Say that you’re meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time next Saturday night and you want to impress them with a little wine knowledge. Or your company’s CEO has asked you to attend a wine and cheese reception before your presentation to the entire Board. Or perhaps you’ve just made a New Year’s resolution to improve your wine vocabulary.
Whatever the reason, you’ve come to the right place to learn some wine basics. Here are 25 words everybody should know about wine. Some will help you read the wine bottle, while others will help you distinguish one wine from another. When we’re done with you, you should be able to wander into a liquor store and choose a wine based on more than just the eye-pleasing design of the label.
Some Words to Help Read a Wine Label
Appellation – this tells you in which particular area the grapes used in the wine were grown. Most wine-producing countries have their own guidelines for this; in the United States, for instance, 85% of the grapes used to produce the wine must have been grown in the area used as the appellation (i.e. Napa Valley).
Blend – a wine made from more than one grape variety; often done to create a more complex wine or marry the attributes of the individual grapes.
Importer – the person or company responsible for bringing a foreign wine into a country for distribution. Many times an importer will import similar types of wine because of their personal taste preferences; therefore, if you like a particular brand of wine, you might also like other wines imported by that same importer.
Sulfites – a natural by-product of the wine fermentation process. Contrary to popular belief, red wines do not contain a higher level of sulfites than white wines, and sometimes may actually have fewer sulfites.
Varietal – a varietal is actually a wine made predominately from one single grape variety, although it sounds like it should contain many varieties of grapes. To be designated a varietal, a wine needs to be made of at least 75% of one grape variety, and that’s the one listed on the wine label. Well-known varietals include Chenin Blanc, Zinfandel, and Merlot.
Vintage – the year in which the grapes were grown and harvested. This is not necessarily the same as the year that the wine was produced and bottled.
Vintner – the wine producer or proprietor of a particular vineyard.
Some Words Used to Describe Wines
Acid or Acidity – all grapes contain acid, and acid helps preserve wine. When a wine has a higher acidity, it tends to be crisper and sharper in taste. A wine’s acidity is often rounded out with softer wine elements like alcohol and sugar.
Aroma – this is the smell of the grapes in a wine, before the fermentation process. The aroma is determined by the nose as you sniff the wine in your glass, and not by the sense of smell you get while you’re actually tasting the wine. For reasons you’ll understand, this is also called the “nose”.
Balance – a wine’s balance refer to all of its individual elements–alcohol, acidity, fruitiness, sweetness, and tannins–in harmony with one another.
Body – this is not the quality of a wine, but rather, the impression of weight that a wine leaves in your mouth. For example, a full-bodied wine feels “big” and heavy with many different flavors and sensations going on at once, while a light-bodied wine is more delicate. A good comparison can be made with cream, whole milk, and skim milk, which are full-bodied, medium-bodied, and light-bodied, respectively.
Bouquet – the particular smell that a wine develops after it has been fermented and aged in the bottle. A wine’s bouquet takes years to develop.
Complex – just as you may find complex people to be intriguing, complexity in a wine is highly valued. A wine that is complex features a depth of flavor, a harmony of tastes, and subtle nuances in every mouthful. There’s a lot going on in a wine that’s considered complex.
Finish – a measurement to describe the flavor that lingers in your mouth after you taste a wine. Also known as the “aftertaste,” although “finish” sounds a tad classier. A wine’s finish is considered the most important way to determine its quality.
Length – a term based on the amount of time that a wine’s finish remains in your mouth after you’ve swallowed it. The length might be short or long, quick or lingering.
Mature – a wine that is ready to drink. Mature wines have reached their peak of complexity; aging them any longer in the bottle will cause them to go past their prime.
Texture – another word to describe the feel of wine in your mouth. Full-bodied, denser wines tend to have more texture, and you decide what type of wine texture you prefer: smooth, chewy, etc.
Young – young wines are usually bottled and sold within a year of their vintage. These are not meant to be kept in a wine cellar for further maturation, but to be uncorked and enjoyed right away. Young wines tend to be light and crisp, and are lower in tannins.
Other Words Having to Do with Wine
Aeration/breathing – Aeration is the process of allowing a wine to breathe. This is often done with younger wines, allowing them to open up. Aeration can be accomplished by simply pouring a glass of the wine, or by transferring the entire bottle to a decanter.
Aging – some wines are even better and more complex when they’re kept for a longer period of time in the bottle before being uncorked and enjoyed. Because only a small number of all wines would benefit from aging, be sure to ask somebody knowledgeable whether a particular wine should be aged, or opened and enjoyed.
Case – in the United States, a case is a measurement of 12 750-ml bottles. Most liquor stores and wineries give discounts if you buy wine by the case, whether 12 bottles of the same wine or one bottle each of 12 wines.
Corked – while a wine that has been uncorked is ready to drink, a wine that has been corked is not a good thing. “Corked” means that the cork of the wine bottle has been tainted, by such things as a moldy basement. A tainted cork leads to a wine with a smell and flavor that is less than desirable and far from optimal.
Oxidation/Oxidize – wine that has been exposed to air too long begins to oxidize, resulting in a brownish color and a loss of freshness.
Sediment – sediment is comprised of tannins and color pigments that “fall out” of a wine, landing on the bottom (or side, if the bottle is stored that way) of the bottle. This occurs in wine that’s been aging for years. Sediment is mainly found in darker red wines because they contain more tannins and more color pigments.
Tannins – the substance in wine that cause your mouth to pucker. Tannins are phenolic compounds derived from all different parts of a plant; in wine they come from the grape stems, skins, and seeds, and also from the barrel in which the wine is aged. Wines that are high in tannins are considered “dry”, although aging a wine high in tannins does soften it a bit.
There you have it–a veritable Cliff’s Notes of wine terms! While you might not yet be ready to apply for a sommelier position (bonus word: a sommelier is the wine server at a restaurant; the restaurant’s resident wine expert), you should definitely feel more comfortable ordering wine from a daunting wine list or purchasing a bottle from the aisles and aisles of offerings at the local liquor store.