Wine Terminology

Wine has a vast history and has influenced and been influenced by a large variety of cultures. Over the years, wine has even developed it’s own language. Below is a glossary that provides a brief description of basic wine terms.

Terms for Wine Tasting

The flavor that lingers in your mouth after you swallow the wine. The length of the aftertaste is perhaps the single most reliable indicator of wine quality (see Finish).

The primary smell of a young, unevolved wine, consisting of the odors of the grape juice itself, of the fermentation process, and, if relevant, of the oak barrels in which the wine was made or aged.

Having mouth-puckering tannins; such wines may merely need time to soften.

Tough, dry and unforthcoming, often due to a severe tannic structure or simply to the extreme youth of a wine.

The ratio of a wine’s key components, including fruitiness, sweetness, acidity, tannin and alcoholic strength. A balanced wine shows a harmony of components, with no single element dominating.

The weight of a wine on the palate, determined by its alcoholic strength and level of extract (see Extract). Wines are typically described as ranging from light-bodied to full-bodied.

The richer, more complex fragrances that develop as a wine ages.

Not especially aromatic, most likely due to recent bottling or to the particular stage of the wine’s development. Dumb is a synonym.

Contaminated by a tainted cork (caused by a chemical compound known as 2,4,6-trichloroanisole and released by certain molds), which gives the wine a musty, wet cardboard smell. Bad corks are a major problem, as they can ruin otherwise sound bottles. By most accounts 2 to 5 bottles out of 100 are affected by bad corks.

Refreshing, thanks to sound acidity.

Can be a component of complexity deriving from the wine’s distinctive soil character or a pejorative description for a rustic wine.

Essentially the minerals and other trace elements in a wine; sugar-free dry extract is everything in a wine except water, sugar, acids and alcohol. High extract often gives wine a dusty, tactile impression of density. It frequently serves to buffer, or mitigate, high alcohol or strong acidity.

Rich to the point of being unctuous, with modest balancing acidity.

The final taste left by a sip of wine after you swallow. Wines can be said to have long or short finishes (see Aftertaste).

Perceptibly tannic and/or acidic, in a positive way.

Lacking acidity and therefore lacking shape.

Aromas and flavors that derive from the grape, as opposed to the winemaking process or the barrels in which the wine was aged.

Too acid, raw or herbal; this may be due to under ripe grapes or stems but may simply mean the wine needs time to develop.

An emphatically firm, tactile finish.

Too tannic or acidic; often a characteristic of a wine that needs more time in bottle.

Noticeably alcoholic.

Slightly cooked flavors of jam rather than fresh fruit, often a characteristic of red wines from hot climates.

Lacking flesh and body. Not necessarily pejorative, as some types of wines are lean by nature.

Middle Palate
Literally, the part of the tasting experience between the nose of the wine and its finish. The impact of a wine in the mouth.

Mouth Feel
The physical impression of a wine in the mouth; its texture.

The aroma or bouquet.

Smell or taste of the oak cask in which the wine was vinified and/or aged; oak notes can include such element as vanilla, clove, cinnamon, cedar, smoke toast, bourbon and coffee.

Possessing a tired or stale taste due to excessive exposure to air. An oxidized white wine may have a darker than normal or even brown color.

Generally high in alcohol and/or extract.

Unpleasantly bitter or hard-edged.

Low in tannin and/or acidity.

The faint prickle on the tongue of carbon dioxide, generally found in young, light white wines.

An almost metallic taste often noted in wines high in acidity and/or made from mineral-rich soil-especially Riesling.

Round and smooth, as opposed to noticeably tannic or acidic.

A term applied not just to wines with significant residue sugar but also to those that show outstanding richness or ripeness.

Noticeably acidic.

Generally, a red wine that shows excessive tannin.

Literally wine-like, in terms of liveliness and acidity; but often used to describe the overall impression conveyed by a wine beyond simple fruitiness. This can include subtle flavors that come from the soil that produced the grapes, as well as from the winemaking and aging process.

Slightly vinegary due to a high level of acetic acid, referred to as volatile acidity (VA). But a minimum level of VA often helps to protect a wine’s aromas without resulting in an unstable bottle. “High-toned” is jargon for faintly volatile, and is not necessarily pejorative.


Terms for Wine Making

The addition of an acid to the wine, typically tartaric acid is added during fermentation. This is frequently necessary in hot climates where grapes tend to over-ripen and become deficient in acidity- thereby losing freshness.

The acids in a wine (primarily tartaric, malic, citric and lactic) provide liveliness, longevity and balance. Too much leaves a sour or sharp taste on the palate, while too little results in a flabby, shapeless wine. If tannins are the spine of a wine, then acidity is its nervous system.

Barrel or Cask
Most of the world’s greatest wines are at least partially aged in barrels, usually made from oak. A barrique is the standard Bordeaux barrel. Bordeaux barrels hold 225 liters, or the equivalent of about 300 bottles of wine. However, casks can be as large as 100 hectoliters (i.e., 10,000 liters) or more.

The addition of sugar during fermentation to increase a wine’s alcoholic strength.

The conversion of grape juice into wine through the action of yeasts present in the juice. Overtime, the yeasts turn sugar into alcohol. This alcoholic fermentation is also known as primary fermentation. (See Malolactic Fermentation)

A method of clarifying and stabilizing wine to give it a pleasingly lucid color and to remove yeasts, bacteria or other solid matter that might otherwise spoil the wine after its has been bottled. Excessive filtration, like excessive fining, can strip a wine of aroma, body, texture and length.

A method of clarifying wine by pouring a coagulant (such as egg whites) on top and letting it settle to the bottom. In general, a fining agent is allowed to fall through the wine, while in filtration, the wine is passed through a filter.

Solid residue (mostly dead yeast cells and grape pulp, pips and skins) that remains in the cask after the wine has been drawn off. Many white wines and some reds are kept on their lees for a period of time to protect them from oxidation, enrich their textures and add complexity. Wines protected by lees can often be made with less sulfur addition, but careful technique is essential to ensure that off aromas don’t develop.

Malolactic Fermentation
A secondary fermentation in which the more tart malic acid is converted into softer lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Malolactic fermentation, which generally follows the alcoholic fermentation, is nearly always carried out in red wines. Some producers of white wines encourage malolactic fermentation, while others- especially those in hot regions that produce grapes with low levels of acidity- avoid it in order to retain the wine’s freshness.

Grape juice not yet fermented or in the process of being fermented into wine.

Transferring the wine from one cask to another to separate it from the lees.

Solid matter deposited in a bottle during the course of the maturation process. Sediment is generally a sign that the wine was not excessively filtered prior to bottling.

The most common disinfectant for wine. Most winemakers feel that it is nearly impossible to produce stable wine without the use of sulfur products at one or more stages of vinification. Examples of when sulfur products would be added include: just after the harvest to thwart fermentation by the wrong yeasts, in the cellar to prevent microbial spoilage and oxidation and at the time of bottling to protect the wine against exposure to air. But as a general rule, the amount of sulfur used in the production of fine wine has never been lower than it is today.

A bitter, mouth-drying substance found in the skins, stalks and pips of the grapes – as well as in wood barrels. Tannins acts as a preservative and is thus an important component if the wine is to be aged over a long period. Tannins are frequently harsh in a young wine, but gradually soften or dissipate as the wine ages in the bottle.

The various microorganisms that cause fermentation. Wild yeasts are naturally present on grape skins, but cultivated yeasts are generally used to control fermentation more carefully.