Ever wondered what the heck those words mean at a wine tasting? Maybe you’re watching your favorite cooking show, and the host starts spouting a dictionary of terms and definitions about how to properly pair wine with food — only you have no idea what they’re saying.
It’s all fun and games until wine tasting vocab turns into a foreign language. Here’s your go-to, basic wine terminology to know to navigate your way around the wine world like a master sommelier. (Don’t worry, we’ll explain what that one means, too.)
Glossary of Wine Vocabulary
Consider the following your foundation to important wine terms and definitions.
Acidity refers to the tart, lively notes that hit the tongue after sipping wine. The more a wine activates these dancing sensations on your tongue, the higher its acidity level.
You can determine your wine’s general acidity by counting how long its tartness lingers after swallowing. Acidity that fades before 15 seconds is considered low, between 15 and 30 seconds medium and 30 seconds or longer high.
A wine’s acidity level also influences how much it activates our salivatory glands. Higher-acid wines tend to produce more powerful salivatory reactions. This is the main reason why so many hearty dishes pair best with high-acidity wines since the salivatory activations help “cut” through heavy sauces, creams, cheeses, meat fat trimmings and more.
Notably acidic wine types include riesling, pinot gris, Chianti, Sangiovese and New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.
At its most basic, appellation names the subregion where a wines’ grapes were grown. For example, Sonoma County in California is considered an appellation, as is the Burgundy region in France or Castilla y Leon in Spain.
An appellation will contain a “fingerprint” of environmental, geographic and cultural conditions that create its unique grape profile. Every wine-producing country in the world maintains a list of appellations whose weather, soil, climate and more results in the same grape varietal looking and tasting differently. An appellation will also adhere to regionally set laws on how a wine can be produced, beginning with the grape’s cultivation down to the type of aging and bottling techniques the wine can receive.
Aroma refers to the smells produced by and associated with a specific type of grape. Also known as primary aroma, these “signature” smells are typically classified according to being fruity, floral or herbaceous. Wine drinkers use primary aromas to help identify the type of wine they’re consuming during blind taste tests as well as to profile the complexity or maturity of a varietal.
The word astringent is commonly used during wine tastings to describe the sharp, drying and puckering sensation caused by drinking wine with high tannins.
Less effective astringent wines tend to be harsher and even slightly bitter, leaving an ashy flavor in the mouth. On the other hand, more balanced wines can still be astringent, leading to that puckering note. Yet they’ll also carry notable sweet and acidic qualities, harmonizing all tastes and sensations.
A “blend” is a type of wine made from two or more wine grape varietals. Blends make up just over 10% of wine drunken in the U.S. and are the third-most-popular type of wine consumed.
Wineries combine grapes typically to pair complementary flavors together, therefore creating a more dynamic, complex wine profile. Popular wine varietal blends include syrah and pinot noir for added body/weight and chardonnay, pinot noir and Pinot Meunier to make classic French champagne.
Body describes the weight and texture of wine in your mouth as you drink.
While wine tasting, people generally tend to categorize a wine’s body into three levels:
- Full-bodied: Heavy and lush, with the richest and boldest flavors lingering the longest in your mouth after you swallow.
- Medium-bodied: A firm yet approachable wine, with modestly intense flavors and slight lingering palate.
- Light-bodied: Light and subtle, more watery as you drink with flavor notes that disappear quickly between sips.
Both red and white wines have full-, medium- and light-bodied versions.
Pro tip: When it comes to red wines, there tends to be a correlation between body and acidity. Fully-bodied red wines will generally contain less acidity, making them richer, heavier and silkier to drink. A great example of this is a merlot. Conversely, lighter red wines like dolcetto or zinfandels tend to have higher levels of acidity and more of that drying, puckering feel.
Bouquet describes the smell of a specific bottle of wine. Also known as a wine’s “secondary aroma,” the bouquet is often one of the first characteristics discussed to classify and rate a wine. Tasters will take large whiffs of their wine before and while drinking to reveal the fundamental connection between taste and smell and to pick up the nuances of a particular vintage.
And while the term automatically denotes floral smells, bouquet can also describe other olfactory notes. Petroleum, baking spices, vanilla, nuts, yeast, yogurt, cured meat, smoke and more are common bouquet descriptions you’ll hear noted during wine tastings.
Decanting is the act of opening a bottle of wine and pouring its contents into a second container, preferably a designated wine decanter.
Trading wine vessels like this is an essential step for many aged wines. First, decanting ensures you don’t pour any unwanted residual sediment into your glass, which is typically leftover from a wine’s aging and fermentation process. (See “lees” below for more on this.) Second, decanting allows wines “to breathe” — that is, to take in oxygen and chemically express its full range of flavors.
Dry is a taste description used to denote wines that trigger a tongue clicking, or puckering, sensation.
Dry is typically seen as the opposite of sweet. Red, white and rosé wines can be dry. When wine tasting, many people will categorize a wine on a spectrum from “dry” to “off-dry” to “sweet,” with off-dry wines sitting somewhere in the middle. Wines that are described as dry will be notably less fruity than their sweet counterparts and carry less residual candied or fruit flavors.
Earthy is wine vocabulary for when a wine smells or tastes vegetal or “green.”
Earthy aromas can often serve as a tell for what varietal a wine is made from, such as bell peppers for cabernet sauvignons. Similarly, earthy bouquets help distinguish subregions and wineries from one another, with fermentation and aging techniques coaxing additional green or natural smells into a vintage.
Earthy can also describe a wine’s taste, as well. For example, Spanish Tempranillos are often considered extremely earth red wines, with flavor notes of cedar, dill, oregano and limestone common in this varietal.
Enology is the study of wine and winemaking. It is also known as oenology depending on what country you’re in. The field delves into a myriad of scientific and horticultural topics, including plant physiology, microbiology, pasteurization, filtration, soil management and more.
Finish specifies the flavors, weight and texture that remains after swallowing wine. Common sensations associated with wine finishes include oily, crisp, light, aggressive, blunt and astringent, among others.
A wine’s finish also includes how long those flavors and textures last. Long finishes — meaning a wine that lingers in your mouth before fading away — tends to signify a higher quality bottle or release. Shorter, less flavorful finishes can be due to the nature of the varietal but are traditionally associated with less mature or reputable wines.
Lees are a type of particle sediment that collects in wine barrels and tanks during wine fermentation. They include sediments such as yeast cells, seed scraps, grape pulp, vine matter and other plant materials added to the fermentation vessel and contribute — though not always successfully — to a release’s full taste, aroma and bouquet palate.
Overall, there are two kinds of lees winemakers address — gross and fine lees. Gross lees are larger particles that tend to settle at the bottle of a barrel or tank and are removed fairly quickly after fermentation. Fine lees, however, can mix and linger with the wine’s contents for longer. It’s these fine lees that wine producers will choose to remove more gradually.
When a wine has been positively influenced by fine lees, it is referred to as “leesy,” signifying the rich and often complex complementary notes created by “resting on its lees.” Many white wines are purposefully kept on their lees to add depth and body to their naturally fruity flavors.
14. Malolactic Fermentation
Malolactic fermentation is a common secondary fermentation technique across many wine types.
To understand malolactic fermentation, though, you must first understand malic acid. Malic acid is one of the three primary acids found in grapes and many other fruits. This acid type contributes much of the tart, sour tang found almost universally in wines. This tang can be coaxed into differing expressions depending on fermentation timelines, barrel or tank type, sugar levels, additives and more used on the wine.
Malolactic fermentation is one such technique used to alter malic acid. Specifically, it changes the tart-forward notes into smoother, tamer and more lactic ones. This gives wines which have undergone malolactic fermentation their characteristic “creamy” or “buttery” flavors, ultimately lessening their overall acidic bite. Common wines that undergo malolactic fermentation include chardonnays, though reds like cabernet sauvignon and even merlot are no stranger to it.
Mouthfeel describes the sensation of wine on your tongue and overall palate. It is one of the most common vocab words you’ll hear during wine tastings as well as in formal wine reviews and publications.
Authors employ the wine term mouthfeel right before listing off its associated tactile adjective. Popular mouthfeel descriptors include words such as velvety, prickly, oily, waxy, rough, coarse, chewy, lean, juicy and many, many more.
You’re probably most familiar with the saying “on the nose” when wine tasting. On the nose, or the much shorter “nose,” simply refers to all the smells, bouquets and aromas associated with a glass of wine while drinking.
Remember, there is a technical difference between a wine’s “aroma” and a wine’s “bouquet.”
- Aroma are the smells typically associated with an entire grape varietal. It’s broader and primary.
- Bouquets are the smells associated with one specific bottle of wine. It’s more unique and subjective.
- Nose includes all the aromas and bouquets together — that is, the wine’s entire olfactory profile.
17. Oak Aged/Oak Aging
Oak aging is one of the most popular and prominent fermentation techniques for red and white wines.
As its name suggests, oak aging is when winemakers ferment their wines in oak barrels. The most popular oak sourced for wine barrels tends to come from France or the United States, though distinct niche or craft oak barrels do exist in other wine regions.
Oak aged, therefore, is a wine tasting term employed when picking up on the flavors and smells contributed by oak barrels. These flavors and smells tend to highlight warming notes such as vanilla, cinnamon, clove, coconut, cream, mocha, chocolate and caramel but can include some green flavors as well, such as dill, cedar, pine, leather and smoke.
Sommeliers are trained and certified wine professionals. They’re most commonly employed at fine-dining restaurants, hotels, resorts and similar hospitality institutions, where they lend knowledge and expertise on wine tastings, meal pairings, staff training and education for all things wine.
Becoming a professional sommelier is no easy task. There are four official levels, or tiered certificate programs, you must graduate to reach the highest level in the practitioner field, master sommelier. Many can take years to complete. Additional courses and certificates are also required to turn around and teach fellow sommeliers. There are also novice or enthusiast courses, aimed at regular folks like us wishing to elevate their general wine knowledge, identification and tasting skills.
Structure is a common though broad wine vocab word used to assess a wine’s overall profile. More specifically, it begins identifying the major components or characteristics of a wine, including its harmony between fruit, flower and herbaceous flavors, acidity levels, tannin amounts, alcohol count and overall body.
Wines with “good” structure are those balancing these qualities to achieve a more dynamic overall drinking experience. This doesn’t mean they have to contain all these characteristics, though. For example, good-structured red zinfandel can be fruit-forward, flowery and highly acidic yet can carry little to no trace of tannins and hold a delicate body.
Overall, structure refers to the building blocks of wine that help divide well-made, complex and enjoyable glasses from those with less dimension and care.
Sweet is one of the key tasting characteristics of wine. Wines are often discussed on a scale of sweet to dry, with sweet wines carrying stronger notes of sugar and fruit in taste, aroma and bouquet.
Tannins are plant-based compounds that create that dry, tongue-clicking and often puckering sensations when drinking wine.
Tannins are ubiquitous to most plants. The tannin types found in wine grapes, however, are the essential ingredient behind what makes wines feel and taste dry. While all wine types have tannins, classically dry varietals such as Nebbiolo, syrah, Monastrell, malbec and cabernet sauvignon contain some of the highest and most pronounced tannins, which contribute to their notoriously bold and chewy profiles.
Terroir is a fancy little French term used to express the unique features of a wine from a specific vineyard. Terroirs are influenced by many factors, such as the vineyard’s rainfall amount, topography, sun exposure, soil composition, planting and harvesting techniques, barrel or tank fermentation process and many, many more.
Varietal is a crucial wine term and a staple in your wine vocabulary. It refers to the specific type of grape used to make a specific kind of wine.
While there are technically thousands of wine grape varietals, just 13 represent over a third of all vine plantings around the world. Some of the most-planted grape varietals include cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Tempranillo, Airén, chardonnay, syrah and pinot noir.
Vintage refers to the year a wine was bottled, meaning it has completed its barrel or tank fermentation stage and is ready for market. Vintage can also refer to the yield of a grape varietal harvested during one season, with some vintages more prized than others for their overall quality.
25. Vitis Vinifera
Vitis vinifera is the scientific species name for grapes that are made into wine, compared to grape eaten fresh or dried into raisins.
Pair Your New Wine Vocabulary With Real Life Wines
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