The great thing about wine is that you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy a bottle — or several. Even if your knowledge starts and ends with “refrigerate white, keep red at room temp,” or you don’t know tannins from en Tirage, you can still find your way to a satisfying sip. But just because you’re not a sommelier (we’re getting to it) doesn’t mean you should be terrified of terroir. Getting comfy with the terms used in growing, making, and describing wine will make your next journey into the wine world taste even sweeter (or more acidic, aromatic, tart…you get the idea). Plus, you'll sound super smart.
This vinegary anomaly occurs when wine is exposed to bacteria or oxygen, turning alcohol into acetic acid. While winemakers can prevent it by monitoring sulphites, hygiene, and oxidization, some use it to give their bottles more flavor. (See: acescent, acetic, acetic bacteria.)
Also known by its chemical name, CH3CHO, this temperamental compound, resulting from the activity of yeast and acetic acid bacteria (AAB), is behind your favorite wines' aldehyde content. You know those grassy, nutty, apple-y flavors you love? That's acetaldehyde.
We love ripe grapes, but when things get a little too ripe, the resulting wines can end up low-acid and high-pH. In this process, winemakers add tartaric and malic acid to give their wines a much-needed tart kick.
A good wine is as complex as a Dostoevsky novel. Wine-tasting is all about balance, so "acidity" compares that fresh tartness to sweetness, bitterness, and so on. Most wine grapes boast tartaric, malic, and/or citrus acids.
Think of this as popping the cork and introducing your wine to the outside world: specifically, some much-needed oxygen. Since they're packed with tannins, reds benefit from aerating and decanting, which helps create a balanced taste.
Like cheese, stocks, and teenagers, some wines need extra time to mature. When you "age" a wine, you're leaving it in the bottle so it can find its flavor and become its best self. However, around 90% of wines produced are not meant to be aged, but to be enjoyed relatively quickly.
Alcohol By Volume (Abv)
Usually a percent, alcohol by volume (aka alc/vol or ABV) gauges the amount of ethanol in 100 units of a liquid.
These essential compounds of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, etc. are called the "building blocks of proteins" because they come together to (you guessed it) build proteins. Red wine, in particular, is an amino-acid superstar, with 300–1300 mg/L.
A specific geo-political location with rules about where and how its wine is made— from planting to harvesting to bottling.
This is the smell that makes a grape special. Some varietal examples include the lychee aromas in Gewürztraminer and the black currant aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon.
That pucker-up sensation that leaves your mouth and tongue feeling dry after a satisfying sip. Caused by tannins attaching themselves to salivary proteins and taking them on a joy ride.
AVA (American Viticultural Area)
By law, these U.S. regions are devoted specifically to grape-growing. (See: Santa Maria, Mississippi Delta.)
Think of this like a group project where no one's doing all (or none) of the work. In a "balanced" wine, alcohol content, acidity, tannins, sweetness, and fruitiness come together perfectly to get the job done.
As a part of the process, winemakers filter out dead yeast, grape seeds, and other sediments known as "lees." In this process, those lees are added back into the wine to enhance taste, texture, and aroma.
Beerenauslese (BA, for short) are a type of late-harvest wines made with rotting or decaying grapes. Don't worry, though—we're talking the sought-after "noble rot" (or Botrytis cinerea), which gives wines a uniquely flavorful sweetness.
The makers of this kind of bottle stick to strict standards when it comes to artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. so you can be sure your wine is certified organic.
This quality considers grape variety, alcohol content, sweetness, richness, and more to characterize a wine's heaviness. (See Body-ody-ody-ody-ody...)
Though it's a little old-fashioned now, we use this term to compliment the more nose-based notes of a wine: aroma, smell, odor, etc. Usually, it relates to wines that have been aged to showcase "secondary" scents and qualities.
A little fresh air works wonders on people, and wine is no different. Temporary exposure to air (oxidization) lets wine "breathe," bringing out its best aromas. Short on time? Try swirling the wine in your glass for a similar effect.
Brettanomyces (or Brett) is an unwelcome yeast that can spoil a good red wine. Winemakers use sulfur dioxide to keep it from ruining the party. (Sorry to the Bretts of the world.)
Brix (Symbol °bx)
This measurement method analyzes grapes' sugar content to estimate alcohol level. For example, one grape of sugar equals half a gram of alcohol. Brut French for "dry," we use this term to indicate a mouthwateringly dry sparkling wine.
A barrel's best friend. This stopper is used to plug up the "bunghole," keeping stored wine inside until it's time to come out. The bung is also removed to allow filling, topping, and tasting.
Not just a word from the title of our favorite Star Wars tune, "cantina" shares an etymology with "canteen" and comes from the Italian for cellar or vault. It's used today to indicate a cellar-type space for wine storage (in Italy) or a type of bar (in Latin America and Spain).
This winemaking technique removes oxygen to add in fruity flavors and soften the tannins in light- and medium-bodied red wines. Common resulting flavors are bubble gum, banana, and raspberry.
This French term refers to a wine made from one variety of grape.
Named after French chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal, this process uses added sugar to bring up alcohol level post-fermentation. Though it's used all over the world, the specifics depend on the region and the wine.
This balancing acid is popular in whites and rosés but uncommon in reds. It can do everything from enhance flavor and freshness to reduce cloudiness to add acidity (though that one's less of a surprise).
This French term refers to wine grown on a hill (usually on the south or southwest side for sun-related reasons).
Most winemakers agree that "crush" is part of the process, but some think of it as the whole shebang while others think of it as the parts where they harvest and—you guessed it—crush the grapes into wine.
This may sound super sophisticated, but it really just means pouring your wine from one container to another — and doing it slooooowly. In order to keep bottom-of-the-bottle sediment where it is, we move our vino to an easy-pour, glass decanter (get it?).
This sparkling wine-specific term refers to a part of the process when winemakers add base wine, sugar, preservatives, and alcohol to a batch before the final corking.
Don't worry — this word doesn't refer to a bottle lacking liquid. Wine-tasters use "dry" to indicate lack of sugar or sweetness, which can be very satisfying.
High praise for a wine, this compliment has a couple different meanings. Either a sophisticated sip filled with forest-floor or mushroom flavor, or a unique drying sensation caused by a taste called "geosmin."
When you sound it out, this word sounds like "ice wine"—and that's exactly what it is. Winemakers freeze their harvest before picking, resulting in a super-concentrated grape juice.
French for "bring up" or "raise," this points to all the nitty-gritty, expert-level processes winemakers go through to make their wine the best it can be. These processes include fermenting, storing, bottling, and more.
Élevé En Fûts De Chêne
A très élégant way of saying "raised in oak barrels."
No, not the HBO show. An aging process in which winemakers don't remove the yeast and other sediment (lees) from sparkling wine for a long time (sometimes years!) to enhance its flavor. Known as "gout de champagne" by the French, the resulting taste is impossible to replicate.
During the fermentation process, yeasts gobble up grapes' natural sugars, creating carbon dioxide, alcohol content, and these organic acids, known as esters.
Another beginner-level winemaking term. This is that miraculous process in which grape juice transforms into alcohol—with a bunch of science-y stuff involving yeasts, sugars, and carbon dioxide, of course!
We all love a fine wine, but "fining" wine is a little different. In this process, winemakers filter out undesirable components before bringing their batches up from the cellar. Note that some—especially "natural wine" makers—skip this step.
Somewhere between a typical bottle and a cocktail, this type of wine pairs up with a distilled alcohol like brandy for a flavor combo all its own. (See: port, sherry, Marsala, vermouth.)
The family of wild, aromatic herbs that blanket the rolling hills of the Mediterranean coast, including thyme, juniper, rosemary, and lavender.
A total "must" in winemaking, this super-fresh fruit juice hangs on to its natural skins, seeds, and stems (known as "pomace"). From the Latin for "young wine," this is the very first step winemakers take on their journey to a finished bottle.
In Good Taste
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Malolactic Fermentation (Mlf)
Also known as malo or MLF, this process turns bitter malic acid into lactic acid (think: milk), making a wine's flavor notes soft, ripe, and creamy.
Methode Champenoise / Traditionelle
Translating to "the traditional method," this is the process behind sparkling wine in France, Cava in Spain, Espumante in Portugal, Franciacorta in Italy, and Champagne in Champagne.
There's more to a wine than its taste. This sensory term refers to the physical experience of drinking (i.e., how a wine feels in your mouth) as a part of its total flavor.
Not as strict as organic or biologique, this movement sticks to traditional winemaking processes to cut out pesticides, herbicides, and other additives.
Unlike its harmful sibling "grey rot," the sought-after, moisture-loving fungus known as Botrytis cinerea cozies up to ripe grapes and shrivels them, resulting in a unique, golden sweetness.
This one's easy to remember. A wine's nose indicates its aroma and other scents.
Oak imparts additional tastes, colors, and textures to wine, so "oak aging" refers to the process of fermenting batches in oak barrels or adding oak chips during aging for a spicy or vanilla flavor.
Unlike your average "dry" wine, which is totally free from sugary flavor, off-dry (aka semi-dry) bottles are just a little bit sweet.
If it's not made from oranges or the color of a Cheeto, what is orange wine? Also known as skin-contact white wine, skin-fermented white wine, and amber wine, this out-of-the-ordinary treat borrows its flavor and color from an unusual process in which it's aged with its skin on.
When a wine's labelled "organic," its makers have carefully followed their region's organic farming laws, often cutting out fertilizers, fungicides, and other chemicals.
Oxidation / Oxidized
Opening up a new bottle isn't just fun—it's also an important part of the chemical process, allowing wine to interact with air (oxidization), which changes ethanol into grassy, nutty acetaldehyde. Porous corks make this process happen gradually.
The compound behind red wine's, well, redness, phenols are naturally occurring in plants' and animals' defense mechanisms.
One of the many enemies of healthy, high-quality wine, this teeny-tiny aphids' favorite food is roots—specifically, roots of grape plants. They can hitch rides into vineyards on employees' shoes or even gate-crash from nearby farms.
This term doesn't just refer to location — it also indicates year, varietal, style, and even specific laws under which the wine was made.
Residual Sugar (Rs)
Any sugar still remaining after fermentation.
Unlike its sister sekt (German for sparkling wine), secco is only semi-sparkling. This cheerful wine is mixed with its own carbon dioxide for a delightful bubbliness.
Basically the best job ever. A sommelier—sa-muhl-yay—is a steward (essentially an expert) in all things wine. In the U.S., we use "master sommelier" to refer to someone who's progressed past the fourth level of their certification exam, per the Court of Master Sommeliers.
You've heard of barrel, bung, and bunghole, but staves are what make them all up: These skinny, curved strips of wood compose the shape of the barrel. (Also of note is the term "Thin Stave," which is a stave cut specifically to aid in oxidization.)
Also known as sulfur dioxide or SO2, these compounds help preserve wine pre- or post-fermentation. While a few are fine (winemakers don't even have to mention them until their wines have over 10 ppm), the U.S. limit is 350 ppm.
We all know sulfur smells like rotten eggs, and too many sulfur compounds in a wine can lend it odors of garlic, cabbage, or those hardboiled Easter eggs you took too long to find. Get the balance right, though, and your wine might take on tropical or mineral characters.
French for "on the lees," this white wine aging technique involves keeping wine in contact with its yeast particles and sediment (lees) to enhance flavor and mouthfeel. (See: Bâttonage.)
We're not sure who coined the term "flight" as it relates to wine. But we know from experience that pairing up a group of like bottles for exploration, education, and enjoyment is like spreading our wings and hitting the sky. (We're partial to by-the-glass flights ourselves.)
This term gauges the size of a vineyard against the amount of grapes or wine it puts out. Types of measurement include mass of grapes per vineyard surface and volume of wine per vineyard surface.