The 15 Most Important Wine Terms to Know.

I have heard many people say they are so mystified about wine terminology that they are not sure where to begin.

I’m going to share the fifteen most important wine terms to know and understand. So, hopefully, by the end of this article you won’t be one of those mystified people. (At least not about wine.)

Acidity

This is a term more typically associated with white wines than with red wines. In fact, some of the most wonderful whites have at least a hint of acidity. If a red wine has a discernible taste of acidity, that probably means it is going bad.

A lot of white grapes are naturally high in acidity. You find this particularly often in Old World Southern climate wine regions like Italy, Spain, and Portugal or in the New World’s wine regions of Argentina, Chile, Australia, or Uruguay (an up-and-coming wine region).

Acidity provides a distinctively lively crisp quality that many white wine drinkers love.

Too much acidity and the wine is unpleasantly tart. On the other hand, too little acidity in a white wine will render the wine bland and flat.

So just what does acidity taste like?

Start off with thinking citrus. Think of the tingle and sharp zest of grapefruit juice or lemonade. Or even the pleasant awakening in your mouth of a Margarita. Just less sweet.

Acids give wine tartness. Several acids are in the grape before fermentation, and others arise afterward. Acids often make a wine seem “crisp” or “refreshing.”

The Gallo Wine Company’s Wine Glossary

Tart flavors tend to tingle in your mouth. They are, however, very refreshing — particularly in hotter seasons. And one of the hallmarks of acidity in a wine is that it makes you want to take another sip.

Balance

A wine is considered “balanced” when no one part or no one taste dominates. The acidity in the wine is balanced with just enough sweetness; the fruity taste is counter-weighted with just enough oak and tannin; and the alcohol bite is tendered with just the right amount of flavor and fullness.

Balance is achieved in wine when all of the elements are in harmony.

Balance seldom arises fully in the natural fermenting of one batch of wine. More often than not, it is achieved barrel by barrel through the artful blending of a skilled wine maker (a “vintner”).

Blending or Blended

Unlike Scotch Whisky where blended whisky is avoided like the Bubonic Plague by most connoisseurs, many of the finest wines are blended by vintners.

Essentially blending is the art of the wine-making process — taking one batch of wine and balancing the taste with just the right bit of another batch of wine to come out with a better tasting wine than either batch alone.

One of the most classic blends in the world is Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, both originating and flourishing in the Bordeaux region of France. In fact, many of the finest Bordeaux wines are blends.

Body

Wines typically are described as full-bodied, medium-bodied, or light-bodied. In a general sense, every wine falls into one of those categories.

The term body is a matter of the “thickness” or “thinness” of how a particular wine feels in your mouth. You can somewhat compare it to the difference between cream and ice-milk. Of course, this is an example of extremes, but it gives you the general idea.

It’s all about how thin or thick the wine feels in your mouth. “Light body” connotes a thin feeling in your mouth. “Medium body” means that a wine is full-flavored, without being too heavy. “Heavy body” means the wine has a robust, round, and very rich feel.

Wine Glassary, Gallo

A full-bodied wine will feel luscious in your mouth. A light-bodied wine will feel more delicate in your mouth.

Largely, “body” as wine people speak of it, is simply a matter of feel to the mouth rather than actual taste.

Most red wines present as medium bodied to full bodied. White wines, on the other hand, usually are light bodied to medium bodied. The only white I can think of that approaches a full-bodied wine is some better vintages of White Bordeaux.

Boquet

Yes, it does refer to a bunch of flowers. But translate that meaning to wine.

The boquet of a wine includes all of the aromas that result from the wine’s natural aging process. And once bottled, the bouquet describes that wine’s overall smell.

Boquet is important in wine because wine is an art of all senses, not only of taste, but of sight, smell, and touch to the tongue.

Château

In general this is the French word for a fine old country estate or manor home, many of which traditionally — particularly before the French Revolution — had vineyards and wineries where the family made and bottled their own wines in the old French wine-making traditions. The word “château” actually refers to the old, usually palatial, home. But it is often extended to refer to the entire estate, all of the acreage on which the manor house sits.

Today you often see the word Château as part of the name of a wine from the Bordeaux region in southwestern France. It mostly is used to indicate a specific winery, often located on one of the old estates, or Châteaux (the plural form of Château).

Sometimes you will see the word Château used in the name of a winery in other parts of the world as well, such as in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. In areas outside of France, the word tends to indicate a winery that uses more traditional than modern wine-making techniques. However, all throughout the Bordeaux region, you find a wide mixture of traditional and modern wine-making methods used today.

Decanting

Essentially decanting is the process of pouring wine from its bottle into a containter other than the wine bottle in order to separate the sediment or any fragments of the wine corks from the wine.

To decant wine, one slowly pours the wine from its bottle into a different vessel, trying not to disturb any sediment that may be resting on the bottom of the bottle or any stray pieces of cork that may be suspended in the wine. Wine is typically decanted into a glass container with an easy-pour neck — that ends up being referred to as a “decanter.”

There are several different styles of decanters, including the Duck, the Cornett, the Swan, and something simply called the Standard. Decanters also come in a variety of sizes, no matter what the style.

Wine is typically left in the decanter for 30 minutes to more than an hour to allow the wine to “breathe” and fully open to its best flavor.

A common misconception is that the older a wine is, the longer it needs to breathe in the decanter. But in reality, it is the opposite way around. The younger the wine, the more it needs to breathe, the older the wine, the less it needs to breathe.

Old World wine vs New World wine

Old World wines are those grown and bottled in the traditional wine regions of Europe and Northern Africa.

New World wines are those grown and bottled pretty much everywhere else in the world that grows grapes and makes wines. Typically today that includes North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, and increasingly both South Africa and China.

Many wine aficionados have personal preferences for one sort of wine over the other. And often those who prefer one “world” of wine or another have very specific wine regions they like best.

Some people are drawn, say, to the Pinot Noir grape and prefer a Burgundy from France (where the Pinot Noir grape hails from). But often those same people also purchase American Pinot Noirs from Sonoma in California or from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Same grape, different terroir. And often extremely different price points.

Table wine

If you are an American, this term probably does not mean what you think it does.

In general, “table wine” is any wine that is not sparkling or fortified. These wines are often called “still wines.”

Some people think table wine refers to any wine that you drink instead of wine you cook with, but that is a horrible misconception because you cook with wine for the flavor the wine imparts to the food. If the wine doesn’t taste good enough to drink, you are going to ruin a good dish with it. Never use anything labeled “Cooking Wine,” ever.

In modern usage the term table wine also is sometimes used to refer to a wine that is moderately-priced enough to be a good, every day wine to put on your table — as opposed to a “fine wine” that people may splurge on for holidays and special celebrations.

Under U.S. law table wines must be between 7% and 14% alcohol by volume.

Tannins

Tannins are considered to be the backbone of red wines.

They are organic substances found in the skin and seeds of wine grapes. Tannins give a bitter and astringent taste to wine.

Overly tannic wines (which typically are lower priced and lower quality dry red wines) make your cheeks pucker and leave your mouth feeling dry.

They are most commonly found in red wines for two reasons:

  1. Red grape varieties are naturally higher in tannins.
  2. Red wines are usually fermented with the grape skins still intact so more tannins are imparted in the fermentation process.

White wines sometimes have tannins as well, but the tannins in white wines are more likely to come from the oak barrels the vintner uses to age the wine than from the grape itself. And when tannins do appear in white wines, they usually have a more faint presence than they do in red wines.

What do tannins taste like?

Imagine drinking a cup of really strong black tea — with no cream or sugar. That gives you a good idea of what tannins taste like.

Tannins are naturally-occurring substances found mostly in grape skins, seeds and stems. They can give young wines a mouth-puckering bitterness and astringency, but some tannins are desirable in red wines to give them structure.

Gallo’s Wine Glossary

Tannins present as a slightly bitter taste in the middle of your tongue. There is a “dry” quality to the taste that gives what many wine makers call “structure” to a wine.

Wines with significant tannins tend to be colored by other flavors in the wine and allow a highly sought complexity and sophistication if well-tempered with other flavors.

Terroir

In English it’s pronounced “tare-wah.” Or at least that is about as close as English-speakers can usually come to the sound of the word.

Literally translated from French, the word terroir means “soil.” But French is a more descriptive and poetic language than English. In French, terroir refers not just to the soil, but to all of the physical and geographical characteristics of a particular site where grapes are planted that give wine made from grapes in that location unique properties.

The physical and geographical characteristics include whether the soil is full of clay or of pebbles. But it also includes the mineral content of the soil, the number of days of sunshine in the growing year, the amount of annual rainfall, the average temperatures, the altitude, the humidity, even the prevailing winds. Terroir includes the whole ecosystem, the entire growing environment.

No variety of grapes tastes exactly the same when planted in two different terroirs.

Variety vs Varietal

Let’s be clear. These are two different words. Technically they are not interchangeable, but they often are used interchangeably, even sometimes by wine professionals.

Variety

Variety is a noun for the specific kind of grape that is used to make a wine. There is, for example, a Chardonnay grape. We call that a Chardonnay variety of grape. There are Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (of the Cabernet Sauvignon variety) and Pinot Noir grapes (constituting the Pinot Noir variety). And of course, there are many other varieties of grapes. Some are made into wine. Some typically are eaten, dried as raisins, or cooked to create jams or jellies. A few, such as the Concord variety are usually simply juiced and consumed unfermented.

Varietal

Varietal is an adjective used to describe a wine, not a grape.

The Chardonnay variety of grapes yields a Chardonnay varietal wine. A bottle of a Pinot Noir varietal is made from the Pinot Noir variety of grapes.

This is how all of the varietals work. Varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and many, many others. Each varietal wine come from a specific variety of grape.

For a wine to be labeled as a specific varietal, such as Chardonnay, it has to be made from at least 75% of that grape variety. Multiple varieties of grapes are often, in fact almost always, blended together to produce wine even if the wine is labeled as a specific varietal — such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon.

Don’t be mistaken in thinking that only “bad” wines are blended. The fact is that some of the best Bordeaux wines in the world are made from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes blended with Merlot grapes.

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