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Wine Lingo, Demystified

Learn to speak like a wine buff with our easy-to-understand glossary

Fine Cooking Issue 84
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So you’re shopping at your favorite wine shop, trying to pick out a good bottle for dinner. As you amble down the aisles, you pause to read a rave review taped to the shelf by some well-meaning shop clerk, and you suddenly realize you don’t understand half of what you’re reading. Well, take comfort: You’re not alone.

Wine is potentially a very complex subject—and the language we wine geeks use probably just adds to the confusion—but it becomes a lot less intimidating once you’re familiar with the basic jargon. Here’s a glossary of many commonly used wine terms with easy-to-understand definitions.

Barrels & bottles

Barrel- or stainless steel-fermented are the winemaker’s two fermentation options. The choice depends on the style of wine and the specific grape variety. Stainless steel-fermented wines emphasize bright, youthful fruit; barrel-fermented wines offer rich, creamy aromas and flavors.

Barrel- or bottle-aged tells you whether wine is aged in oak barrels or in the bottle. Oak-aging adds aromas or flavors of vanilla, baking spices, and toast to the wine. Bottle-aging (also called bottle-maturation) implies aging in a cellar, which should increase the complexity of the wine and make it smoother.

Wine label jargon

You’ll frequently encounter these terms on a wine label or when reading about wine. They don’t describe a wine’s taste, per se, but offer details about the wine’s origin and the way it was made, both of which affect the quality and character of the wine.

Appellation tells you where the grapes were grown and the wine produced. The appellation is especially important in French wines that are known by place names and rarely list grape varieties.

Cru is a French term denoting a vineyard or estate of exceptional merit. The concept of cru is especially important for Burgundy and Champagne, where the best vineyards are labeled premier cru and grand cru.

Cuvée means blend; a wine labeled “cuvée” is a blend of many different base wines, which may themselves be blends.

Estate-bottled wines come from grapes grown on a winery’s own vineyards.

Meritage is a marketing term developed to describe California Cabernet Sauvignon blends that are modeled after the great reds of Bordeaux.

Reserve is the most abused term in the world of wine. Theoretically, it should be used by a winemaker only to designate his best product, but you’ll see the term slapped on the labels of cheap, mass-produced wines.

Varietal wines are made from a single grape variety and bear the grape’s name on the label. To bear a varietal name, such as Merlot, Riesling, or Chardonnay, on the label, the wine must contain at least 75% of that grape, according to United States law.

Vintage denotes the year the grapes were harvested and the wine made. Most wines state a vintage year on the label, but there are also nonvintage (NV) wines, which are blends of wines from several years.

Tasting terms

These words are used to describe how wine tastes. Understanding them will help you make sense of the descriptions you read in reviews and wine-buying guides. They’ll also help you evaluate the wines you drink by giving you specific aspects to focus on and words to describe what you taste.

Acidity refers to the tartness of a wine. A wine can be described as crisp or soft, depending on the amount of acidity. High-acidity wines might be described as crisp or racy, while those with low acidity are called soft, and wines too little acidity are often described as flat. In addition to balancing and enlivening wine’s flavor, acidity is a key element in successful food-and-wine pairing. Generally, the most food-friendly wines have moderate alcohol balanced by crisp acidity.

Alcohol refers to the amount of alcohol in a wine, which for table wines usually ranges between 13% and 15%. The amount of alcohol determines a wine’s richness, body, and to a great extent, the intensity of flavor. Wines with low alcohol feel light-bodied, while wines with too much alcohol often taste overripe and imbalanced.

Balance describes the harmony (or lack thereof) among all the elements in a wine. A balanced wine is a seamless progression of fruit, acids, alcohol, and tannins, with nothing too prominent.

Body describes how weighty a wine feels in the mouth. Wines that feel heavy and rich are full-bodied (the word “big” is often used to describe these types of wines). Feathery wines with little weight are light-bodied. Medium-bodied wines fall in between.

Complexity refers to the aromas and flavors in a wine and how they interact with each other. The more layers of flavor and aroma, the more complex the wine and the higher its quality.

Corkiness, the most common flaw in wine, is caused by a tainted cork. Corked wines smell and taste of wet, musty, or mildewed cardboard.

Finish describes a wine’s aftertaste, be it fruit, acidity, oak, or tannins. Generally, the longer the flavor lasts after you swallow, the better quality the wine. However, there are also bad wines with regrettably long finishes.

Legs (or tears) are the trickles of wine that run down the inside of a glass after you swirl it. The legs are clues to how much alcohol or residual sugar the wine contains; thicker, slower legs indicate a wine with more alcohol or residual sugar.

Malolactic fermentation is a process by which some of the sharp malic acid in a young wine is converted to softer, smoother lactic acids. The process also causes the wine to develop a buttery flavor compound, which you’ll find in many Chardonnays.

Sweetness or dryness levels refer to the presence or lack of sugar in wine. Wines range from bone dry, with no residual sugar, all the way to dessert sweet in style. Off-dry wines have just a hint of sweetness. Most table wines are dry to off-dry.

Tannins, which come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grapes and also from the barrels, are usually found in red wine. Tannins taste bitter and make your palate feel fuzzy, velvety, puckery, or even dry if there’s a good deal of tannin. Wines high in tannins are often described as firm or chewy, and those without a lot of tannins are called soft or supple.

Texture refers to a wine’s mouth-feel. The texture of a wine may be described as silky or astringent or dense.

Name that style

Brawny/muscular wines are big, robust reds with lots of tannins.

Earthy describes a wine whose aromas and flavors are either minerally or evocative of rich soil. European wines tend to be earthier than their New World counterparts. Earthy wines are often described as having a sense of terroir (pronounced teh-RWAHR), a French term that refers to the specific region or vineyard where the wine was made. A sense of terroir lends complexity and interest to any wine.

Fruit-forward wines are dominated by the flavors of fresh fruit—berries, apples, cherries, and so on.

Jammy wines taste of very ripe, almost overripe berries. Zinfandels are often described as “jammy.”

Oaky wines have a toasty, vanilla flavor that comes from aging in oak barrels. It can be wonderful, but too much oak can throw a wine out of balance.

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