Too often, the definition of basic wine terms is given in a book or magazine article in language that’s so technical the average reader (for whom it is written) gets lost.
The following glossary is intended to get right to the point, without using terms that are obscure, requiring a dictionary. Retailers can use this, if needed, for handy reference when dealing with wine customers, or they can make it available for consumers to peruse themselves.
Acetic: Applied to the smell of vinegar in a wine that’s gone bad. Not all wine becomes acetic, but when it does it actually can be used for cooking, in dishes that call for vinegar.
Acid: A tart substance that is in all wine, between .5% and 1%.
Alcoholic fermentation: The process by which yeast turns sugar into carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol. In most fermentations, the CO2 is allowed to evaporate, but in Methode Champenoise fermentations used to make Champagne and other sparkling wines, the CO2 is captured under pressure and becomes the bubbles in the bottle.
American oak: Refers to the kind of oak (quercus alba, grown in the United States) used to make barrels used in the aging of whisky and some wines. Usually imparts a more assertive oak component, similar to resin, to a wine. French oak is believed by some to make a wine with finer, more delicate flavors.
Amontillado: A style of mild, usually slightly sweet sherry.
Asti Spumante: Slightly sparkling Italian wine made from Muscat grapes, usually relatively sweet and aimed at desserts.
Astringent: The austere, drying, occasionally bitter taste felt in the mouth, usually from tannin in red wine, and occasionally in white wine.
Balance: A harmony between all the elements in a wine.
Barbaresco: A dry, tart red wine made entirely of Nebbiolo grapes from the district of the same name in Piedmont, in northwestern Italy.
Barbera: A red wine grape from Piedmont in Italy that makes a tart wine, usually higher in acidity than in tannins.
Barolo: A dry, tart red wine made entirely of Nebbiolo grapes from the district of the same name in Piedmont, in northwestern Italy. Bigger and richer than Barbaresco, usually longer-lived, and more often pricier.
Barrel: A 58-gallon vessel made of wood and used for the aging of wines. A puncheon is a barrel of a larger size.
Barrel fermented: Assumed to mean a wine that was fermented in a barrel, but the U.S. government has no legal definition for such a term, so any barrel fermentation is up to the discretion of the wine maker.
Barrique: French term for a wooden barrel in which wine is aged.
Beaujolais: A district in France in which the red wine grape Gamay Noir a jus Blanc is dominant, and which makes a light, delicate red wine, best served slightly chilled.
Beaune: Main town in the southern half of Burgundy, noted for fine white and red wines made, respectively, from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Bianco: Italian term for white, as in vino bianco.
Blanc: French term for white, as in white wine (vin blanc).
Blend: Usually a mixture of different grape varieties to add complexity where one single variety wouldn’t make a wine with much depth. Also, a combination of different wines (perhaps of the same grape) that offer different elements to the final product.
Bordeaux: A huge district in France’s southwest that is home to arguably the most widely accepted great wine, red Bordeaux, based on Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also home to excellent Merlot (grown mainly in St. Emilion and Pomerol), as well as some districts that have Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc for the making of dry and sweet whites. The former grape is the heart of Sauternes and Barsacs.
Botrytis: Technically called Botrytis Cinerea, the noble mold that attacks grapes late in the season and can ruin some grapes (red wine grapes, mainly) or provide the basis for making sensational dessert wines.
Brix: Measure of percentage of sugar in grapes at picking. Most table wines are harvested with between 20 and 26 degrees Brix.
Brut: There is no strict definition for this term in the United States that is used for Champagne and all other sparkling wine. However, it generally refers to a wine that tastes dry. In fact, the wine may well have a dosage (see term) of about 1% sugar. In the European Union, a Brut may well have up to 1.5% sugar or even more.
Burgundy: An important growing region in France, in which the white grape Chardonnay and the red grape Pinot Noir flourish. Other minor grapes are permitted, but these two are considered among France’s greatest. The name also has been used generically in some countries to refer to a blended red wine.
Cabernet Sauvignon: A major red wine grape, it grows in a wide variety of climates, likes warmer weather, and is the dominant grape of Bordeaux. But it grows in a huge number of other places as well, notably in California, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and Italy.
Cabernet Franc: Superior grape not unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, preferring slightly cooler growing areas. A wine with more aggressive tannins, but with huge potential. In the Loire region of France it is rarely aged in barrels.
Carbonic Maceration: Method of making Nouveau Beaujolais by dumping whole clusters of grapes into a bin and letting them “ferment” inside their own grape skins for a day or two.
Carignane: Red wine grape grown in southern France and Spain; usually found in blends.
Carmenere: Red Bordeaux grape grown mainly in Chile, once thought to be Merlot.
Chablis: District in northern Burgundy, of France where a Chardonnay-based white wine is made, normally with little or no aging in small oak barrels.
Chaptalization: The process of adding sugar to grape juice deficient in it, to make sure the resulting wine has sufficient alcohol. Illegal in California.
Chardonnay: Primary white wine grape grown in Burgundy including Chablis and in the Champagne region of France. Also widely planted around the world (California, Australia, even parts of northern Italy). A classic variety that once made long-lived wines, now mainly shorter term.
Charmat: Bulk method for making sparkling wine in a large vat rather than in the bottle (see Methode Champenoise).
Chateauneuf-du-Pape: White and red wines of the southern Rhone Valley. The red is far more popular than the white, and is most often a Grenache and Syrah-based blend.
Chenin Blanc: An acidic white wine grape most widely grown in the Anjou region of France. Once very popular in the United States. Also known as Steen in South Africa, and Pineau de la Loire in the Loire region of France.
Chianti: Red wine from Tuscany in Italy made almost exclusively from the Sangiovese grape.
Claret: English term for a red Bordeaux wine, also used generically (and incorrectly) by some to mean simply any red wine.
Classified Growth: One of the 62 reds wines and 25 white sweet wines that were ranked (or classified) by quality in 1855. Other classifications have been done over the years for other French districts.
Cognac: High-quality brandy-producing area of France.
Colombard: High-acid white wine grape that once was a popular white wine. Now mainly used as a blending grape.
Conversion rate: The rate at which yeasts convert the sugar in grape juice to alcohol (and CO2 as a byproduct). Generally between .52 and .6, meaning that a wine made from grapes picked at 24 degrees brix will have just over 13% alcohol, possibly as much as 14+%.
Cotes du Rhone: A south-of-Burgundy Rhone region in which white and red wines of good value are produced.
Decant: To pour a wine from its bottle into a decanter to allow it to breathe more quickly and “open up.”
Dolcetto: Red wine grape of Piedmont in Italy that makes a stylish red wine.
Dosage: Sugar added to Champagne and sparkling wines to lessen the acid.
Douro: Portuguese district where Port is produced, near the town of Oporto.
Eiswein: Quite sweet white wine made from grapes frozen on the vine.
Fermentation: The conversion of sugar in grape juice (or other liquid) into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Typically the conversion rate of a solution of sugar in liquid is between .52 and .6.
Fino: Lightest of all sherries, usually bone dry.
French oak: Tighter-grained wood grown in France and used to make barrels for the aging of fine red and white wines.
Gamay (or Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc): Red grape of Beaujolais.
Gewurztraminer: Spicy variant of the Traminer grape, now quite successful in France’s Alsace, Alto Adige of Italy, and cooler climates of California. Makes a spicy white wine.
Grenache: A red wine grape widely grown in Spain (called Garnacha), the south of France and California. Usually the dominant grape in Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends.
Gruner Veltliner: White grape from Austria that makes a fresh, fruity wine, many of which can age nicely.
Hybrid: Grape that is a cross between two varieties from different families, i.e., a French-American hybrid.
Ice Wine: See Eiswein.
Johannisberg Riesling: See Riesling.
Kabinett: A basic level of quality wine from Germany.
Madeira: Island off the coast of Portugal that makes a series of fine fortified wines, from the driest (Sercial) to the sweetest (Malmsey).
Malolactic Fermentation: Conversion of the assertive malic acid in a wine to the softer lactic acid. Done with Chardonnay to soften the wine.
Medoc: Largest wine district in Bordeaux, and its most important.
Merlot: Grape variety related to Cabernet Sauvignon and planted widely in St.-Emilion and Pomerol. As wine, usually shorter-lived than Cabernet Sauvignon.
Methode Champenoise: Technique of making sparkling wine by doing a second, controlled fermentation in a sealed bottle to develop the bubbles. More time-consuming and expensive than Charmat or transfer methods.
Montrachet: Greatest vineyard in the Cote de Beaune, producing arguably the finest Chardonnay in France.
Muscadet: A delicate, crisp white wine made from the Melon grape in the western Loire Valley of France.
Muscat: A family of the world’s oldest grapes, they can make a light, usually sweet wine in northern Italy and Alsace, and also in other regions. Known by Muscat of Alexandria, Muscat Blanc, etc.
Nebbiolo: Tart red grape widely grown in the Piedmont region of Italy that makes some of Italy’s longest-lived reds including Barolo, Gattinara, Barbaresco, Spanna, and Ghemme.
Oak: The wood primarily used for aging of white and red wines, imparting a flavor to the wine when the barrel is new. Chestnut and walnut have also been used far less successfully.
Off-Dry: A wine that has a slight bit of residual sugar.
Petit Verdot: Dark red grape grown in limited amounts in St.-Emilion for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and other wines. A very concentrated grape with little distinction on its own.
Petite Sirah: Dark red grape widely grown in California, now known to be identical to the French blending grape Durif. Makes a dense, dark red, tannic wine that lives for decades.
Piedmont: Wonderful wine-growing region in northern Italy, noted for the Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes.
pH: A measure of the hydrogen ion concentration in a wine, almost always directly linked to the wine’s acidity. A pH of 3.0 to 3.4 is typical for white wines; reds come in at 3.4 to 3.8. Any numbers outside those ranges and the wine can be considered strange.
Pinot Blanc: One of the top white wine varieties of the Alsace, it also makes a dry white wines in other areas of France, Austria (as Weissburgunder) and Italy (Pinot Bianco). Some plantings in California may actually be Melon de Bourgogne, or Muscadet de Bourgogne.
Pinot Chardonnay: Many white wines made from Chardonnay were misnamed this in the 1950s and 1960s.
Pinot Gris: A white variant of Pinot Noir that grows well in Alsace, Alto Adige, and many parts of Italy (Pinot Grigio), as well as in California, Oregon and Washington. In Germany and Austria it is known as Rulander or Grauer Burgunder. Versions called Auxerrois Gris and Tokay d’Alsace are also grown in the Alsace, but the latter term is being phased out.
Pinot Noir: The top red grape of the Burgundy region of France, it can make wonderful, long-lived red wine, but the best are very expensive and many are not worth the price. Its wines are typically light in color, especially when found in New World regions such as California’s Russian River, Carneros, Santa Barbara, Oregon, and New Zealand.
Port: Dark, rich, fortified red wine used for dessert, made in Oporto, in the Douro or Portugal.
Qualitatswein: A German label classification for a wine of higher quality than simple table wine.
Riesling: A white grape widely grown along the Rhine river and tributaries, including Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Mosel, Saar, Ruwer, and Nahe regions of Germany. It also grows successfully in New York, Oregon and Washington, pockets of California and many regions of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It makes wines in a wide variety of sweetness levels, from dry to very sweet. Considered by many to be the finest wine grape of all.
Sangiovese: Superior red grape grown in the Tuscany region of Italy to make Chianti and other Tuscan reds, such as Brunello di Montalcino. Often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to make the so-called Super Tuscan blend.
Sauternes: District in Bordeaux that makes primarily sweet, concentrated dessert wines from the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, with bits of Muscadelle de Bordelaise as a tiny fraction of the blend.
Sauvignon Blanc: A classic white grape widely planted in the Bordeaux and eastern Loire regions of France. Has a distinctive grassy edge to its aroma. Also widely grown in the United States. In New Zealand, it has thrived and today is a sought-after, fashionable alternative white wine.
Semillon: Classic white widely grown in Bordeaux and Australia, and some areas of California. Often blended with Sauvignon Blanc, but also used to make dry whites. When affected with the fungus Botrytis cinerea it produces sweet whites of exceptional quality such as those of Sauternes.
Sherry: Fortified, intentionally aged in contact with air (so slightly oxidized) white wine that can be as light and delicate as Fino or as heavy as PX (for Pedro Ximenez, a motor-oil-thick very sweet wine).
Shiraz: See Syrah.
Syrah: Classic red grape originally from of Persia, now considered the finest red wine of France’s Rhone Valley, and the heart of the great Hermitage wines. In Australia, it is known as Shiraz, where it makes a long-lived, power-packed wine. Also grown in California, with less distinctive character. No relation to Petite Sirah.
Tannin: Natural component of the skins and seeds of grapes that gives a wine an astringent mouthfeel.
Viognier: White varietal grown in the northern Rhone region of France and in California and Australia. Makes a wine that has the weight of Chardonnay, but floral notes not unlike Riesling.
Yeast: Catalyst that converts sugar to alcohol and CO2, and which is used to turn grape juice into wine.
Zinfandel: Almost entirely based in California, a popular red grape that makes high-alcohol red wines as well as popular “white” wines. Now considered to be the same as a Croatian grape variety.