ACIDITY Natural component in grapes that gives the final wine a snappy refreshing quality. Wines with too little acidity taste dull, flabby and unfocused. Wines with too much acidity can taste aggressively tart.
AFTERTASTE The flavor that lingers in your mouth after you've swallowed the wine. All good wines should have a pleasant aftertaste and great wines should have a long pleasant aftertaste. Aftertaste is also known as the wines "finish".
AGING Intentionally keeping a wine for a period of time so that the flavors harmonize and the wine begins to soften and open up. There is no one correct period of aging for wine; all wines will age differently and at different rates.
ALCOHOL A natural result of the fermentation process. When yeast metabolizes the sugar in grapes, the two major by-products are alcohol and carbon dioxide. Most table wines in the U.S. have 12 to 14% alcohol by volume.
APPELLATION/AVA/DOC The French term, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, (AOC), refers to a set of comprehensive regulations that specify the precise geographic area in which a given French wine can be made. AOC regulations also stipulate the types of grapes that can be used, the manner in which the vines must be grown and how the wine can be made. The Italian equivalents of France's AOC laws are known as DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata, and a slightly more strict set of regulations known as DOCG, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the U.S., the regulations governing AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are far less strict than French or Italian appellation laws. To be labeled with a specific U.S. appellation, 75% of the wine's grapes must come from the area. California law requires 100% of the grapes to be grown in the state for a wine to be labeled "California." AVAs are designated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. There are now more than 130 areas that have been designated as AVAs including such well-known AVAs as the Napa Valley, Stags Leap District, Russian River Valley, Anderson Valley and so on.
ASTRINGENCY That quality in a wine that makes your mouth feel slightly dry and puckery. Astringency is related to tannin (see entry). A small amount of astringency is expected in some wines, especially young red wines made from powerful varieties such as cabernet sauvignon.
BARREL FERMENTATION As implied, a method of fermentation done in barrels. Fermenting a wine, especially a white wine, in small oak barrels rather than large stainless steel tanks can noticeably affect the wine's flavor and texture. In particular, a wine can become more creamy, round, buttery and toasty after being barrel fermented.
BLEND The combining of different lots of wine to make a final wine with certain characteristics. A wine may be a blend of different grape varieties (such as a blend of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, for example), or it may be a blend of the same grape variety from different vineyard sites, or even the same grape variety handled differently in the vineyard or during winemaking. In most cases, the goal of blending is to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.
BODY The weight of a wine in the mouth. Wines are usually described as being light, medium or full-bodied. A wine's body is generally related to the amount of alcohol it contains, the more alcohol, the fuller the body. That said, a wine's body should not be confused with the intensity of its flavor. For example, a wine can be light in body and very intense in flavor at the same time.
BOTRYTIS Also called "noble rot," Botrytis cinerea is a beneficial mold that, in just the right warm, humid circumstances, will begin to grow on the outside of grapes. As the mold sucks water from the grapes, they shrivel. This, in turn, concentrates the grapes' sweet juice, allowing a very sweet wine to be made. The famous French wine Sauternes is made with the help of Botrytis cinerea.
BUTTERY A description of a wine, usually a white wine, that has taken on a slight buttery flavor. This often happens as a result of the wine being barrel fermented and then left for a period of time in contact with the yeast.
CABERNET FRANC The somewhat leaner sister of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc is often grown in the same places and is usually blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The one noteworthy exception to this is the Loire Valley of France where cabernet franc alone makes the well known wines Chinon and Bourgeuil. Cabernet franc often has a unique violet aroma and a slightly spicy flavor.
CABERNET SAUVIGNON Often called the "king" of red grapes, cabernet sauvignon is, along with merlot, the famous grape of Bordeaux, and is also grown in other renowned wine regions throughout the world including California, Washington state, Italy, Australia, and Chile. Cabernet sauvignon possesses what can be an impressive structure along with deep, rich cassis flavors.
CAPSULE The covering at the top of the neck of a wine bottle that protects the cork. Capsules, which come in many colors and designs, are considered part the wine's overall design. Recently, some wineries have forgone capsules in favor of a small wax dot on the top of the cork.
CHAMPAGNE The famous sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France, about 90 miles northeast of Paris. Champagne is generally a blend of three grapes_--two red: pinot noir and pinot meunier, and one white: chardonnay. It is made by a labor-intensive method known as methode Champenoise in which the secondary bubble-causing fermentation takes place inside each individual bottle. Made in a variety of sweetness levels, Champagnes range from bone-dry to sweet. The most popular of these is Brut. The sweetness levels are as follows: Extra Brut: very, very dry, O to .6% residual sugar. Brut: dry, less than 1.5% residual sugar. Extra Dry: off-dry, 1.2 to 2% residual sugar. Sec: lightly sweet, 1.7 to 3.5% residual sugar. Demi-Sec: quite sweet, 3.3 to 5% residual sugar. and Doux: sweet, more than 5% residual sugar. Most Champagne firms make at least three categories of wine: non-vintage, vintage, and prestige cuvée. The vast majority of the Champagne produced each year is designated non-vintage (that is, the blend may contain wines from several different vintages). The wines in a vintage Champagne come only from the year designated on the label. Vintage Champagnes are only made in top years. Prestige cuvées are each firm's top-of-the-line wine. It too will only be made in great years and the grapes will come only from the firm's best vineyards. Finally, there are two special styles of Champagne: rosé Champagne, a pink Champagne usually made by adding a small bit of red pinot noir wine to the bottle before the second fermentation, and blanc de blancs, a Champagne in which all of the wines in the blend are chardonnay.
CHARDONNAY One of the most popular white grape varieties in America and throughout the New World, as well as the white grape of the Burgundy region of France. Very easy to enjoy thanks to its full, round body and buttery, appley flavors laced with toastiness (the latter comes from the oak barrels used in the making of most chardonnays).
COMPLEX A descriptive term for a multifaceted, multi-layered wine that continues to reveal different flavors as you drink it. A complex wine, because it is so fascinating, has an almost magical ability to draw the wine drinker in.
CORKED A musty "wet dog" or "wet cardboard" smell (usually slight) that wine can take on as a result of bacteria in the cork interacting with minute amounts of chemical residues that may remain on corks or in bottles after they are washed. Corked wines are not common, though a wine drinker may occasionally encounter one. Because a corked wine smells unpleasant, it should be discarded, though drinking such a wine in no way harms the drinker.
D.O.C. (DENOMINAZIONE D'ORIGINE CONTROLLATA) The Italian system of laws regulating about 250 different wine zones. Italy's D.O.C. regulations are roughly equivalent to France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (see entry).
EARTHY A descriptive term for a wine that smells or tastes like the earth or like something growing in soil. Earthy wines, for example, can be reminiscent of the forest floor, or of mushrooms, or of dried leaves.
ESTATE BOTTLED A term used on wine labels to indicate a wine that is made 100% from grapes growing in vineyards owned by the winery or in vineyards that the winery leases under long-term contract. The vineyards do not need to be contiguous, but they must be in the same appellation.
FERMENTATION The process by which grape juice is chemically converted into wine through the action of yeast. During fermentation, yeast enzymes convert the natural sugar in the grapes into alcohol, giving off carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
GAMAY The classic red grape of the Beaujolais region of France, and also grown in California, gamay possesses a super fruity, grapey flavor not unlike melted black cherry Jello. The wine is often at its best served slightly chilled.
GEWÜRZTRAMINER The world's most prestigious gewürztraminers come from the Alsace region of France, but the white grape is also grown in most of the same cold climates Riesling is. Its dramatic, unmistakable flavors are often compared to lychee nuts, peaches, apricots and occasionally, cold cream.
GRAN RESERVA Typically found on Spanish wines, it means "aged in oak three years." In general, each year in oak adds complexity to the wine. It also adds aging potential. A Grand Reserva could age for many years and if opened too soon will seem forbidding, austere and difficult to love!
HERBACEOUS A descriptive term for a wine with overt green herb-like flavors. For most grape varieties, herbaceous flavors are considered negative. However, some grape varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc typically display some herbal flavors that are considered appropriate.
MADEIRA A fortified wine from the island of Madeira that belongs to Portugal but is located off the west African coast. Historically famous, the wine drunk by the founding fathers of the United States to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence is reported to have been Madeira. The very best Madeiras are made from four white grapes: sercial, verdelho, bual, and malmsey, which give the four styles of Madeira their names. Thus, starting with the driest style and moving to the sweetest, the styles of Madeira are sercial, verdelho, bual, and malmsey. Madeira's toffee-caramel-like character comes as a result of heating the wine, a process called estufagem. This is either carried out naturally (the wine is left in hot attics for up to 20 years) or the wine is placed in containers that are then heated to an average temperature of 105°F for three to six months.
MALOLACTIC FERMENTATION A natural process during which beneficial bacteria convert the malic (very tart) acid in a wine to lactic (softer tasting) acid. Malolactic fermentation can take place on its own or be prompted by the winemaker.
MERLOT The most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, merlot, a red grape, is also grown in most of the same places as cabernet sauvignon. And in fact, the two are often blended. Because merlot in general has somewhat less tannin than cabernet sauvignon, it often feels softer on the palate. Its flavors often run to mocha and boysenberry.
NOSE A wine term (used frequently in Britain) divided into two sub-components: the aroma and the bouquet. Aroma comes from the characteristics of the grape. Bouquet is the complex fragrance developed by the winemaker’s influence during fermentation and aging. Nose is also used as a verb. To nose a wine is to smell it.
OXIDIZED A descriptive term for a wine that has been significantly exposed to air (oxygen), thereby changing the wine_s aroma and flavor. While a small amount of oxygen exposure can be positive (it can help to soften and open up the wine, for example), too much exposure is deleterious. Fully oxidized wines have a tired, spoiled flavor. An oxidized white wine usually has begun to turn brown. There are a few examples of controlled oxidation that are not considered negative. Sherry, for example, is an oxidized wine by intent.
PINOT BLANC One of the white grapes of the pinot family that includes pinot grigio (also white) and the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier. While some pinot blanc can be found interspersed with chardonnay in the vineyards of Burgundy, the grape is more renowned in Alsace. In North America, California boasts several top producers of pinot blanc, though the grape is not widely grown. Pinot blanc often has flavors similar to chardonnay, though the wine is generally lighter in body and somewhat more delicate.
PINOT GRIGIO (PINOT GRIS) Like pinot blanc, one of the white grapes of the pinot family, and like riesling and gewürztraminer, pinot grigio loves cold climates. The most renowned pinot grigios come from the northernmost regions of Italy, especially those regions that border the Alps, as well as Alsace, where it is known as pinot gris or, confusingly, as "tokay." In the U.S., Oregon is emerging as the top state for delicious lively pinot gris' with light almond, lemon and vanilla flavors.
PINOT NOIR One of the most renowned red grapes in the world for its supple silky texture and mesmerizing earthy flavors. Pinot noir, like Riesling, requires a cold climate and in fact, its ancestral home is the cool Burgundy region of France. The grape, which is very difficult to grow and make into wine, is also grown in Oregon and California, but rarely elsewhere.
PORT The famous fortified sweet wine from the Duoro Valley of Portugal. Port, a blended wine, is made with up to five red grape varieties: Tinta Barroca, Tinta Roriz, Tinto Cão, Touriga Francesa, and the most highly regarded: Touriga Nacional. All Port can be divided into two main categories: wood-aged Ports and bottle-aged Ports. Within these categories are numerous styles. The best known style of wood-aged Port is Tawny Port, the best known style of bottle-aged Port is Vintage Port. Predominantly wood-aged Ports are ready to drink right after they're bottled and shipped. They should be consumed within a year and a half to two years after bottling. These Ports do not need to be decanted. Predominantly bottle-aged Ports, on the other hand, start out in barrels for a brief period of time but then mature and age for a longer, and sometimes very long, period inside a bottle. As a result these Ports usually throw a sediment. Vintage Port, for example, always needs to be decanted. Port-style wines are also made in California from a variety of grapes including zinfandel, petite sirah, and cabernet sauvignon.
RESERVA Typically found on Spanish wines, it means "aged in oak two years." In general, each year in oak adds complexity to the wine. It also adds aging potential. A Grand Reserva could age for many years and if opened too soon will seem forbidding, austere and difficult to love!
RIESLING The renowned white grape of Germany, Austria and the Alsace region of France, though it is also popular in Washington state, New York state, and certain parts of California and Australia. The grape loves to grow in cold climates and when it does, it can exhibit exquisite delicacy and elegance with light peachy/minerally flavors.
ROSÉ A pink wine which can be made from any number of red grape varieties. In southern France where rosés are extremely popular, rosés are often made from grenache. Rosés can be made in numerous ways, the most common of which is simply to draw the wine off the red grape skins before the skins have fully tinted the wine red. Rosé wines, like white wines, taste best served chilled.
SAUVIGNON BLANC The famous white grape of the Sancerre region of France as well as New Zealand. Sauvignon blanc also grows in Bordeaux (where it is usually blended with semillon), South Africa, and in California and Washington state. Its wonderfully wild, untamed flavors are often reminiscent of grass, herbs, green tea and limes, often overlaid with smokiness. In California, sauvignon blanc can also take on green fig and white melon flavors.
SHERRY The famous fortified wine from the Jerez region of southern Spain. Sherry is made by an extremely complex method of fractional blending called the solera system. The grape variety used is principally Palomino, though small amounts of Pedro Ximenez may also be included. Like Champagne and Port, Sherry is made in a variety of styles and at a variety of sweetness levels. From driest and lightest to sweetest and fullest, the styles of Sherry include manzanilla, fino, amontillado, palo cortado, oloroso, and cream Sherry. The unique flavor of all of these styles is due in part to the fact that the wine is partially intentionally oxidized (exposed to oxygen). Sherry-style wines are also made in California though they usually do not go through a solera system and most are sweet.
SULFUR/SULFITES A small amount of sulfur dioxide, a preservative, may be used both in the vineyard and during winemaking to protect grapes and wine from spoilage. Sulfites are a form of sulfur that occur naturally as a by-product of fermentation. Because a tiny percentage of the population is allergic to sulfur, wine labels must carry the message "contains sulfites" if the wine contains more than 10 parts per million (ppm) sulfites (which most wines do).
SYRAH (SHIRAZ) The classic red grape of the northern Rhone Valley of France and also grown throughout southern France, syrah is also the leading grape of Australia (where it is known as shiraz). In the late 1980s and 1990s, California vintners also became increasingly fascinated by the grape which is now grown in many parts of California. The wine often has an unmistakable whiff of white pepper along with wild gamey, boysenberry flavors.
TANNIN A group of beneficial compounds in wine that come mainly from the grape's skins and seeds. Tannin gives wine structure and because it acts as a natural preservative, allows wine to age. Normally, tannin is not so much tasted as it is sensed. However, in a young wine, especially if the grapes have been picked under-ripe, the tannin can cause the wine to taste excessively dry and astringent.
VARIETAL Wines made from, and named after, a particular grape variety. In order to name the variety on the label, at least 75% of the blend must be composed of that grape. Chardonnay, merlot, Riesling, etc. are all varietals. (See entries for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Gamay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Blanc, Pinto Grigio (Pinot Gris), Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah (Shiraz), Viognier, and Zinfandel).
VINTAGE The year in which the grapes for a given wine were harvested. Most wines carry a vintage date, though not all. Non-vintage sparkling wines and Champagnes, for example, are blends of grapes from different harvests.
VIOGNIER The classic (though rare) white grape of the northern Rhone Valley of France where it makes the expensive wine known as Condrieu. In the early 1990s, more than thirty top California producers began making Viognier to much acclaim. The wine has an opulent, lush body and dramatic honeysuckle, white melon and jasmine flavors.
ZINFANDEL The much loved red grape of California, Zinfandel is grown in few areas of the world. In fact, its history has been mysterious. Zinfandel has recently been established as being identical to the Italian grape Primitivo. Zinfandel has a mouth-filling, thick berryness that is sometimes described as being jammy or chewy. White zinfandel (not a separate grape variety) is made when zinfandel grapes are fermented without their dark purple skins.