Glossary of Wine Terms

dictionaryFor our reference, here is a “Basic Dictionary of the Wine language”. This glossary was prepared by the people at


Wines contain several types of acid, but acetic is the bad one: it suggests vinegar and is sometimes referred to as volatile acidity. If present at more than minimal levels, it makes a wine unpleasant.

Acid is present in all grapes, and therefore all wines. It is extremely important (particularly in white wines) in determining structure, shape and lifespan. Good acid levels can make a wine crisp and refreshing, supporting the aftertaste. Acidity also helps preserve a wine. Wines low in acidity are often described as tasting flabby.

Letting a wine “breathe” before drinking it in order to soften the tannins, smooth out the wine, and allow the bouquet and flavors to open up. Young red wines benefit most from aeration, which is accomplished by decanting the bottle into another container; or else, by swirling the wine in a glass.

Also called the “finish,” this is the taste that remains in the mouth after the wine is swallowed. A really great wine will have a long, complex aftertaste.

A term used to describe a wine with harsh flavors, often the result of too much tannin or acid.

Along with French oak, American oak is the most widely used wood in the world to build barrels for wine aging. American oak barrels are most often used to age red wines (especially Zinfandels, Cabernets and Syrahs), Spanish Sherries, Australian red wines, Bourbon and Scotch. Less frequently utilized in the production of white wines, American oak has a different spice flavor than French oak. In fact, the flavors vary from different forests and states. Kentucky oak imparts mellower flavors, for example, than Oregon oak. Examples of two famous California wines aged in 100% American oak are the classic vintages of Beaulieu Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (from the 1940’s to the 1970’s) and ZD Chardonnay.

A particular geographical location, such as Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, that has been officially designated a grape-growing area in the United States by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. See also: viticultural area.

A system developed by the French to regulate the authenticity of their finest wines. Appellation applies specifically to the region where the grapes were grown. The French also regulate what grapes can be grown where; what winemaking methods can be used; how large the yields can be; etc. Other countries have adopted their own versions of controlled appellations with varying success.

The French system of appellations.

The scent of a wine–frequently used interchangeably with the word “bouquet.” Some tasters apply the term aroma only to the fruit-like fragrances of a young wine, and subsequently refer to the more complex smells of bottle-aged wines as bouquet.

The mouth puckering sensation caused by wines (usually reds) that are high in tannin. Sometimes astringency can be appealing in a wine and favorably complement food. Astringency tends to decline with bottle age.

Describes high-acid wines; sometimes used in reference to young wines.

Often used to describe wines with good acidity and structure.

A characteristic-usually not complementary-of wines produced from very ripe and over-ripe grapes.

Describes a wine with harmonious elements, in reference to the balance of acids, tannins and fruit.

A huge bottle that holds 16 standard bottles.

Wine (usually whites) fermented in, typically, 55-gallon oak barrels rather than neutral containers such as stainless steel. Barrel fermentation requires careful cellar attention, but can contribute to increasing the complexity and flavor of a wine by adding suggestions of spice and vanilla from the interaction of the wine and the wood. Most often used in the fermentation of Chardonnay.

The Australian equivalent of Cask Number, an unregulated phrase that can be applied to any wine (in any price range). Some wineries use a bin number to indicate their reserve, or more expensive bottlings. Other wineries use it to indicate a house style of wine, fairly consistent from year to year.

Often caused by too much tannin, this is most often not a desirable trait in wine. However, many Italian red wines feature an appealing amount of bitterness that balances wonderfully with pasta and tomato sauces.

Wine made of white grapes, such as sparkling wines made from Chardonnay.

White wine made from red grapes, such as sparkling wines made from Pinot Noir. Blanc de Noirs often have a pale pink color.

The feeling of a wine’s weight in the mouth, such as full-bodied, medium-bodied or light-bodied.

A fungus or mold that causes grapes to shrivel and become very concentrated. Also called the “Noble Rot,” it is a desirable condition and causes ripe grapes to shrivel, resulting in the remaining juice becoming very concentrated. Such nobly rotted grapes yield the honeyed richness of many classic dessert wines like French Sauternes, German Trockenbeerenauslese, and Hungarian Tokaji. Conditions are right for the formation of Botrytis only in certain vintages and the wines cannot be produced in every year.

A temporary condition (often caused by shaking a bottle) that interferes with a wine’s fruit flavors. It can be alleviated with a few days’ rest.

Indicates the winery bottled the wine but did not necessarily grow, pick or ferment the grapes.

Often used interchangeably with the word aroma. Some tasters use the term to specifically refer to the scents of a bottle-aged wine, which includes the complexities beyond the fruit aromas of a young wine.

A wine of absolute clarity. This is not important to most experienced tasters, since highly filtered wines will always be brilliant-yet the process of filtration can strip much of the flavor and character from a fine wine. Most of the finest wines available deposit sediment with aging.

A system used to measure the sugar content of grapes and wine. On labels, wineries sometimes list the Brix at the time of harvest to express the degree of ripeness of the grapes (normally in the range of 20° to 25°). After fermentation, Brix can indicate how sweet a wine is as a measurement of residual sugar (2 degrees Brix would be slightly sweet; 10 degrees Brix residual sugar would be very sweet).

Used by sparkling wine producers to indicate a dry wine; a producer’s Brut is always drier than an Extra Dry bottling.
See Charmat.

Describes a rich wine with a texture like that of melted butter, often referring to Chardonnay.

The metal or plastic material that covers the cork and top of a wine bottle. Now used for decorative purposes more than anything, capsules originally functioned as a means of protecting corks in old cellars from being attacked by insects, etc.

An unregulated term that suggests a wine is special. Some wineries use a cask number to indicate their finest-or reserve-bottlings, such as Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and the classic Inglenook Napa wines. But cask numbers can be applied to any wine-as can the word reserve.

To add sugar during the fermentation process when the grapes have not ripened adequately, for the purpose of raising the alcohol level of the wine. It is not done to make the wine sweet, as the sugar is fermented into alcohol. Chaptalization is common in northern Europe, where grapes have to struggle to fully ripen. It is legal in some regions (Burgundy) and not allowed in others (California).

Also known as bulk process, this is an inexpensive way to create bubbles in sparkling wine. The wine undergoes fermentation in stainless steel tanks rather than individual bottles, and is bottled under pressure rather like pop. The result is coarser, larger bubbles and simpler flavors-but bulk process sparkling wines can be sold much more cheaply than methode champanoise wines. Popular American examples include brands such as Cooks and Andre.

Describes full-bodied, sometimes tannic wines-rich enough to chew on.

A well-made wine with no off smells or flavors.

The offspring of grape vines that contains the genetic material of the parent. There are very many clones of grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-some may ripen earlier than others, produce a larger yield, or have different charactistics the grower considers important. Research is continuing in this field and clonal selections are being studied in vineyards all over the world.

When a wine is at once rich and deep, yet balanced and showing finesse. No greater compliment can be paid a wine. A mature Chateau Latour, d’Yquem or La Tache Burgundy are prime examples of complex wines.

Describes a wine that smells and tastes musty or moldy; a problem caused by a defective cork.

The season, usually September or October in the Northern Hemisphere, when grapes are harvested and crushed.

The name applied to sediment that forms in the bottom and sides of a wine bottle, commonly found in Vintage Ports.

Like the words cask and reserve, cuvee is an unregulated term that some wineries use to indicate a special (or reserve) batch of wine.

To slowly pour wine from the bottle into another container, thereby ridding the wine of its sediment.

Literally “partly dry” though when referring to sparkling wines it indicates slight to medium sweetness. In sparkling wines, Demi-Sec is always sweeter than Extra Dry and Brut.

Describes a wine of complexity and intense flavors; a wine that makes more than a first impression and is worth paying attention to.

No discernible sugar taste.

When a wine’s fruit flavor has been diminished due to age; a wine becomes less attractive and past its prime when the flavors are overtaken by the taste of tannin, acid or alcohol.

Can either describe a clean, complex taste and aroma that reminds one of fresh garden soil; or a funky, livestock and farm-like connotation that is not a compliment. As a positive example, earthy is often used to describe the wonderful flavor of red Graves wines such as Chateau Haut Brion.

Describes beautiful, well-balanced wines-graceful, not necessarily full-bodied.

The science of winemaking; also spelled oenology.

Someone who enjoys and appreciates fine wine; also spelled oenophile.

Indicates a winery owns the vineyard from whence the grapes come or has a long-term lease arrangement for the grapes.

The equivalent of semi-dry, Extra Dry is a term used to describe sparkling wines that are not as dry as Brut.

Pronounced concentration of fruit in a wine. A good sign unless it is manifested in too-high levels of tannin.The components and concentration of a wine that contribute to its flavor. Over-extracted wines, however, are often harsh due to fermenting too long on the grape skins.

Describes the feel of wines that are full-bodied and mouth filling. Most late-harvest dessert wines, for example, are luscious and fat.

When sugar is turned to alcohol by yeast, causing grape juice to become wine.

It used to be a common practice to intersperse complementary grapevines in a vineyard; when all the grapes are harvested together, the resulting wine is often referred to as a field blend. Examples include many of the old Sonoma Zinfandel vineyards (such as Ridge Lytton Springs) where Petite Sirah was commonly planted with Zinfandel.

A process of “cleaning up” a wine used after fermentation (and before bottling); similar to running coffee through a filter, but arguably not always necessary to produce fine wine. The purpose of filtering is to remove sediment, grape skins, dead yeast, etc., from the wine. Filtering can range from very fine to coarse; however, it is increasingly being minimized (or avoided whenever possible) because the finer the filtering, the more flavors and character are stripped from the wine. Many wineries are using the more labor-intensive, old-fashioned practices of fining or racking to clarify wines these days. Historically, many filters before the 1980’s were made from asbestos.

A traditional winemaker technique for clarifying wines by adding egg whites or bentonite (clay) to casks of wine; the eggs collect particles and sediment and slowly sink to the bottom of the cask (where the material is then removed). Considered a less intrusive process for clarifying wines than filtering.

The lasting impression, or aftertaste, of a wine on the palate. A long, complex finish is desirable.

Soft feel and lack of acidity on the palate; the opposite of firmly structured wines.

Often used to describe wines that are low in acidity and lack zip.

Soft, smooth texture with low tannins.

A stone or mineral-like character often used to describe Sauvignon Blanc and French Chablis.

Tasting and/or smelling of flowers.

Wines with a higher than normal alcohol content due to the addition of brandy or spirits. Examples include Port, Sherry and Madeira.

The classic wood for wine barrels, it imparts flavors of vanilla, cedar and/or other spices. The oak from different French forests lends slightly different characteristics to the wine, and is therefore named for the forest region from which it was harvested. Famous French names include Limousin, Nevers, Allier and Troncais. French oak is vital not only in the production of great French wines, but is also used around the world to age everything from California Chardonnay to Oregon Pinot Noir to Australian Cabernets.

An informal wine term often applied to New World (especially California) wines produced from very ripe grapes that emphasize lush fruit flavors combined with soft, low acid structures. Examples of fruit bombs include the soft, tropical-fruit-like Chardonnays of Kendall-Jackson.

Characteristics reminding the taster of grass or fresh hay; frequently used to describe the flavor and aroma of Sauvignon Blanc.

High in acidity or tannins; a less complementary way of describing a firmly structured wine.

High in alcohol.

Tasting or smelling of herbs; frequently a component of Cabernets and Sauvignon Blancs.

Lacking in middle flavors and structure; the sense that something is missing between the first taste and the finish. Hollow wines are often the result of yields that are too large, diluting the quality of the grapes.

Describes unbalanced, high alcohol wines that have a burning flavor sensation.

Nonvintage wines (which are blends of multiple vintages) allow vintners to create a “house style” by blending for consistency and distinctive, recognizable aromas and flavors year after year. For example, Champagne producers create a house style with their nonvintage Brut bottlings; Port producers create a house style with their nonvintage ruby and aged tawny ports.

A large bottle that holds the equivalent of eight regular bottles.

A large bottle that holds the equivalent of six regular bottles; however, in Champagne a Jeroboam holds four bottles of wine.

Wines made from grapes picked later than normal (and therefore with higher sugar content), usually dessert wines. Most late harvest wines contain some residual sugar.

LBV’s are an increasingly popular category of Port. Similar to–but less-expensive than–Vintage Ports (which must by law be bottled within 2 1�?�2 years of the vintage), LBV’s spend an extra 3 or 4 years mellowing in barrel before bottling. Therefore, they are more mature and easy-to-drink than Vintage Ports from the same year. Some LBV’s are filtered before bottling; those labeled “Tradition” are unfiltered and will deposit sediment with further aging.

Indicates a wine is lacking in mouth-filling flavors.

Sediment and yeast found in a barrel or tank during and after fermentation. Increasingly, New World winemakers are using the old technique of aging the wine on the lees to increase complexities in the aromas and flavors. “Sur Lie” is the French term for a wine left on the lees.

The drops of wine that slide down the sides of the glass when it is swirled.

The amount of time a wine’s taste and aroma are evident after it has been swallowed.

A type of French oak cask, from the forests of Limoges, France. See French oak.

Stirring the grape skins (and sometimes stems) with the wine during the fermentation process in order to extract color, tannin and aroma.

A near meaningless term with few legal requirements; in California, for example, a winery can use this phrase even though the winery crushed, fermented and bottled only ten percent of the wine in the bottle.

A wine showing evidence of oxidation, including a brownish color and bad Madeira-like flavor.

A bottle that holds 1.5 liters, the equivalent of two standard size wine bottles.

This refers to a secondary fermentation which converts the malic acid in a wine to softer lactic acid, and thereby reduces the total acidity of the wine. This softens and adds complexity to most red wines, and contributes to the buttery richness of white wines such as Chardonnay. Not all wines go through malolactic fermentation.

Ready to drink.

An unpleasantly rotten, sulfur smell found in some defective wines.

A term coined by California wineries, for Bordeaux-style red and white blended wines that often don’t meet minimal labeling requirements for varietals. If a winery produces a Meritage wine, it is frequently their most expensive blended dry wine. Examples of wines that fall into this category include Opus One, Phelp’s Insignia and Dominus.

The secondary, inside-the-bottle fermentation that is used to create authentic Champagne and other high quality sparkling wines. It’s what creates the bubbles in the finest sparkling wines, but it is an expensive, labor-intensive process. Cheaper bubblies are made by the Charmat process. See Charmat.

An extra-large bottle holding 6 liters; the equivalent of eight standard bottles.

What grape juice is called before it becomes wine.

A giant wine bottle holding the equivalent of 20 standard bottles.

A wine merchant who buys grapes or already fermented wines, then ages, blends, bottles and ships them under his own label. Many famous French wine companies (particularly in Burgundy and the Rhone) make wines from vineyards they don’t own and thus are negotiants. Examples include Guigal, Jaboulet, Jadot, Duboeuf, Drouhin and Laboure-Roi. Many American companies are technically negociants as well, making wines from grapes purchased from vineyards they don’t own. Negociant wines can be as good or better than estate bottled wines (and vice versa).

See Botrytis cinerea.

Wine blended from multiple harvests; nonvintage wines are particularly common in Champagne and sparkling wines, Sherries and Ports. Blending allows the winemaker to create an individual “house” style that can be fairly consistent from bottle to bottle, year after year. Examples include Krug Champagne and Grahams 20-year-old Tawny Port.

A tradition started in Beaujolais, these are usually quickly fermented fruity red wines that are the first release of the new harvest. The best from France, Italy and California are fresh, fruity and dry-a celebration of the harvest, they are greatly enjoyable during the fall and winter holidays. Bottled rapidly after fermentation is completed and rushed to the market, Nouveau wines display all their charms from the get-go and should be consumed within months of release.

Describes the aroma or taste character of a wine that has interacted with the oak of a wood barrel. Most of the world’s greatest red wines (and many of the world’s greatest whites) are aged in wood before bottling and show some vanilla-spice-toast character contributed by oak.

A slightly sweet wine.

A wine that has lost its freshness from exposure to the air, similar to an apple turning brown and losing its flavor once the skin is peeled away. Oxidation is what ruins the flavors of leftover wines. Using products such as Private Preserve Wine Preserver (which blankets the wine with inert gas and prevents contact with oxygen) can prevent oxidation.

The time when a wine displays its smoothest, fullest flavors; this can vary from a few months for Nouveau or fragile white wines, to spans of decades for long-lived Ports, Bordeaux and dessert wines.

A chemical measurement of the intensity of the acidity in a wine; the lower the pH, the more intense the acid. Low pH wines are better candidates for aging as they are less sensitive to oxidation and have greater resistance to bacteria. But pH is really a much more important factor to winemakers than to most consumers.

The name of a root louse which attacks and devastates grapevines. It spread from America to Europe in the 1860’s and destroyed the vineyards of France, then spread elsewhere. Most of the world’s vineyards are now planted on American rootstock (which is more resistant to Phylloxera). However, in the last 20 years it has become rampant in the Napa Valley and caused major replanting.

A label once used to indicate a producer’s finest bottlings, Private Reserve has no legal definition and is now applied to everything from cheap wines to $100 bottles.

The name of the indentation found in the bottom of most wine bottles.

A term for the traditional winemaker practice of moving wine from one container to another; it’s essentially decanting on a grand scale by moving a wine from barrel to barrel. The purpose of racking is to rid the wine of sediment by leaving it behind in the first barrel. It requires more labor, but racking is less disturbing to the wine than filtration.

A large bottle equivalent to six regular bottles.

See Vintage Character Port.

A measurement, usually expressed in degrees of Brix, of the amount of grape sugar remaining in a wine after fermentation is completed. Dry wines have little or no residual sugar; dessert wines have much residual sugar.

An expression indicating opulent, full flavors-not necessarily sweet.

Full-bodied, intense.

Describes a smooth wine.

A large bottle which holds the equivalent of 12 regular bottles.

Wines which are low in acid have a soft texture in the mouth.

A complementary description applicable to many fine wines: Syrah usually displays a pepper spice character; Pinot Noir frequently has suggestions of cinnamon; and oak barrels contribute a vanilla-spice element.

A pleasant, light sparkling sensation (sometimes found in young wines) caused by a slight secondary fermentation, or the addition of carbon dioxide.

Green, astringent character of wines fermented too long with the grape stems.A green, sometimes astringent character.

A term that applies to any wine that is not sparkling.

A wine’s texture, mouthfeel and balance.

Sulfites are a derivative of sulfur and a natural by-product of fermentation. Most wines contain very low levels of sulfites, which have been used for hundreds of years by winemakers to clean and sterilize equipment and barrels; to kill off bacteria; and to prevent browning and possible spoilage. Sulfur is also sometimes sprayed in a vineyard to prevent disease and pests. Most wines contain very low levels of sulfites even when the winemaker doesn’t utilize sulfur anywhere! Under U.S. law, any wine with sulfites higher than 10 ppm must state “contains sulfites” on the label.

Describes wines of a harmonious, velvety texture-often applicable, for example, to the Merlot wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion.

Indicates a wine was aged “on the lees” (sediment consisting mainly of dead yeast cells and small grape particles). This process is a normal procedure for fermenting red wines; Burgundian winemakers discovered that it often added complexity to their Chardonnays, and now this process enriches many white wines from around the world.

In the United States, any wine that is under 14% alcohol can be labeled simply as “table wine” and does not have to state the actual alcohol content.

Tannins are a natural substance found in many plants (including grapes and tea leaves) that produce an astringent, mouth puckering sensation. Tannins are common in most fine young red wines and help form natural preservatives that allow wines to develop and age; with time, they smooth out and disappear. Brew yourself a strong cup of black tea to experience and immediately identify tannins.

Beautiful, natural and totally harmless crystals that often form in the cask, in the sediment and on the corks of naturally made wines. These deposits come from the tartaric acids present in wines; though they look like cut glass, they are totally safe. In fact, they are a positive indication to experienced tasters that a wine has not been overly processed.

French for “soil” and used in the phrase gout de terroir (“taste of the soil”) to refer to the EARTHY flavor of some wines. When French wine producers use the term terroir, it not only includes reference to the type of soil (chalky, claylike, gravelly, sandy), but also to other geographic factors that might influence the quality of the finished wine like altitude, position relative to the sun, angle of incline, and water drainage. In the United States, wine producers use the term MICROCLIMATE to encompass the same considerations.

Lacking body; often used to describe a diluted tasting wine with little potential for improvement.

Tasting of metal.

A flavor imparted by oak barrels and sometimes descriptive of sparkling wines as well.

The aromas and taste sensations typical of a particular grape variety.

A word applied to wines that smell or taste like plants or green vegetables; too much vegetal character can detract from the enjoyment of a wine.

A soft, silky, lush tactile impression found in the best Burgundies and Pinot Noirs.

The science of growing wine grapes and making wine.

Sometimes labeled Reserve Port, these wines are richer bottlings than standard Ruby Ports due to the addition of vintage-quality wines. The flavors are meant to suggest the attributes of Vintage Port for a fraction of the price.

Refers to the year the grapes were harvested and to the wine made from those grapes. To place a vintage on the label, most wine producing regions now require that at least 95% of the wine contain grapes harvested from only that year. Historically, some wine regions were lax in requiring that vintage dates be accurate. Wines that are blended from more than one harvest are called nonvintage wines.

Wine producer or winery proprietor.

A grape-growing area in the United States, as defined by law. Loosely based on the French concept of Appellation Controlee, the U.S. has set borders on certain regions that have identifiable geographical features, climate and history. Unlike the French system, the U.S. does not limit yields, grape types or winemaking methods within these regions. It simply regulates that the wines must be 85% from a viticultural area to carry its name. Napa Valley is an example of a viticultural area.

The science of grape growing; when including the production of wine, the proper term is viniculture.

The species of grapevines most responsible for producing the world’s best wines, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernets, etc.

Important microorganisms that cause fermentation by converting sugar to alcohol. Without yeast, the world would lack wine, beer and most bread.

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