Wine has a language all its own. And, just like any second language you set out to learn, it takes practice to get the vocabulary and usage just right. Below are 26 of my favorite wine words (with suggestions for additional research) that can help you select a better bottle of wine to bring to that holiday party and make you sound like the savviest oenophile (see “O”) in the room.
The aromas in the glass are at least half the experience of tasting wine, and that’s why you buy all that fancy glassware. The different glass shapes and sizes are designed to bring out the aromas – grassy, floral, citrus, toast, berry, spices, dried fruit, tobacco, leather, smoke and so on – that make wine what it is. (See also: appellation, Alsace)
Considered a wine flaw by many, a “bretty” wine is one with an aroma of barnyard, horse stable, rodent cage or otherwise unpleasant conditions. “Brett,” shortened from Brettanomyces, is a yeast that develops during the aging process and occurs almost exclusively in red wines. Other common wine flaws to know include cork taint (or “corked,” which smells like wet newspaper or wet dog) and oxidization (smells like vinegar and can taste bitter). (See also: balance, bouquet, Burgundy)
To be truly “Champagne,” a sparkling wine must be made in the Champagne region of France using the Champagne method. International trade regulations and federal laws govern the use of the Champagne designation, though several American wineries are permitted to use the word as long as it is accompanied by the place of origin (i.e. California Champagne). Other countries have their own terms for sparkling wine including cava in Spain, spumante in Italy and sekt in Germany. (See also: Chile, Cornell University)
In the wine world, Portugal is hot, and there’s no hotter region than Douro. It’s the ancestral home of Port, the country’s famous fortified wine. Right now, however, sommeliers are just as interested in its table wines, particularly red blends made from native grapes. PA’s Chairman’s Selection program has a number of these lush bottlings available at great prices. (See also: decant)
A specific designation on New World wine bottles tells the consumer all the juice in the bottle came from grapes grown on the premises of the winery. Several Lancaster County wines, including those from Nissley Vineyards, Waltz Vineyards and the Vineyard at Grandview, are estate-bottled.
By adding a distilled spirit to wine, you get fortified wine. Port, sherry, marsala, Madeira and vermouth are styles of fortified wines, which are higher in alcohol content than table wines and are oftentimes very sweet. (See also: flabby, finish)
The best of the best. In France’s Burgundy region, home to some of the world’s best chardonnay and pinot noir, the top vineyards are classified grand cru. These vines typically (though not always) produce the best wines, and many are wildly expensive. If your dinner host opens a bottle, make sure you are first in line. (See also: Greece, grenache)
A specific type of wine-tasting experience, horizontal tasting compares wines from the same year but from multiple producers; for example, tasting three different 2010 Bordeaux reds. The purpose is to compare wine-making styles and terrior, or “place”. A vertical tasting compares the same wine from the same producer in different years; for example, a 2010, 2011 and 2012 Evening Land pinot noir. The purpose is to compare vintages. (See also: Hermitage)
Rumor has it that the Snake River Valley in Idaho is the up-and-coming American wine region. (See also: ice wine)
The Judgement of Paris
As responsible as anything for putting American wine on the map. A 1976 blind taste test in Paris pitted world class French wines against lesser-known wines from California (chardonnays and Bordeaux vs. Napa cabernet sauvignon). French judges selected the California wines as overall winners in each category in a surprising international upset. (See also: jammy, jug wine)
Wine made in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Manischewitz is the most well-known brand of kosher wine and is made from the super-sweet native Concord grape.
Swirl the wine in the glass and watch it slide down the sides. Those streaks of wine are its “legs”. The slower the wine slides down the glass, the more viscous the wine, and, typically, the higher the alcohol content. (See also: lifted, lees, layers)
A distinction earned by wine professionals from the Court of Master Sommeliers through a rigorous exam process. Currently, there are 230 Master Sommeliers worldwide and 147 in the Americas chapter. The Esquire Network reality show Uncorked chronicled six aspiring sommeliers through their exam preparation. Among other things, candidates must recognize the grape, country or origin, and approximate age just by sight and taste. (See also: minerality, meritage, mouthfeel)
“New World” wines are generally understood as those from the Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Whereas most Old World wines are labeled by the region in which they are grown and are subject to restrictions and traditions, New World wines are often labeled by the varietal (unless they are blends) and utilize more science and technology in the wine-making process. (See also: Napa, non-vintage)
Wine expert. Stick with me through Z and you’ll be there. Or close enough to celebrate with some Champagne. (See also: oak, Old World)
Have you ever wondered if that indent at the bottom of your wine bottle has a name? It does! It’s called a punt. It collects sediment, makes it easier to pour and historically was used to help a hand-blown glass bottle stand up. (See also: palate, premier cru)
A type of German wine made from overripe grapes with specific guidelines of where the grapes are grown. This one’s not 100% necessary to know, but “Q” was hard.
A somewhat meaningless word you’ll see on wine labels. “Reserve” on a New World wine could mean grapes from a specific plot of land, the best grapes selected from an entire harvest, a wine that’s been aged in a barrel for a longer period of time, or something else entirely. Unless you know what it means, don’t shell out the extra cash. (See also: residual sugar, Rioja)
Instead of a cork! A screw cap does not – I repeat, does not – signal a cheap or poor-quality wine. In fact, Australian wineries primarily use screw caps, which are more affordable and protect against cork taint. (See also: Sideways, sediment)
From the skins, seeds and stems of grapes, tannin is what gives red wine that dry, astringent mouthfeel. A highly “tannic” wine makes your mouth feel drier than a wine low in tannins. Tannins are also thought to be responsible for the dreaded red wine headache. (See also: terrior, Tuscany)
Matters the most for a chardonnay. Don’t like those toasty, buttery flavors? Those are usually a result of oak barrel-aging and not the grape itself. Try unoaked chardonnay for a lighter, fruitier, more mineral taste.
A wine made from a single grape. Federal regulations allow winemakers to label a wine as a varietal wine as long as 75% of the juice is that grape. Most likely varietals include: sauvignon blanc, riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. (See also: vertical tasting, vintage)
No matter how fancy, at the end of the day, wine is an agricultural product. And the one thing winemakers and vineyard managers wish they could control but can’t is the weather. Bad weather – especially at bud break in the spring or leading up to harvest time in the fall – has been responsible for major vintage failures, as too much or too little rain, too high or too low temperatures, or even a late spring freeze or wildfire can affect the grapes as they grow. (See also: Willamette Valley, Washington State)
Small insects that attack grapes and nearly wiped out Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s. Interestingly, it was America to the rescue: Grafting European vines onto native North American rootstock helped make the vines more resistant.
Wine that is not matured. Some wines are better young, but many will reach their full potential laying down in a cool cellar for several years. Which leads me to a good reminder: Always store your wines with real corks on their sides to prevent the cork from drying out. (See also: yeast)
The science of fermentation. Fermentation in the wine process is created by yeast which converts sugars to alcohol. Using more naturally-occurring yeast is a current trend in winemaking. (See also: zinfandel)