Understanding a few wine terms is one of the keys that unlock the wine world for you. In compiling this guide to wine terms, I’ve chosen wine terms that reflect my interest in French wine and those most valuable to wine beginners. With this glossary of wine, you will be on your way to becoming a wine expert.
1 Acidity: One Of The Wine Terms You’ll Use Constantly
Acidity is one of the critical factors that influence the wine tasting experience. In a scientific sense, you can measure acidity with the pH scale. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a chemistry lab in my home, so I don’t focus on pH levels.
Instead, acidity is best thought of as one of the bedrock of wine. If you want a wine to age over time, starting with an acidic wine level can be helpful. From a tasting perspective, acid in wine will taste crisp and refreshing, which means higher acidity wines can be an excellent choice for warm weather. In contrast, a bottle of wine with low acidity will generally taste smoother.
2 AOC: One of the most important French wine terms
This French term is an abbreviation for a French phrase – Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (controlled designation of origin). In essence, AOC represents the highest level of French wine. If you see the phrase “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” on a bottle, you are guaranteed that the wine comes from a precisely defined place in France. As a general rule, an AOC wine is considered to be among the best French wines.
Several other countries have an equivalent to AOC. The Italian term equivalent to AOC is known as the DOCG classification. In the United States, the rough equivalent of the AOC is American Viticultural Area (AVA). The German term for top-quality wine is Prädikatswein (wine with unique attributes).
See also: my AOC wine quest!
Aromas in wine are a vital part of the wine tasting appearance. You bring the wine glass to your face and sniff. This simple act tells you a few things right away. Some wines have a strong aroma, while others are subtle. Depending on your level of wine knowledge, you may be able to identify multiple aromas in wine in a blind tasting.
Some specialists distinguish between a primary aroma (i.e., fruit) and a secondary aroma (e.g., oak influence). As a wine beginner, I suggest looking for at least two to three different aromas as an exercise. After more practice with a vertical tasting or a horizontal tasting, you might detect a tertiary aroma like a wine expert! Keep in mind that you will not always encounter a complex aroma. After all, it is not reasonable to expect a simple table wine to have complex wine qualities.
4 Beaujolais Nouveau
In the wine world, Beaujolais Nouveau is an annual tradition from France. This red wine is made from the Gamay wine grape grown in the Beaujolais region of France. Rather than emphasizing wine age, Beaujolais Nouveau is made to be consumed as a young wine. There tends to be a lot of excitement when Beaujolais Nouveau wines are released in late November. There’s no need to age wine like this – open it and drink it right away!
If you dislike tannic wine, try out Beaujolais Nouveau because it is considered a low tannic wine. The low tannic wine level is caused by a wine-making process known as carbonic maceration. This process reduces the tannic wine content.
5 Biodynamic Wine
Biodynamic wine is a kind of natural wine that emphasizes using natural methods. Today, France produces the most significant amount of biodynamic wine, so it is an excellent place to look to explore this type of wine. If biodynamic wine is too tricky to find, there are other kinds of natural wine to seek out, like organic wine.
If you are interested in wine travel, Architectural Digest has a great article on “The 9 Most Beautiful Biodynamic Wineries in the World.” They point out biodynamic wine is made in the United States, France, New Zealand, and other countries.
6 Blind Tasting
Blind tasting requires a high level of wine expertise and finely developed senses to fully identify a wine by appearance, aroma, and taste. While the challenge of blind tasting can be fun, it can also be a bit frustrating.
To make blind tasting less stressful, I suggest keeping it simple. Pick up three wines with a standard feature (e.g., three Merlot wines) and see how different producers across countries produce the wine. For example, can you tell which wine had oak aging? Another approach to a blind tasting is to emphasize geographical differences (e.g., buy three bottles of cabernet sauvignon from France, California, and Australia). Alternatively, you might choose to explore a fortified wine or a dessert wine in a blind tasting (taste in small amounts)
See also: a vertical tasting
The best way to define body in wine is to consider two examples.
A full-bodied wine tends to have a higher alcohol content (e.g., 13.5% and above) and pairs well with rich and fatty goods like steak or pasta with creamy sauce. Most full-bodied wines are made from red grapes like Merlot, Bordeaux blends, and Malbec. However, some white grape varieties like Chardonnay are made into a full body style.
In contrast, a light-bodied wine tends to be lower in alcohol content. These more delicate wines tend to be pair better with seafood and white meat. Examples of light bodied wines include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gamay.
Bordeaux is one of the best-known French wine regions. Located in western France, Bordeaux is also the name of a French city. Bordeaux is best known for its high-quality blends of red wine that can age for long periods. If you want to see the benefits of wine age, Bordeaux is an excellent place to look. From a historical perspective, Bordeaux is significant because the region’s wine was formally recognized in 1855 into a multi-tier level of classification.
Geographically, Bordeaux is further subdivided into more than thirty different sub-regions. For example, Médoc, Pomerol, Saint Émilion, and Sauternes (known for sweet dessert wines). Since Bordeaux is on the Atlantic coast, Bordeaux wine also has a long history of being exported to other countries.
After Bordeaux, Burgundy is one of the best-known French wine regions for two wine varietals in particular: pinot noir and Chardonnay. Alas, Burgundy wine also has the reputation of being extremely expensive, though I have found some more affordable wines. Historically, the Burgundy wine region dates back to the Roman era when grapes were brought to France.
For an introduction to Burgundy by film, take a look at the movie “A Year In Burgundy,” released in 2013. The film documents seven wine-making families in the region.
10 Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon (“wild Cabernet”) is one of the world’s most popular red wine grapes. While associated with France, it is now grown worldwide because it is relatively easy to grow. Generally speaking, Cabernet Sauvignon also responds well to aging in an oak barrel, giving it additional flavors. You can expect a full-bodied wine with a medium level of acidity. Finally, Cabernet Sauvignon wine tends to have a higher alcohol level (13.5% and higher is standard).
Champagne is the best-known type of sparkling wine in the world. From a wine travel perspective, the champagne region is located close to Paris, so it is easy to visit. In terms of grape variety, champagne wine is usually made from pinot noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Champagne wine requires a particular type of bottle to keep the finished wine safe and secure.
For more insight, please take a look at the article I published on the champagne wine region.
Corked is a description applied to a wine that has gone bad due to the effect of the cork. Corks naturally deteriorate over time. The risk of encountering a corked wine is higher with older bottles of wine. According to Food and Wine, less than 1% of wine is corked or has wine taint. You may never encounter a corked wine.
I have only encountered a corked wine once at a wine tasting event. The event attendees, fairly serious wine lovers, were excited because a corked wine is so rare.
13 Fermentation Process
Fermentation is the wine-making process that transforms grape juice into finished wine. The wine production process requires an understanding of the science of wine. For example, you have to decide which yeast to use, which fermentation vessel to use (e.g., an oak barrel or something else), and the fermentation temperature.
Some in the wine industry also use a secondary fermentation process to influence the finished wine. For example, you might start the fermentation process by putting the wine in a stainless steel container. Later on, the wine might be moved to an oak barrel to allow for the secondary fermentation process. In terms of time, the secondary fermentation process typically only lasts a few weeks because increasing alcohol levels kill the yeast.
14 Horizontal Tasting
A horizontal tasting means choosing one year like 2008 or 2010 and trying several wines made in the same year. For example, you might choose a French bottle, a California bottle of wine, and then pick up a German wine all made in the same year. By choosing wines all made in the same year, you will have a similar level of aged wine in your glass. Therefore, you can quickly see how different wines develop over time.
If you are unsure which year to choose for a horizontal tasting, ask your local wine merchant for some suggestions.
15 Ice Wine
A popular type of dessert wine, ice wine is made from a frozen grape in several countries, including Canada and Germany. Unlike most traditional wine, ice wine is harvested at a different time of year. For example, Ontario ice wine is harvested in winter. Specifically, the temperature needs to fall to -8 C (17 F) for the grapes to freeze. Ice wine tends to be more expensive because it is relatively challenging to harvest each frozen grape.
16 Malolactic Fermentation
Have you ever enjoyed a glass of wine with a buttery taste? If so, you may have experienced Malolactic Fermentation. The official definition comes down to acids: the conversion of malic acid into lactic acid. This process has two side effects: it reduces acidity and produces some carbon dioxide as well. Since malolactic fermentation does not involve yeast, some people object to describing it as “fermentation,” but the wine term “Malolactic Fermentation” remains common in any case.
This process influences most red wines and a handful of white wine varietals such as Viognier and Chardonnay.
17 Oak Barrel
Storing wine in an oak barrel is a way to influence the character of the wine. For example, a wine aged in an oak barrel will tend to have vanilla, buttery or creamy quality. In wine-making, the most popular oak barrel choices are American oak and French oak. If a wine is not aged in an oak barrel, it might be stored in a concrete or steel container. I happen to prefer wines aged in oak barrels for the flavor they add to the wine.
18 Residual Sugar
Residual sugar is a popular measure to describe sugar content in wine. When you ask for dry wine or sweet wine, you are essentially choosing wine based on grape sugar. However, grape sugar is not the only source of sugar. Some use the science of wine-making to add sugar directly during the wine-making process.
The wine term “residual sugar” is used because the yeast in the wine-making process consumes sugar. Some winemakers also add sugar to the wine to achieve specific effects. In some cases, you can find the residual sugar level on the wine label.
19 Sparking Wine
As a category of wine, sparkling wine is defined by bubbles (i.e., carbon dioxide). This category of wine requires a more robust wine bottle, and you may see a specialized container on top of the cork. A specialized wine bottle with think glass is also typical to keep sparkling wine safe.
Learn more about the world’s most famous wine region: the champagne wine region.
20 Style of Wine
While every winery starts with grapes, many wine-making choices shape the style of wine. While the style of wine varies considerably, there are a few widely recognized style types. Wine Folly identifies nine styles of wine, but we will cover a few of them today.
- Light-Bodied White Wine. Examples of light bodied white include popular wine varieties like Pinot Grigio. A light-bodied wine will tend to have a lower alcohol level as well.
- Full-Bodied White Wine. A rich California chardonnay is an example of a full-bodied white wine. In contrast, a chardonnay from a cooler climate like Ontario is less likely to have a full-bodied style.
- Rosé Wine. This style of wine requires significant intervention by the winemaker because there are no “Rosé Wine” grapes in nature. I recently discovered Rosé Wine from Provence, a wine region in southern France. It is made when the skins of red grapes touch wine for only a short time. Therefore, timing is critical in the wine-making process.
21 Table Wine
Table wine is a typical French term describing a category of widely available, highly affordable wine. According to expatistan.com, a website that gathers information from travelers and expatriates, the price of a bottle of red table wine in Paris is 8 Euros. Given the low price, keep your wine quality expectations modest when you have this type of wine.
22 Vertical Tasting
A vertical tasting is a type of wine tasting experience organized around a single producer. For example, you might have three different cabernet sauvignons from a single producer made in three different years. Since finding multiple wines made in different years from a single producer can be more challenging, wine travel (i.e., visiting a winery in person) is an excellent option to find wines for a vertical tasting. Alternatively, you might start by focusing on a more significant wine estate. You might choose to taste one wine aged in a wine barrel, a vintage wine (i.e., a wine from a particularly well-regarded year), and a less mature wine to fill out your vertical tasting.
23 Wine Law
Several countries around the world have a wine law that governs how wine is produced and organized. France probably has the best-known wine law relating to quality. However, you will find wine law in many places. Unfortunately, wine law sometimes makes it more difficult or expensive to ship wine across borders. As a general rule, wine law is a way to ensure wine quality.
24 Wine Writer
Depending on what you are looking to learn, there is a wine writer for you. I’m a big fan of Natalie MacLean, a wine writer based in Canada who has a very accessible approach to the wine industry. If you are looking for a British wine writer perspective, I recommend Jancis Robinson. I have taken her Udemy course and found it helpful.
Wine Terms: This Is Just The Start
That is it for this glossary of wine terms for now. What wine terms do you find most helpful in your understanding of wine? As mentioned, this approach to wine terms mainly emphasizes French wine. There is much more we could cover for Italian wine and German wine.