparable to a whiff of ammonia.
Cépage [say-PAHZH] French for “grape variety.” Used on French labels as vin de cépage.
The Charmat Process is a bulk method for making sparkling wines developed around 1910 by Frenchman Eugène Charmat. The process, using large pressurized tanks, is faster and less expensive than the traditional in-bottle method. Also known as Bulk Process.
Claret is how the English refer to the red wines of Bordeaux. It’s derived from the French clairet, a light refreshing style of red wine made by drawing fermenting wine off the grape skins after very short contact.
Clarification is the process of removing particles of expired yeast and grape matter. The winemaker can simply let the particulates drop to the bottom of the storage container, or the wine can be fined or filtered. Neither process is used in some so-call “natural” wines.
Clos [KLOH] French term loosely translated as “enclosed field” or “enclosed vineyard. This term may not appear on a French wine label unless a vineyard by that name produces and bottles the wine.
Cooking wine is an unnecessary abomination. It is made from wine you wouldn’t drink on its own, and has been heavily salted. When cooking, use the wine you’ll be drinking with dinner, if it’s inexpensive, or if not, a low-cost alternative of something equally compatible.
Cognac [KOHN-yak] is a specific type of brandy hailing from the town of Cognac and designated surrounding areas in western France. The region is divided into six appellations, which radiate outward from the town from the most to the least desirable: Grande Champagne, Petit Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Bois Ordinaires. The first two districts support high-acid grapes in their chalky soils. Those grapes are primarily Uni Blanc and Saint-Émilion. After fermentation, the wine produced is quite low in alcohol and retains its acidity. It is then double distilled in traditional copper pot stills to 70% alcohol by volume, or 140 proof. This is followed by wood aging, usually in Limousin oak from the forests due east. Cognacs are often labeled as V.S. (very superior), V.S.O.P. (very superior old pale), X.O. (extra old), Extra, and Reserve. However, these classifications have no established legal definitions.
Corked wine has been contaminated by 2,4,6-Trichloroanosole in the cork. Detectable at levels as low as 30 parts per trillion, TCA is harmless to humans but lends the tainted wine a moldy, wet cardboard odor and flavor. Cork taint is much less common than even ten years ago, thanks to alternative closures as well as strenuous efforts to eliminate it by growers in Portugal, where most of the world’s natural cork comes from.
Cru [KROO] French for “growth.” Used with various descriptors to designate a vineyard’s quality ranking.
Cuvée is a French term meaning “contents of a vat.” In the Champagne region, it refers to a blended wine, as almost all Champagnes are. These traditional house styles are closely guarded secrets, passed down through generations of family-owned wineries. In other parts of France, cuvée can also apply to still wines, referring to wines blended from different vineyards or varieties.
Denominazione di Origine Controllata [DOC] was established in 1963 and implemented in 1966. This is Italy’s system for (hopefully) ensuring quality wines. DOCs are defined by the geographic area of production, the grape varieties that can be used, the minimum alcohol content, the maximum yield, and the specifications for aging. In 1990, standards for appearance, color, bouquet, and flavor were added. There are over 320 DOC zones. However, the system has been criticized for being too closely bound to traditional production and grape varieties, thereby denying DOC status to non-traditional but otherwise deserving wines.
A Digestif is an alcoholic drink served after a meal. There are many types of digestifs, from amaros and fortified wines such as ports and sherries to brandies and herbal liqueurs. Some cocktails can also be digestifs. The one thing that all of these have in common is that they’re intended to aid in the digestion of food.
Domaine, also French, means “estate” or “property.” Historically the term has most often been used in Burgundy, but shows up in California as well, usually when the estate is owned by a French company.
Eiswein, German for “ice wine.” It is a rich dessert wine made by picking grapes that are frozen on the vine and then pressed in unheated wineries before they thaw. The meager but concentrated juice is quite flavorful and high in sugar and acidity. These wines age extremely well. Canada is also suited for the production of ice wine, and now outpaces the Germans. Because of extremely low yields at harvest (and some years cannot be harvested at all), ice wines are often sold in 375 ml bottles and at rather high prices. Unfortunately, due to climate change it is predicted that the production of ice wine will become ever more difficult and isolated, further driving up prices.
Élevage is the French term (“raising” in English) for the development of wine between fermentation and bottling. The raw fermented juice is shaped during this period into its final form, at least during its time in the winery, through techniques such as barrel aging, filtering, and fining.
Enology or Oenology is the study of winemaking.
Enophile or Oenophile. Someone who enjoys wine. That’s us.
Enoteca is Italian for “wine cellar,” but is more broadly applied to any wine shop that offers an extensive selection of high-quality wines.
Fiasco. Remember those bulbous, straw-covered bottles of cheap Chianti from the 1970s? Those are fiaschi. They are rarely seen anymore, because the cost of hand-wrapping each bottle of such plonk can’t be justified.
Filtering a wine assures its clarity. Filtering through pads or membranes just before bottling removes yeast cells and other microorganisms, as well as sediment. Once a nearly universal process in winemaking, filtering is now being avoided by makers of so-called “natural” wines.
Fining is also a clarification process. Activated carbon, activated charcoal, bentonite, casien, egg whites, gelatin, isinglass and nylon all may be used to capture suspended particles in wine by absorption, causing them to settle to the bottom of the container. Filtering is then usually used to remove the fining agent.
Finish is the fleeting flavor and texture that remains in the mouth after the wine is swallowed. The impression should be favorable. A longer finish can be a sign of a higher quality of wine. Finish is often confused with Length.
Grand Cru is French for “great growth.” It is used in Burgundy for the top ranking a vineyard can receive, but may or may not translate into the highest-quality wine. In Bordeaux, the designation is bestowed on some châteaux, but, unlike in Burgundy, it confers little value.
Grappa is the Italian counterpart to France’s Marc. It is made from pomace, the residue remaining in a wine press once the juice has been extracted. This fiery distillation can vary widely, and come in unaged and aged expressions.
Hang time is that period from grapes’ early maturity until harvest. Proper hang time can improve the fruits’ depth and complexity. However, too much time on the vine will produce overripe grapes of lesser quality.
Inoculation is a technique whereby the winemaker adds an active yeast culture or malolactic bacteria to the juice to reliably start the primary fermentation with known strains.
Kir is an apéritif made by adding a dose of cassis to white wine. When the white wine is Champagne, the drink is a Kir Royale.
Kosher wine is grape wine produced according to Jewish dietary law (kashrut). To be considered kosher, Sabbath-observant Jews must supervise and sometimes handle the entire winemaking process, from the time the grapes are crushed until the wine is bottled. Any ingredients used, including finings, must be kosher as well. Wine that is described as “kosher for Passover” must have been kept free from contact with chametz, such as grain, bread, and dough. Mevushal is a subclass of kosher wine that can be handled by non-Jewish or non-observant waiters, and is consequently frequently used in kosher restaurants and by kosher caterers. To be classified as mevushal, kosher wine is cooked or boiled, after which it will keep the status of kosher wine even if subsequently touched by a non-Jew.
Lees is the sediment that precipitates during fermentation and aging, and consists mainly of dead yeast cells and grape particles. Wine may be left on the lees for a time to develop flavor, but it is ultimately removed by racking.
Legs are the rivulets that form on the inside of a glass after the wine is swirled. Also called tears, or sheets if they are particularly wide. They generally indicate a full-bodied wine.
Length, also known as persistence, is simply the amount of time a wine’s bouquet and flavor linger after swallowing.
Maceration is the time grape juice spends in contact with the skins and seeds. For white wines, maceration can be quite short. For red wines, maceration can be relatively long.
Malolactic fermentation is a biochemical reaction where bacteria converts malic acid to lactic acid and carbon dioxide, making the young wine softer, smoother and more complex. The process is used for most red wines, but much more judiciously for whites so their acidity is retained.
Mead is a beverage made from fermented honey, water, yeast and flavorings. Mead is an ancient drink, but not widely seen until recently, since some craft brewers are beginning to produce it in limited quantities.
Meritage rhymes with heritage, and don’t let anyone tell you different. The registered trademark was coined in 1988 by a group of California vintners to establish standards for their blended wines made with traditional Bordeaux varietals and methods.
Mulled wine is heated and steeped with various dried fruits and spices. Sugar is often added, as mulled wine tends toward bitterness, especially if red. It may also be dosed with a spirit, usually brandy. Since it will be considerably altered, choose a wine that is drinkable but inexpensive. Something different to consider for this winter, eh?
Must is the juice of grapes fresh from the crusher, and can also contain pulp, skins and seeds.
A Négociant [nay-goh-SYAHN] is a person or firm that sells and ships wine. Although usually just a wholesaler or distributor in America, in Europe négociants can be and often are involved in every aspect of wine, from buying grapes to bottling and shipping the finished product.
Oak, either French or American, is the usual wood for making barrels and other containers in which wine is aged. In addition to the storage itself, oak imparts flavors and tannins to the wine. Almost all red wine sees some time in wood. This is less so for whites, due to the current concern for “over-oaking,” particularly with chardonnay.
Oxidation occurs when wine is exposed to air. This can be desirable for short periods, allowing the wine to “breathe.” Longer exposure, however, is detrimental, leading to a stale, dull, sherry-like smell and flavor, as well as a brownish cast. Eventually, exposure will turn the wine into vinegar.
Pasteurization is sometimes used to kill bacteria in inexpensive wine, just as it is used for dairy products. It will destroy most of the desirable characteristics of fine wine, however.
Phenolic compounds are present in grape skins and seeds, and are extracted from oak barrels as well. Also called phenols or phenolics, they include tannins and pigments, and contribute astringency, bitterness, color, and antioxidants.
Phylloxera [fihl-LOX-er-uh] is a tiny aphidlike insect from the eastern United States that attacks the roots of grapevines, usually to devastating effect. Phylloxera sucks the nutrients from the roots and slowly starves the vine. It has been a serious threat to vineyards around the world for over 150 years, and winemakers are ever-vigilant for its appearance.
Plonk is slang for any ordinary, low-quality wine. The term was coined by Australians during World War I as they drank French vin blanc, whose name somehow eventually morphed into “plonk.”
Pomace is what’s left over after the grape juice has been extracted. It can be processed to make raw brandy.
Premier Cru is French for “first growth.” In the Médoc and Sauternes regions of Bordeaux, premier cru is the highest subcategory of cru classé, or “classed growth.”
A Press is a device used to squeeze juice from grapes, and can come in many types. One of the earliest, the basket press uses a plate to push down on the grapes in the basket. The bladder press uses an inflatable bladder to force the grapes against a perforated outer shell. The tank press uses an airtight tank lined with a membrane to press the grapes. This press is preferred for quality production due to the gentle pressure and lack of air exposure.
Pumping over is the process of, yes, pumping juice over the cap during fermentation to expedite extraction of color, flavor, and tannins.
Racking is the process of siphoning off the juice from the sediment that has fallen to the bottom of the container. Racking can occur three or four times before the juice runs clear.
Reserve A popular but meaningless designation on U.S. wine labels. Often used as a marketing ploy.
Rice wine is made from the fermentation of steamed glutinous rice, and is most well-known as sake or mirin. Rice “wine” is a misnomer, however, as its production is much more closely allied to that of beer.
Riddling Madame Clicquot, of the Champagne house that bears her name, developed the important riddling procedure in the early 19th century. It is a way to remove dead yeast cells from bottles of sparkling wine made by the traditional method. Just before riddling, a bottling dosage (dosage de tirage) and yeast are added to the wine to produce a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The sediment that forms during this fermentation is maneuvered into the neck of the bottle and up against the cork or temporary cap. The process consists of positioning the bottles upside down at a 45-degree angle in specially-built racks called pupitres. Every three or four days , a trained worker (remuer) gives the bottles a shake and slight turn, gradually increasing the angle of tilt and dropping the bottle back in the rack with a slight whack. In six to eight weeks, all the bottles are positioned straight down and the sediment has collected in the neck. The sediment is then removed by another step called disgorgement. Although traditionally done by hand, many wineries today employ mechanical riddler machines.
Sec French for “dry,” i.e. not sweet. In still wines, Sec designates a wine with little or no residual sugar. Confusingly, however, in sparkling wines it designates a relatively sweet wine. And, Demi-sec is even sweeter.
Solera or Solera System is Spain’s ancient blending and maturation process to maintain consistent quality and style in fortified wines, particularly sherry. The solera is based on the maturity of several wines, ranging in tiers from the oldest to the newest. At bottling, one-quarter to one-third of the oldest wine is drawn off, which is replaced with wine from the next oldest tier, which is replaced with a younger wine from the next level up, and so on. Although a solera is traditionally a series of vertical tiers, it is now just as often as not different storage areas.
Sommelier [saw-muh-LYAY] is French for a wine steward, who is expected to have an extensive knowledge of wines, their suitability with various dishes, and how to serve and decant them. Referred to in hipster circles as a “somm.” Please don’t.
Super Tuscan is a term that started showing up the the late 1980s when several high-quality red wines from Tuscany began attracting attention. However, they could only be classified as “table wines” since they were made with varietals or techniques that disqualified them from Italy’s official quality standards. So, producers christened them Super Tuscans in response.
Sur lie [soor LEE] Lees is the sediment that accumulates during fermentation, and sur lie is French for “on the lees.” Winemakers believe that certain wines, usually chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, benefit from an aging period on the lees.
Tannins are astringent substances found in all parts of grapes as well as oak barrels. They are important in the production of good red wines and contribute to aging potential. If you are familiar with the astringency of strong black tea, that’s tannins.
Tartrates, a by-product of tartaric acid, are small, harmless crystals that can appear in wine, usually whites. Ideally, they are removed by cold stabilization during production, but if they do occur they are merely an inconvenience and don’t affect the quality of a wine.
Toast is the quaint term for the burning of the interior of a wine barrel. Toasted barrels affect the final flavor of a wine, and winemakers can custom order the level of toast they want to achieve the flavor profile they are seeking. The wine brand Toasted Head refers to the fact that the wines they make come from barrels where the interiors of the flat ends have been charred.
Terroir [tehr-WAHR] literally means “soil” in French. For winemakers there it implies much more, as is increasingly so for vintners around the world. More broadly, terroir encompasses not only the earth in which the grape vines grow, but other factors such as vineyard altitude, the angle of the sun on the grapes, the slope of the incline of the plot, average temperatures, water availability, and drainage. The impact of terroir on the quality of the finished wine is controversial, however, particularly in the New World, with some producers believing viniculture and viticulture play a more profound role.
Veraison is the change of ripening grapes from green to red or yellow, occurring in mid to late summer and celebrated as a sure sign of the coming harvest.
Vigneron [vee-nyeh-ROHN] is simply French for “wine grower.”
Vin de Pays [van deu pay-YEE] “Local wine” or “country wine” in French. This is the third tier of quality in the French system, behind Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée and Vin Délimité de Qualité Superiéure. It is followed by Vin de Table.
Viniculture is synonymous with enology, the study or practice of winemaking.
Vintner [VIHNT-ner] is simply a person who makes or sells wine.
Viticulture is the cultivation of grapevines, or the study of wine grapes themselves.
Vitis Vinifera is the vine species responsible for 99% of world wine grape production. Although native to Europe and parts of Asia, it is planted world-wide, with thousands of varieties.
For more on these and many more wine-related terms, see The New Wine Lover’s Companion by Ron Herbst, which I used as the source material for this list.