A Beginner’s Guide To Understanding Wine
Have you ever gone to dinner or just out for drinks with your friends and ordered a glass of wine (or a bottle, if you’re like me) and then listened to your friends rant and rave about the different qualities of the wine that they’re drinking? Your friends are discussing the tannins, the acidity levels, the fruit forward, the residual sugars, the leathery after taste, the bright fruit the comes through, the earthiness of the wine, and the list goes on. All the while you’re just sitting there with a big smile on your face, sipping wine and nodding in agreement…yet in your head you’re screaming, “I have no clue what they’re talking about! Just shut up and drink it already!” Yeah, I’ve been there too. The only thing you probably know about wine is “You like what you like.” But WHY do you like that specific type of wine so much? What qualities does it have that make you want to order another glass (or bottle)? Don’t judge me about my bottles…yet! Ha!
From your experience of just drinking wine, you know that each variety is very different from bottle to bottle. Like a thumbprint, no two wines are alike. The most difficult thing when discussing wine is actually trying to express why you really like that specific bottle or glass of wine. There are many things to understand in what actually brings out certain characteristics of the grape varietal (a specific type of grape) that is used in the wine-making process. Everything from the soil the grapes were grown in, the elevation levels, the method of casking (barrel or stainless steel), the weather, the time of year of harvesting, and so many other small nuances contribute to the different characteristics and qualities of wine.
What I’m going to do is give you a super basic list of wine terminology that’s utilized in almost all conversations about wine. This will help you understand your own likes and dislikes as well as give you the ability to join your friends in their discussions about wine!
Basic Wine Vocabulary
- Acid: An extremely important constituent of the wine! It helps to do a few things: it livens it up a bit, forms and molds the flavor of the wine, helps draw out the aftertaste, and acts as a preservative. There are four main acids that are found in wine: lactic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, and malic acid. These are important in the fermentation process of the wine.
- Aeration: A simple process of introducing oxygen into the wine, also known as breathing. This can be done through swirling wine in a glass, opening a bottle of wine to let it “breathe.” or by using a wine decanter.
- Aftertaste: A simple term that is exactly what it states: the taste that remains on the palate after drinking a few sips of wine. There are four main regions of the tongue that the wine crosses:
Sweet region, which is towards the tip of the tongue.
Salt region, which is just shortly past the tip of the tongue, and on both sides.
Sour region, which runs across the back sides of our tongue on both sides, and is shortly after the salt region
Bitter region, the back most part of the tongue that runs just slightly towards the middle of the tongue.
- Alcoholic Fermentation: A process by which yeast is added to grapes to increase the metabolic rate at which the sugars from the grape are converted into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. During this process, the yeast is destroyed and all you have left is the wine.
- Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée: (A.O.C.) The French system of appellations and basically the world’s prototype to making wine. It has a strict set of rules and guidelines for the areas in which wine grapes are grown and so much more! If you look at any bottle of French wine, you will see the A.O.C. Stamp of approval on the front of the wine label.
- Balance: Used in describing wine when everything is working congruently together. No one part of the wine over power the other. Perfect harmony.
- Barrel Aged: Defines a wine that spends a certain amount of time in a barrel before it is bottled. This process can change the flavors of wine in an unlimited number of ways. There are different types of oak barreling that are used, i.e., new oak barrels, aged barrels, American oak barrels, etc.
- Bin Number: A term to denote special/different wines than just an ordinary line of wine produced from a wine maker.
- Body: Refers to such a strong area of the wine. The body of the wine has everything to deal with fullness of the wine across the palate and the impression of weight that it has. This is a combination of residual sugars, the lingering effect on the palate, the different areas of the tongue that are affected, and so on! It’s quite a complicated area to discuss but much EASIER to experience. Wines fall into three body types: light bodied, medium bodied and full bodied. As an example, when drinking a chilled glass of Pinot Grigio, I want you to sip it. Look at the color after sipping. See how light colored it is? Can you taste the ample amount of sugars across the palate? It’s not this huge explosion but a nice polite “hello and a handshake” to your tongue. The opposite would be drinking a glass of cabernet sauvignon. The tannins alone create a small explosion across the palate. You can’t miss it. However, even cabernets are broken down to medium and full bodied wines.
- Buttery: A term mostly used in describing white wines such as chardonnays. It refers to the smell of melted butter or a hint of toasted oak in the glass. Most people rather enjoy this form of white wine. As soon as you smell and taste it across your palate, you will confirm the term.
- Chewy: Mostly used to describe wines that are full bodied and full of tannins. It feels like you could literally chew the wine instead of drinking it.
- Clean: Describes a wine that doesn’t have any flavors that are off-setting or that appears fresh across the palate.
- Complexity: A term used in many great wines. It describes a mixture of intense flavor, balance, layers, depth and fullness of the wine. These are just a few words in describing the complexity of a wine that has many attributes.
- Corked: Describes wine that has a moldy flavor or nose to it. The cork was tainted, which allowed for improper bottling and aeration.
- Crisp: A wine that is highly acidic with hints of bright fruit and a clean finish.
- Decanting: A process by which wine is poured into a decanter to allow it to breathe before drinking. It also removes any of the lees or sediments that might remain.
- Dry: Describes a wine that seems to have no taste of sugar. Now this is all based upon the individual and his or her own tongue perception in the amount of sugar in wine. There are many factors that can affect the tongue, so this is a hint of a grey area.
- Early Harvest: Just exactly that! Grapes are harvested a bit prematurely and tend to have a lower range of alcohol content or sweetness to them.
- Earthy: A term to describe wine that has residual flavors or aromas of soil. This is mostly associated with Pinot Noirs and Cabernets and is actually used in describing the complexities of wine; earthiness can be an extremely positive characteristic.
- Estate Bottled: A term where wine producers used to describe the process by which harvested grapes are bottled on the same estate.
- Floral: An aroma that gives a scent of flowers on the nose when smelling the wine. It is usually associated with white wine.
- French Oak: A traditional wood used in the making of barrels for the wine making process.
- Fruity: Having the literal essence of fresh fruit in the nose of the wine or on the palate.
- Grassy: A true significant marker used in the description of sauvignon blanc wines.
- Harvest: The process of gathering grapes.
- Intensity: Relative to the appearance of aroma of the wine. A wine’s intensity is usually in cahoots with the wine’s color, aroma and flavor.
- Lactic Acid: Usually found in milk, lactic acid is actually produced during the wine-making process from the malolatic fermentation. It is a smooth-tasting acid.
- Lees: The sediments of the wine, such as stems, grape seeds, etcs.
- Legs: Refers to the droplets of wine that slide down the glass after one has swirled the wine in a glass. It’s actually a great indicator of alcohol content.
- Meritage: For best term usage, understand it as a “marriage” of wines together. It is a blended wine.
- Nose: The aroma of the wine. The different scents that you pick out from smelling the wine.
- Oaky: This is a term that describes the smell or taste of a wine that was aged in oak barrels or casks.
- Oxidized: Simple term used to define a bottle of wine that was exposed to air too long. The coloration and flair of the wine have been lost.
- Palate: Refers to the taste of a wine as well as how it affects the different sections of the tongue and mouth (including the roof of your mouth!).
- Reserve: Usually refers to the best lot of wine produced by a wine maker although sometimes wine makers use this word a little to zealously.
- Round: Used to define a glass of wine that has a very smooth texture to it.
- Sediment: After red wine has been aging, the particulates of the wine tend to “settle.” (See lees above.)
- Soft: Describes a wine with very low acidity to it or with very few tannins.
- Sweet: Refers to the appearance of sugar across the palate and tongue.
- Tannins: A substance that comes from the grape stems, seeds and skin – and creates this puckering inside your mouth! It is also a natural preservative. It’s a huge player in the aging and development of wine.
- Varietal: A term used to define the type of grape. This is mostly used in the U.S., South America, and Australia.
- Vintage: Refers to the year that the grapes were grown and harvested.
Whew! I don’t know about you, but I am tired! I know that this is a lot to take in, so I would recommend that you take a few words a day and practice using them. Then build upon your word knowledge slowly. This is NOT a complete list but simply a list to help get you started and on your way to discovering and appreciating wine! I hope you enjoy and learned a little bit today!