Wine Terminology


Part of the fun of exploring the world of wine goes beyond simple tasting into an actual discussion with others. As you begin to develop a more sophisticated palate, you’ll want to discuss your experience with friends, family or even members of a wine group.  In order to do this you must be familiar with the appropriate terminology used by the experts to describe the characteristics of both red and whites.

Here is a list in alphabetical order of some of the most important and commonly used descriptive words and their meaning. 

Acidity –
A quality in the flavor of the wine that is reminiscent of citrus fruit. Tart, slightly acidic and crisp. Refreshing even. You might find this prevalent in certain white wines. Especially some new world product like those in New Zealand and South Africa. 

Balance –
The flavors in wine are made up of a combination of “elements”. These are fruitiness, sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcohol. A wine can be described as “well balanced” when all of the elements are in harmony and no one is overwhelming or overpowering. 

Body –
The term “body” is used to describe the experience of lightness or heaviness in your mouth. This is especially important when planning to pair a certain wine with a specific food dish. A wine which is light has a more delicate character and would normally be paired with foods that are softer in character. These include most fish dishes, veal and many cheeses. By contrast, wines which are considered full bodied are an excellent accompaniment to hearty stews, roasts and grilled food. You could also choose a medium bodied wine which works well with meat and fish, as well as some cheeses and surprisingly dark chocolate! 

Big Wine - wine-terminologyBig –
Wines that will be described as “big” are bold, rich and full bodied often with an alcohol content of 13 ½% or more. Cabernet Sauvignon and those fruity California Zinfandels would fall into this category as well as most red wine product from Australia.

Blend –
A blend is a wine that is made of a several grape varieties blended together to create a finished product. For example, one of your favorite Italian bottles might be a blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet and Merlot. These different grapes give the wine a unique personality and flavor and add layers to the taste. Champagne, which is one of the most coveted and costly wine products in the world, is a blend of three grape varietals. These are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Each of these grape varietals has its job in providing layers of elements which compound flavors into a harmonious beverage with delightful depth.  

Wine Terminology - BouquetBouquet –
The process of tasting a wine means more than just sipping or (heaven forbid) gulping! When we “taste” wine we examine a number of things including the color, the flavor and the bouquet which is the scent or aroma of the wine. Swirling and then sniffing the wine is done so that the senses can detect flavors and elements. You might smell chocolate, coffee, cherries, raspberries, pineapple or oak. This element of wine tasting is also known as the “nose”  

Complex –
Often the more a wines “lies down” or ages, the more complex it becomes. This is also true of wines that are more expensive. These wines will have layer upon layer flavors, aromas and what is known as characteristics. Often these will change, develop and evolve the longer the wine is exposed to air. That is why some wines actually improve when they are allowed to “breathe”. 

Dry –
Wines that have very little or no sugar are referred to a dry. You’ll know when you’ve tried a dry wine when your mouth feels dry after having a sip. Unlike most other beverages, water, juice, soft drinks that may quench a thirst, dry wines give a more “puckered” feeling in the mouth.  

Finish –
Better wines are known to have a lengthy finish. That is a taste and a sensation that you feel long after you have swallowed. This is known as a long finish. Wines that disappear from your palate immediately after you take a sip are known as wines with “no finish” These would be less expensive and probably inferior quality product. 

Intensity –
A wine is said to be intense when the nose or bouquet, as well as the flavor is powerful. Intense wines have loads of flavor. These can be reds or whites. The word intense is similar to the word “big” as mentioned previously, but big wines are most often used by the experts when describing red wines. However, if you’re “knocked out” by the flavor of the wine red or white, you could then call it intense.   

Legs –
As previously mentioned, there are a number of steps used in “tasting” wines. Some people will hold their glass up to the light to examine its true color, then they swirl it around in the glass so oxygen helps release the “esters” bringing out a true flavor. Lastly, the smell and (of course), the taste. When you swirl a wine around in the glass or tip the glass to take a sip, look for clear “strands” that will hug the inside of the glass. In bigger, bolder, fuller bodied or intense wines, these “strands” are known as “legs” If you see them you can then say, “this wine has good legs”  

Length –
Length is similar to finish, but the judging of length also happens during the slow process of tasting the wine. The discussion of length is really all about impression. What kind of impression does the wine make on you during the initial taste and after you have tasted. 

Nose - Wine TerminologyNose –
Is just really another word for bouquet. 

Oaky –
Most wines are aged in oak barrels and the distinctly woody flavor remains and affects the wine long after it is bottled. A good example of “oak-in-ess” occurs in many Chardonnay wines. Here the oak flavor can be quite prevalent.  However, in some cases, winemakers will actually add oak chips to the wine to flavor it. This generally occurs in cheaper wines. When oak chips are added, in most cases, the flavor of oak becomes quite intense, a little like chewing on a 2 X 4. Strongly oaked wines have actually fallen out of favor recently, especially with women buyers who find the flavor too overwhelming. They are now more apt to choose a fresher more citrus-y wine. Sauvignon Blanc or unbaked chardonnay (Chablis) are now the popular choice. However oaked wines still have their place. Some people enjoy the heavy oak-in-ess with BBQ’s ribs and chicken.  

Region (appellation in France)
Wine products can be heavily regulated to monitor quality. These regulations are created by governments to determine the place where grapes where grown. In France this is known as “appellation”. 

Sparkling –
This refers to all wines which have bubbles. These products include wines from all nations. Champagne is the leader, of course. Most other countries have a version of this popular wine product as well and this carbonation may occur naturally during fermentation, (as in Champagne), or added later. As a footnote, only products with grapes grown in a specified region in the Champagne region of France, (appellation in this case), can be officially named Champagne. All other products are simply known as sparkling wine.   

Tannin –
Tannin is the element of taste of flavor or sensation that occurs in red wine. Wine that is tannic causes a kind of puckering effect on the palate. Some wines will lose this element over time as they mellow, while others may never lose it. Those that never lose it are seen as a less desirable product by the experts. They are described as “overly tannic”. 

Terroir –
A French word that refers to the place where the grapes of a particular wine are grown. The important elements here are soil, sunshine, rainfall and overall environment. Terroir refers to the “somewhereness” of the grape. 

Varietal –
Varietal is an agricultural term that refers to the type of grape or variety of grape used to produce a certain wine. Example, chardonnay is a varietal, as well as pinot noir and merlot. 

Vintage –
This is the year the wine was made. For example, the year 2000 was an excellent vintage for Bordeaux wines.