Acetic acid: A cause of wine that has gone bad, normally recognizable through the telltale smell of vinegar or nail-polish remover. This is caused by microbial spoilage and/or oxidation. A low level of acetic acid is acceptable in some wines, such as dry, full-bodied, red table wines. Sometimes when wine becomes acetic it actually can be used for cooking in dishes that call for vinegar.
Acidity: The lively, crisp tartness of a wine that affects the salivary glands.
Alcoholic fermentation: The process by which yeast turns grape sugar into carbon dioxide (CO2) and ethanol alcohol. In most fermentations, the CO2 is allowed to evaporate, but in Methode Champenoise (see later entry) fermentations used to make Champagne and other sparkling wines, the CO2 is captured under pressure and becomes the bubbles in the bottle.
American Oak: A mostly Midwestern U.S.-grown oak (quercus alba), from which are crafted barrels used in the process of aging whiskey and wines. Usually imparts a more assertive oak component, similar to resin, and is favored in the making of full-bodied red wines. French Oak, on the other hand, is known more for finer, delicate flavors.
American Viticultural Area (AVA): A demarcated, geographical grape-growing area officially granted appellation status by the American Alcohol and Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley are both AVAs, for example. The French equivalent is an Appellation d’origine contrôlée.
Astringent: The austere, drying, furry or bitter mouth feel of wines, normally due to high tannin levels. More typical in reds than whites.
Austere: Term used for wines that are low on fruit flavors and high on acidity and/or tannins. Sometimes said of young wines that need more time to soften with age.
Balance: A harmony between all elements within wine: acids, sugars, tannins and alcohol.
Barbaresco: A dry, tart red wine made entirely of Nebbiolo grapes from the northwestern district of the same name in Piedmont, Italy.
Barolo: A bigger, richer and often-pricier wine than Barbaresco, Barolo is also a dry, tart red wine from Piedmont, Italy.
Barrel: An oak container (usually around 55 gallons) used for aging and fermenting wine.
Barrel-fermented: The process of fermenting wine in oak barrels rather than in stainless steel tanks. Can increase the complexity, texture, body, and oakiness of wines, though the process is riskier and more labor-intensive than alternative methods.
Barrique: French term for a small wooden barrel in which wine is aged.
Beaujolais: A French wine-growing district where the red wine grape Gamay Noir a jus Blanc is prominent, and makes a light, delicate red wine.
Bitter: The tannin taste sensation on the back of the tongue.
Blend: A mixture of different grape varietals, regions or vintages, to add complexity, balance and/or consistency.
Body: A tactile sensation of a wine’s mouth-feel in terms of weight and fullness. A wine can be light-, medium- or full-bodied.
Bordeaux: A large area in Southwest France, known as one of the preeminent wine-producing regions on the planet.
Botrytis: Also known as “Noble Rot,” a mold that pierces the skin of grapes late in the growing season, resulting in a natural grape juice substantially higher in sugar. Used in as the basis for dessert wines, though it can ruin some grapes.
Brix: A system, popular in America, which measures sugar content (and thus the ripeness) of grapes. Most table wines are harvested between 20 and 26 degrees Brix. To get an alcohol conversion level, multiply the stated Brix by 0.55.
Brut: A term to describe dry wine, usually Champagne or sparkling wine.
Burgundy: A well-known growing region in France, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes flourish. The name can also generally refer to a blended red wine.
Buttery: Indicates the smell of melted butter or toasty oak, or a rich texture.
Cabernet Sauvignon: A major red wine grape that grows in a variety of climates. A dominant grape of Bordeaux, it also grows well all over the planet.
Carbonic Maceration: Method of making light-bodied, fresh and fruity red wines by dumping whole grape clusters into a bin that is rich in carbon dioxide, and then letting the clusters ferment inside their own grape skins. Commonly practiced in Beaujolis.
Champagne: A sparkling wine made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. Champagne is produced under regulations requiring a secondary fermentation in the bottle to create carbonation. The sweetness of Champagne (and sparkling wine in general) is measured from driest to sweetest: Extra Brut, Brut, Extra-Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux.
Chaptalization: The process of adding sugar to sugar-deficient grape juice, to ensure that the resulting wine contains sufficient alcohol. Common in northern Europe countries, where cold climates can prevent grapes from fully ripening. Illegal in southern Europe (including Italy and southern France) and California.
Chardonnay: A primarily white wine grape first grown in Burgundy, including the Chablis and Champagne regions. One of the most widely planted grape varieties worldwide.
Charmat: The less-expensive, mass-production method of making sparkling wine in a large vat rather than in bottles. This decreases lees contact and produces larger, coarser bubbles. Also known as “tank method.”
Chateau: A French term that typically refers to an estate that makes wine from vines grown onsite.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape: One of the most renowned appellations in France’s southern Rhône Valley. Produces more reds than whites, with Grenache the most common grape variety. Wines from this appellation are typically sold in heavy, dark bottles. More wine is produced here than in the entire Northern Rhône region.
Chenin Blanc: An acidic white wine grape most widely grown in the Anjou region of France. Can produce a variety of wines, from sparkling to dessert. Also known as Steen, or Pineau de la Loire.
Chewy: A tasting term that refers to wine with noticeable tannins that have a mouth feel, as if you could chew the wine.
Chianti: Red Wine from Tuscany, Italy, made almost exclusively from the Sangiovese grape.
Claret: The British term for the red wines of Bordeaux.
Colombard: A French white grape variety, generally used in blends, such as “jug wines.” Sometimes called French Colombard, or Colombar.
Corked: A wine that displays an off-putting, musty, moldy-newspaper flavor and aroma and dry aftertaste, as caused by a tainted cork.
Decanter: To pour wine from the bottle into another container, as to aerate the wine — allowing it to breathe and “open up” — or to separate it from sediment.
Dolcetto: Red wine grape of Italy that typically makes a dry, light, easy-drinking red wine with flavors of black cherry, licorice or prune, with a characteristic bitter finish.
Dosage: Sugar syrup added to Champagne and sparkling wine to lessen the acid and increase the sweetness.
Douro: Portuguese town where Port is produced, near the town of Oporto.
Dry: A term that refers to wines lacking the taste of sugar. Rather, tannins are very present, and lead to a puckering sensation in the mouth. The opposite of sweet.
Durif: See Petite Syrah.
Eiswein: Very sweet dessert wine made from grapes still frozen on the vine. Also known as Ice Wine.
Enology: The science and study of winemaking.
Enophile: A lover of all things wine.
Esters: Naturally occurring chemical compounds in wine that taste and smell fruity. Many are created by yeast during fermentation, and then decrease as the wine ages.
Fermentation: See Alcoholic Fermentation.
Fighting Varietal: A varietal wine priced as competitively as generics.
Finish: The lingering sensations in the mouth of texture and flavor after swallowing wine.
Fortified: A wine whose alcohol content has been increased by the addition of brandy or neutral spirits at some point during the wine’s making.
French Oak: Tighter-grained wood grown in France and used in the process of aging whiskey and wines. Known for imparting finer, more-delicate flavors of vanilla, cedar and sometimes butterscotch. More expensive to purchase than American Oak barrels, sometimes twice as much.
Full-bodied: A wine high in alcohol and flavors, often described as “big.”
Generic: A lower-quality wine usually made from inexpensive varieties.
Grenache: One of the most widely planted red wine grape varieties worldwide, including in Spain, California and southern France, especially in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Soft on the palate, with red fruit flavors and subtle, white-pepper spices. Grenache wines tend to lack tannins, acid and color, and are commonly used in blends.
Gruner Vetliner: White grape from Austria that makes a fresh, fruity wine, many of which age nicely.
Herbaceous: A term describing aromas and flavors herbal or green-vegetable like. Characteristic of grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Hot: A term for wine that is high on alcohol.
Hybrid: Grape that is a cross between two varieties from different families, with hybrids typically a European-American blend. Hybrids have great fungal resistance, making them ideal for growth in warm climates with much rainfall in summer.
Ice Wine: See Eiswein
Isinglass: An agent used in the process of fining overly harsh wines, by reducing tannins. Made of proteins extracted from the swim bladders of sturgeons and other fish.
Jug wines: Inexpensive, generic wines sold in half-gallon or gallon jug bottles. Jug wines are on the decline sales-wise, due to the rise of consumer interest in premium products.
Lees: Sediment consisting of dead yeast cells, grape pulp, seed and other grape matter that accumulates during fermentation. Typically removed via “racking,” or pumping the wine off to leave the residue behind. In some wines — especially Chardonnay — the lees are purposely left in the barrel to grant more complexity and palate creaminess to the wine.
Length: How long the taste, flavor and mouth-feel of a wine lasts in the mouth after swallowing. A longer finish is a trait of better wines.
Lively: Description term for a fresh, bright and youthful wine, with good fruit and acidity.
Made and Bottled By: On labels of American wines, this denotes that the winery crushed, fermented and bottled at least 10 percent of the wine.
Magnum: A 1.5 liter bottle.
Malolactic Fermentation: Conversion of the sharper malic acid in wine to softer lactic acid. The process also prevents additional fermentation in the bottle. Most commonly done in Chardonnay, to soften wine into big, rich, buttery liquids.
Mature: A wine that is ready to drink.
Médoc: The largest wine district in Bordeaux. Produces almost entirely red wines, which have been among the most historically celebrated throughout French history.
Methode Champenoise: The technique of making sparkling wine with a second, controlled fermentation in a sealed bottle to develop the bubbles. More time-consuming and expensive than Charmat or transfer methods.
Merlot: A dark-blue grape variety related to, and often blended with, Cabernet Sauvignon in red wines. The most widely planted grape variety in Bordeaux, and one of the most planted worldwide.
Montrachet: A vineyard in Burgundy, France that makes what many consider to be the best dry white wine in the world.
Mouth-feel: The sensation of a wine on the palate, usually described as rough, smooth, velvety or furry.
Muscadet: A delicate, crisp white wine made from the Melon grape in the western Loire Valley of France.
Muscat: A diverse family in the world’s oldest grapes, which make a light, usually sweet wine.
Nebbiolo: A tart red Italian grape variety widely grown in the Piedmont region that makes some of the country’s longest-lived reds.
Negociant: French term for a merchant who purchases wine from various sources before blending them and bottling them to sell under their own label.
New World: A term for countries that have started producing wine more recently than European countries, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
Noble Rot: See Botrytis
Nose: The smell of wine.
Nouveau: A light, youthful, fruity red wine bottled and sold as soon as possible. Most common to Beaujolais.
Oak: The wood primarily used for aging wines, imparting flavor when the barrel is new. Desired “oaky” notes are toasty, vanilla, dill, cedary and smoky. Undesired oak notes are charred, burnt, green cedar, lumber and plywood.
Oenology: The science of wine and winemaking.
Off-dry: A wine that has a slight amount of residual sugar.
Old World: European countries where winemaking dates back centuries.
Petit Verdot: Dark red grape used primarily in Bordeaux blends, including Cabernet Sauvignon.
Petite Sirah: A red grape, and the primary grape grown in America and Israel. Makes a dense, dark, red, spicy, plummy, long-lasting tannic wine. Also known as Durif.
Pinot Gris: A white variant of Pinot Noir. Also known as Pinot Grigio.
Pinot Noir: A red grape variety grown worldwide, but chiefly associated with Burgundy. Usually produces a light-colored, medium-bodied, long-lived wine.
Plateau: The time during which a wine is at its peak.
Port: Dark, rich, red, fortified dessert wine, made exclusively in the Douro Valley in Portugal.
Punt: The indentation in the bottom of wine bottles. Deeper punts can add extra strength to the bottle.
Qualitatswein: German label classification for a wine of higher quality than simple table wine.
Rhône wine region: A wine region in Southern France.
Rosé: A wine that incorporates some of the color of grape skins, but not enough to qualify it as red wine. Often light red or pinkish in color.
Riesling: A white grape variety that originated in the Rhine region of Germany. Produces wines that have a wide variety of sweetness levels, from dry to very sweet. Is considered “terroir-expressive,” meaning that the wine takes on flavors from the areas in which it grows.
Sangiovese: An Italian red grape variety used to make Chianti and other Tuscan reds, including Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino. Often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to make the so-called Super Tuscan blend.
Sauternes: A sweet wine from Bordeaux made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle grapes affected by Botrytis, or noble rot. In America, “Sauterne” — missing the ‘s’ at the end — is sometimes used as a generic term for sweet, white dessert wines.
Sauvignon blanc: A white grape variety planted worldwide, originating from Bordeaux. Produces a crisp, dry, refreshing wine. Depending on the terroir, it can have grassy and/or tropical aromas.
Sémillon: A white grape variety grown mostly in France and Australia, which makes dry, sweet wines.
Sherry: Fortified white wine made from white Spanish grapes. Ranges from light and delicate, to heavier and darker variants allowed to oxidize as they age in barrel. In Europe this style has protected-designation-of-origin status, and must be made in the “Sherry Triangle” to have “Sherry” on its label.
Shiraz: See Syrah
Sparkling Wine: Wine containing significant levels of carbon dioxide, making it fizzy. The classic example is Chardonnay.
Syrah: A classic red grape grown throughout the world. The flavor of Syrah wine is very dependent on the terroir. In moderate climates, Syrah produces medium to full-bodied wines with medium to high tannin levels and mint, blackberry and black pepper. In hotter climates, produces more consistently full-bodied wines with softer tannin, jam fruit and spice notes of licorice, anise and earthy leather. No relation to Petite Syrah, a synonym for Durif.
Tank Method: See “Charmat”
Tannins: Natural component derived from wine skins, stems and seeds of grapes — as well as from oak barrels — that gives a wine an stringent, bitter, puckering mouthfeel. Predominantly in red wines. Acts as a natural preservative that helps wine age and develop.
Terroir: The special characteristics of a place — in terms of geography, geology and climate — that interact with plant genetics and can impart flavor and other compositional aspects on agricultural products like wine.
Varietal: A wine made from a single grape variety.
Vermouth: A fortified wine flavored with herbs. Primarily used as a cocktail ingredient.
Viognier: White grape variety, and the only permitted grape for the French wine Condrieu in the Rhône Valley. Makes a wine that has the weight of chardonnay, but with floral notes similar to Riseling.
Yeast: Catalyst that converts sugar to alcohol and CO2, and which is used to turn grape juice into wine.
Young: Wine that is usually bottled and sold within a year of its vintage. Wines intended to be drunk “young” are noted for their fresh and crisp flavors.
Vintage: the year a wine is bottled. Also can mean the yield of wine from a vineyard during a single season.
Vitis vinifera: the species of vining plant that produces more than 99% of the world’s wine
Weight: Similar to “body,” the sensation when a wine feels thick or rich on the palate.
Zinfadel: A red grape variety common throughout California vineyards. Makes a high-alcohol red wine, or a semi-sweet, high-selling rosé wine, “White Zinfadel.”