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Wine Glossary


Acetic Acid

A product of acetobacter bacteria, this stuff spoils wine and makes it taste like vinegar. This is a bad thing, unless you’re trying to produce vinegar.

Acidity

The sharp, crisp taste in wine, similar to the one you get when you bite into an apple. It’s a good thing, unless there’s too much, or unless there’s too little of the other components of a balanced wine.

You’ll notice it a lot more in a crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc than in a fruity California Cabernet. And if you bite open a battery.

Aroma

The smells of a wine that come from the grapes only. In my view this is somewhat of an absurd notion, because we taste wine after it’s fermented, and therefore we can’t help but smell the results of that fermentation, too. But see “bouquet.”

Aftertaste

The taste that lingers in your mouth after you swallow a sip of wine. The length and quality of the aftertaste is called the finish.

Generally you’d like a medium to long finish, unless the wine is like a sweaty gym sock. Then a short finish is merciful. And there’s always the spit bucket!

Astringent

The drying, sometimes bitter sensation caused by too much tannin or acid. Can make your mouth pucker.

And if you pucker so much you can’t pull your cheeks apart, the wine should probably age for a few, well, decades.

Balance

This is what you want in a wine, when all the elements – tannin, acid, sugar, alcohol – are in the right ratios to each other. What you get then is harmony!

Barrel

A container, almost always made from oak, that wines are aged in before they’re bottled. Barrels, especially those that have been used for three or fewer vintages, contribute flavors and nuances that most people find pleasing. Too much, though, can overpower the wine and have the opposite effect.

Some winemakers, facing the high cost of buying barrels (new French oak barrels can cost $500-$1000 each!) and then the cost and hassle of cleaning and disinfecting them annually, may use oak chips or oak staves, instead. Purists say this is heresy (or would it be apostasy?) but if it works and people like the result, who am I to argue? However, I’d stick with barrels if I was the winemaker. The French name for a Bordeaux barrel is “Barrique.”

Bottle-aged

The time wine spends in the bottle before being drunk. For most wines this doesn’t mean much.

For fine wines meant to age gracefully, and for some high-priced Champagnes and sparklers that are aging “on the lees,” it can mean something, often a toasty flavor. It can also just mean a bottle of $6 Merlot that’s been sitting in your retailer’s “Sale” bin for a seven years.

Bottle-shock

A temporary, unpleasant condition of wine for a few weeks after it’s bottled, also referred to as “bottle sickness.” Winemakers and scientists can’t quite say why this happens, but it may have something to do with the process of pumping and “jostling” the new wine. A lot of newly-bottled wine is not affected, and many consumers never notice this for reasons we don’t understand. Still, some wineries let their newly-bottled wine sit for a couple weeks to let this pass before shipping it.

Bottle Shock is a also movie that premiered in the US in August of 2008, about the “Judgment of Paris” in 1976, in which a 1973 Napa Chardonnay and Cabernet bested the French in a blind tasting.

Finally, bottle shock can refer to the sensation when your wife hits you over the head with a magnum of champagne, after you’ve made an inappropriate joke at her sister’s wedding.

Bouquet

The smells of a wine that come from fermentation and aging, supposedly distinguishable from the smells that come from the grapes alone. Maybe Jancis Robinson can do it, or that robot from Lost in Space. I can’t.

See also “aroma” and “nose.”

Breathing

If you hear your wine breathe…run.

Seriously, wine is said to breathe when it’s aerated, either by decanting or just pouring into a glass. Some say this helps “open up” the wine.

I do think there’s something to this but I can’t prove it. But neither can you. So don’t try; just decant if you want, and enjoy the wine!

Brut

“Dry”, for sparkling wine and Champagne. The origin seems to be that the Brits, historically big drinkers of French wine, found Champagne too dry for their tastes to the point of being “brutal.” Or maybe it’s “brutish.” Not sure it matters except to linguists and grammarians.

Carbonic Maceration

A wine-making technique in which whole clusters of (mostly) unbroken grapes are placed in a fermentation vat and then saturated with carbon dioxide. The CO2 penetrates the skins and actually causes fermentation to takes place inside the berries, resulting in wine that’s less tannic and, some say, “fruitier” than wine fermented the traditional way. In practice, though, some berries on the bottom are inevitably crushed by the weight of the fruit above, releasing their juice and fermenting in the traditional way.

The point here is to have lighter wines that can be drunk right after bottling. Oh, I know you like that!

Cava

Spanish word for Spanish sparkling wine. If they called it Champagne the French would surely invade. With corks drawn, for sure.

Cepage

French word for grape variety, it’s “Cepa” in Spanish and Portuguese.

Claret

The term that the Brits use to refer to Bordeaux wines. Some California producers, such as Francis Ford Coppola, also use it to refer to their Bordeaux-style wines. Also see “Meritage.”

Cremant

Generic French word for sparkling wines that aren’t produced in the Champagne region and therefore can’t put that prestigious name on their labels. Cremant de Bordeaux, for example. These tend to be a bit less effervescent than Champagne, so think of ‘em as “Champagne lite.” Sort of.

Chaptalization

The process of adding sugar during fermentation to increase the eventual level of alcohol. This is permitted and practiced widely in Europe but prohibited by law in the good old USA.

A wine that’s undergone this is referred to as “chaptalized.” Or maybe “craptalized?”

Chateau

The French word for “really big, cold, and expensive-to-maintain-but-it’s-on-our-wine-label-so-we-have-to-keep-it” house.

Seriously, it’s typically the mansion, home or winery building on the wine-producing estate. If the label says “Chateau-bottled” (Mis en Bouteille au Chateau), that means the wine comes only from that estate or property. Otherwise it could come from another estate via a “Negociant.”

Commune

Republicans, relax…there’s no relationship to Cuba or the former Soviet Union. This is just the French term for the lowest level of administrative district, i.e. a city, town or other municipal area, and wineries are sometimes listed by commune.

Some would call this a parish, but France ain’t Louisiana. Really. I’ve been to both.

Corked

A REALLY unpleasant smell in wine, attributed to a chemical called Trichloranisole in the cork. Industry and consumer statistics tell us that about 3-5% of all wines sealed with natural cork will sadly be “corked” and often undrinkable, although those among you with less discerning palates actually may not notice much. To me a corked wine smells like a wet, nasty newspaper. Of course, these days you might be unable to actually find a newspaper still in business so the reference loses something in translation. And some people think The New York Times smells corked even when it’s dry.

Corked is not the same as a wine with “bottle stink” which can smell just as nasty but which usually dissipates in a few minutes. You hope.

Cru

Literally, “growth.” Applies to the grapes from a particular vineyard or estate.

Cuvee

The wine from a particular vat or cuve. Can also be a special blend of a number of wines. For example, Napa winery Cain has a “Cain Cuvee”.

“Tete de cuvee” translates as the top (best) of the barrel or vat.

But if it says “cul de cuvee” don’t drink it (look it up)!

Dolce

Sweet wine (Italy). In Spain it’s also Dolce; in Portugal, Doce, and in France it’s Doux.

In Germany, well, it’s just about all the wine!

Dry

Refers to wine in which most or all of the sugars have been converted to alcohol. But the term is relative, and many wines taste dry only because the residual sugar is balanced by acid and other elements.

Dry is also a relative term, and in French it can be downright misleading – “sec” literally means dry, but when referring to Champagne, Brut is much “dryer” with less than 15 grams of sugar per liter, while sec can have 17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter.

It also refers to your sense of humor, especially if you don’t think any of this is funny.

Fermentation

In a nutshell it’s how wine is made and what differentiates it from grape juice: Cultured or natural yeasts – really just single-celled fungi – eat the grape sugars and spit out alcohol. Yeasts also contribute to the aromas and flavors that you ultimately taste after the wine is bottled and in your glass.

It’s a pretty good deal for the yeast, at least until the alcohol reaches a certain level and then kills the yeast that made it. Then it’s just a good deal for us. Poor yeast.

Fine

“Fine Wine” is defined by people like you and me…people who buy it and drink it. I probably wouldn’t say that a $4 Charles Shaw Cab is “fine,” but you might. Of course, some people like licorice, right?

“To fine” means to clarify new wine just before bottling, by adding one of several fining agents such as egg whites or bentonite (yes, it’s dirt) or something called isinglass (a kind of collagen, made from sturgeon bladders).

But don’t worry, you won’t taste any of these and they can’t hurt you. Making wine can be like sausage, you know. Only worse.

Flabby

A wine that doesn’t have enough acid. Acid – which makes a wine crisp and therefore helps refresh your palate – is important, so flabby wines seem heavy in your mouth and out of balance.

Or, maybe it’s someone who drinks too much wine and doesn’t exercise enough. Either. Or.

Flinty

A quality of a wine that’s been grown in soil with a lot of limestone. Some say you can taste it. I’ve never eaten limestone so I’m not really sure what that means. If you have, I’d love to hear about it.

Frizzante

Italian word for sparkling wine that is not as, well, sparkling as Champagne or Spumante. Most Proseccos, which are lovely Italian wines made from the grape of the same name, are frizzante.

Fruity or “Fruit-Forward”

No, it doesn’t mean silly or frivolous. It can mean different things to different people, but in general refers to wines with flavors that are billboards for fruits you probably recognize – cherry, blueberry, blackberry, plum, or whatever.

In a fruity wine, this is what you notice first, as opposed to tannin or acid or anything else. Well, you probably notice the price first.

Full-bodied

The wine version of Rubenesque – has a weighty mouth feel, on account of high levels of extract (particulate matter, tannins, phenols, all those other things that remind you of the high school chemistry class that you barely passed) and alcohol.

No one likes a skinny wine. Then again, no one likes a “flabby” one, either (see above).

Fume

French word for smoky. “Pouilly Fume” is a French wine made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc that exhibits this character. Robert Mondavi, the marketing genius, called his American version “Fume Blanc” and in my view, the association with France helped make it a hit.

But don’t fume when you drink, as you won’t be able to taste the wine. Get it?

Generic

In the US, this refers to bulk wine with names that often borrow (or steal) from France such as “Hearty Burgundy” but I’ll bet you $1000 that there’s no Pinot Noir from Burgundy in there.

And there’s no Chardonnay from the north of France in the bulk wines labeled “Chablis,” I can tell you. More like something that “Lady Chablis” from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil would drink, mes amis.

Grand Cru

In Bordeaux, many if not most all wines are labelled Grand Cru Classe, meaning “Classified Great Growth” but then also ranked. In Burgundy, though, Grand Cru is itself the top of the heap.

Of course this has to be difficult – it’s French.

Ice Wine or Eiswein

Wine made from frozen grapes. When they’re crushed, most or all of the ice is discarded. What’s left behind is very concentrated and sweet grape pulp – assuming the grapes were ripe when picked – that makes, well, very concentrated and sweet wine!

And no, do not put ice IN your wine…that doesn’t make it “Ice Wine.” That makes it “gross wine.”

Kabinett

The “entry level” category among the finest classified German wines, follow by, in order, Spatlase, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, and finally Eiswein.

Generally, the higher you go, the riper (and sweeter) the grapes were when picked, and usually, the sweeter the wine.

HOWEVER – if the bottle also says “Trocken” that means it’s dry. If you like dry Riesling, for example, ask for one from the Alsace region of France, as it’s almost guaranteed to be dry. Unless the Germans have invaded and taken over the winery and I wasn’t told.

Legs

The little droplets or “rivulets” that run down the inside of the glass after you swirl or taste. They don’t indicate quality in any way, but they do show higher alcohol content.

There’s a detailed, technical explanation of how this works – surface tension, gravity, capillary action, and vapor pressure – but trust me, it won’t help you enjoy the wine any better. Actually it will just annoy you.

Light, or Light-bodied

Wines that are thinner or have less body. Usually they also have less alcohol and fewer extracts – those goodies from the grape solids that make wine a health beverage (in moderation), help keep your arteries clear (some say) and give fine wines their character and longevity in the bottle.

Maceration

A process in which the juice from crushed (and usually, de-stemmed) grapes sits in the fermentation vat along with the skins and seeds. During this time the juice gets important things like color, flavor elements and tannin during this process. Different from “Carbonic Maceration.”

Maderized

A term that refers to wine, usually white, that has acquired a flat, stale or burned taste and often has turned a brownish color.

It’s reminiscent of Madeira wine made on a Portuguese Island of the same name, thus the moniker.

Some folk actually prefer wine that’s been maderized, and I just had a pretty excellent maderized Vouvray. So there.

Malolactic Fermentation

A process that takes place after the grape sugars have been converted to alcohol. Turns sharp, crisp malic acid to much softer lactic acid.

Generally I don’t care so much for this, as I like bright acids, especially in whites, but this is a very individual choice. A lot of California Chardonnays get a malolactic fermentation and a lot of people think it’s great.

Of course, a lot of people also think Budweiser is the king of beers, and that Elvis the king is alive. Maybe catch a drink with those people.

Meritage

An invented word that originated in a naming contest, that combines “merit” and “heritage” and refers to specific California wines composed of at least two of the following grapes: For reds these include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carmenere, St. Macaire, and Gros Verdot. For whites – Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Sauvignon Vert.

Meritage is actually a registered trademark of the Meritage Association, and wineries that put this name on their label must be members of the group. Pronounced like “heritage” (I said it wrong for years).

There are a lot of so-called proprietary red wines made the same way, are are even better, but that don’t carry the Meritage label. They didn’t want to pay the fee. I guess I don’t blame them.

Negociant

Refers to a dealer, generally French, who buys wine in bulk from one or more estates and then typically bottles and sells it, typically under his own label. A lot of very fine wine estates do this with their wine that is of generally high quality but not good enough to go in their prestigious first labels.

Nose

The overall smell of wine. It includes both the bouquet, which is the smell of the grape variety(ies) in the wine, and the aroma, which is supposed to represent the other smells that come from fermentation and barrel aging.

No one has ever told me how you distinguish the two. I can’t.

Pomace

The somewhat nasty stuff left over after making a batch of wine, mainly stems, seeds, grape skins and some dried grape pulp.

It’s put to all sorts of use – pressed to make Grappa or grapeseed oil, or used to fertilize grape vines, among other things. In wine country, I think a lot of it ends up in dumpsters.

Premier Cru

First class, baby! In Bordeaux, the top category of wine from the 1855 French classification. In Burgundy, however, this is second class, and Grand Cru is first.

Yes, I know it’s inconsistent and annoying. It is French, after all. You expected otherwise?

Racking

Moving wine from barrel to barrel, which helps clarify it by leaving sediment behind in the bottoms of the barrels.

In a small winery where barrels are stacked only one or two high, this is pretty easy. Imagine how much work this is in a large operation where barrels can be stacked, say, 10 high and have to be moved by forklift!

Recolte

Harvest or vintage, expressed as a year – for example, 2001.

Reserve

In the USA, this means zilch-point-squat although it can be an effective marketing gimmick.

In fact, I’ve tasted bottled turpentine labeled “Reserve”…meaning, I guess, reserved for people who can’t tell paint thinner from Pinot.

In Italy, though, Riserva means that the wine must spend some minimum amount of time in barrel or other wooden container before it can be bottled and released. In Spain, red Reserva wines must spend at least a year in cask and can’t be released until at least 4 years after harvest, while white Reserva wines must have six months minimum in cask and can’t be released until at least 3 years after harvest.

Residual Sugar

Sugar that’s left in the wine after fermentation is complete. Ironically, the rising level of alcohol created by the action of the yeast cells (usually along with higher temperatures also generated) eventually kills the yeast: yeast-i-cide, sorta.

Wines that are higher in alcohol, and often correspondingly lower in sugar, are fermented with alcohol-tolerant yeast. Of course, some wines have high alcohol and high residual sugar, but if they’re balanced by higher acid then you may not notice.

Rose

No, this doesn’t mean White Zin. Roses are wonderful wines that are often overlooked by snobs, and can be bone dry and every bit as fragrant and fruity as whites or reds. Most quality roses are made by crushing red grapes, then leaving the juice in contact with the skin for only a short time, say, several hours or a day. You can also make rose wine by adding some red wine to a white, but this isn’t common and its illegal in most places. Because they straddle the fence, rose wines go great with just about any food, and they are ideal for summer – barbeques, parties on the deck, boat rides, ballgames and the odd outdoor wake.

Sommelier

French word meaning wine waiter, these folks are typically found in fine restaurants. Their job is not to rip you off, but rather help guide you in selecting a wine to complement your meal, and that you can afford. This is a real profession; the good ones have a lot of study and experience under their belts. And a good sommelier can be a Godsend at a fine restaurant with a big and daunting wine list.

Sparkling Wine

Wines, such as Champagne, that are fermented a second time and become bubbly, or effervescent in return. The CO2 that is generated is trapped, and therefore dissolves into the liquid, and thus – bubbles. The original and elegant method of doing this is called Methode Champenoise, in which the second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The cheaper method is called Charmat, after the guy that invented it, in which the second fermentation takes place in a pressurized tank. There is a third, crude method in which CO2 is literally pumped into still wine.

This produces really bad stuff, will probably give you a headache and I wouldn’t touch it. Unless it’s all you have in your cellar, of course!

Spumante

Generic Italian word for sparkling wine. Not necessarily sweet like Asti Spumante.

Which you know you drank in high school and thought you were cool. Maybe you were.

Sur Lie

No, not “surly”. This refers to wines that have been aged, usually in a barrel, on top of the mostly dead yeast cells. May sound yucky but this can give the wine a more complex, sometimes more toasty flavor.

As Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing. Hopefully the winemaker racks the clear wine off the lees and you don’t have to chew on ‘em. But they won’t hurt you.

Tannin

A substance in wine that comes from grape skins, stems and seeds, and to a lesser extent from oak barrels. It helps preserve reds and gives them a lot of their structure, and some can be harsh, rough and even chewy – but some people like that.

Tannins don’t really have a taste, they are really a tactile sensation. If you really want to “feel” tannin, get a young bottle of Montus wine from France, made from the Tannat grape. Conventional wisdom until recently was that tannins changed a lot over time, and went from “hard” to “soft” by attaching to each other and becoming rounder. But a study at UC Davis, the famous wine school, now challenges that. In fact, that study seems to show that wines called harsh simply have a lot more tannin – three to five times as much – than those described as soft. And the study also shows that some, but not all, tannins do attach to each other to form long strands, but that the long ones are more astringent, not less.

Terroir

A poorly understood term that tries to capture all the unique aspects of a wine based on where the grapes are grown and all the things that determine their quality – soil, rainfall, elevation, sun exposure, geology, and some other stuff you don’t want to hear about. Originally it was a phrase, “gout de terroir” which means “taste of the earth” and at the time – the 17th century – it probably wasn’t a compliment when associated with a wine. Hundreds of years later, there’s a lot of mostly harmless controversy about the extent to which this is real or imagined. The French swear by this, especially in Burgundy, where grapes grown 50 meters away can cost eight times the price.

Veraison

The moment when green grapes begin to turn color – to yellow or red depending on variety – and to soften. All grapes, no matter the variety, are green when they’re “born.” Like all babies have blue eyes, I suppose.

Vitis Labrusca

A species of grapevine native to the good old USA, that produces quality wines, many of which you may never have tasted such as Concord, Catawba, Delaware and Niagra.

Of course, there are also a lot of crap varities of Labrusca, too. Let’s just not make wine from them.

Vitis Vinifera

The species of grapevine, native to Europe, that produces most of the great wines that you’re familiar with.

Wine Thief

Someone you don’t want in your brand new cellar. Or, a long glass or plastic tube that looks like a turkey baster (minus the bulb thing) and is used to draw wine from the bung hole of a barrel for tasting and analysis.

Yes, Beavis, I said “bung hole.” Grow up.