A Beginner's Guide to Wine Terms

The Wine Terms 101 guide will help you understand wine terminology. I'm sure you've read some wine reviews and have thought to yourself, "What are these people talking about?!" Trust me, when I was waiting tables in college and would overhear some doctors talking about their wines, I had no clue what they were talking about. It wasn't until I actually started drinking and studying wine in my twenties that I started to understand. Well, I'm here to offer a nice glossary in which I will try to not make it seem like a foreign language. Think about some of the tasting terms as you sip through wines.

The Terms You Should Know

Old World - European regions and most importantly France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. North African regions also fall into this category. It also denotes a style of tradition in winemaking.

New World - North America, South America, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand fall into this category. These regions aren't as regulated as in the old world.

Vintage - The year on a label, this refers to the year the grapes were harvested. There are wines like Champagne and other Sparkling Wine that will have "NV" aka Non-Vintage on the label, which means it's a blend of multiple vintages. Very common for sparkling wines.

Terroir - A term that defines the soils and microclimate that influences a wine's character. For example, you may taste a wine like a Bordeaux that has notes of eucalyptus. Those vineyards likely have eucalyptus trees next to the vineyard. Coastal vineyards can impart a salty taste in the wine, like an Albariño from Rías Baixas in Spain.

Legs / Tears - A term that isn't really used much these days as it doesn't say much about the actual wine. It's what you see dripping down the side of the glass after you swirl it. Only mentioning this here in case you're out with "Joe Cool" and he uses it.

Bouquet - This is the aroma of a wine, what you smell in your glass after swirling. Sometimes you will get floral aromas, like a bouquet of dried roses.

Earthy - A general term used to describe mostly the scent of a wine. Typically old world wines are more described as earthy. Think forest floor, mushrooms, sage bush, etc. Rustic is another term people use in a similar connotation.

Body - Term used to describe the weight of a wine - or the feeling you get in your mouth. Wines range from light-bodied to full-bodied.

Fruity - Fruity does not mean sweet. Repeat. Fruity does not mean sweet. A Merlot, for example, is fruity, not sweet.

Dry - Dry is a term that describes a wine that hasn't been chaptalized, or very little chaptalization (wait, what's that word mean?!)

Chaptalization - The adding of sugar to the grape juice before and/or during fermentation. The reason this was originally done in wines was that in some climates (like certain German Rieslings) the grapes on their own produce wines too low in alcohol. Adding sugar increases the alcohol content. Nowadays there are a multitude of wineries (more common in California) that add sugar to anything from Chardonnay to Pinot Noir to increase the alcohol content. A process I disagree with (in regards to wines that don't need it).

Burn / Hot - Tasting terms used to describe the feeling you get after tasting a wine that is too high in alcohol. Some people, like myself, are quite sensitive to this. I tend to prefer wines 13.5% alcohol and under, but a wine can certainly be 14.5% and balanced.

Balance - Used to describe a wine when all the components are in harmony - alcohol, acidity, sugar, tannins, and fruit.

Acidity - General term used to describe a wine that is crisp, fresh, tart, or sour in taste. My preference is wines that are higher in acid. Why? To me, they are more pleasant to drink with food. Acidity in wine cuts through the fat in food.

Tannins -  A term used to typically describe red wine. Tannins are found in the skin and seeds of a grape as well as oak. Wine gets it color from skin contact (yes, the juice squeezed from all grapes is clear) and red wines have longer contact with the skins to get their color. An overly tannic wine will be unpleasantly dry in your mouth (you feel as though you need to brush your teeth after a sip).

Texture - A term used to describe the overall feel of the wine on your palate. Also referred to as "mouthfeel." For example, a silky texture.

Minerality - Used to generally describe wines that have stony/gravelly characteristics. Typically combined with wines that have higher acidity levels.

Spicy - Used to describe wines that have notes of spices like white pepper, black pepper, allspice, cinnamon, etc.

ML / Malo - Acronyms for malolactic fermentation and most often used when discussing Chardonnay. It's the process of turning stronger malic acid into softer lactic acid. Think green apple versus milk. It's a debatable topic in New World Chardonnay because purists don't believe in putting Chardonnay through full ML. It masks the fruit and turns it into tasting like a butterball. Ever drink a rich Napa Chardonnay that tastes like buttered popcorn? You're tasting ML and not really fruit. Try a Chablis from France, that's pure Chardonnay.

Corked - This is when a wine is tainted by faulty cork. It happens in about 1 in 12 bottles of wine. How to detect? After you open your bottle of wine, pour a splash in your glass and close your eyes as you swirl to gather the bouquet. If it smells like wet cardboard and no fruit, it's corked. Can a wine with a screw cap or synthetic cork get corked? Nope.

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