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.