Sip On These Words To Talk Like A Wine Expert

It can feel like an insurmountable task to fully understand the wine world, what with the seemingly endless number of grape types and wineries out there. And as if that wasn’t intimidating enough, there’s the specialized vocabulary that can at times come off as an entirely different language. No, we’re not talking about those, well, creative tasting notes of freshly cut garden hose and pencil shavings.

But whether you’re an oenophile or not, you can be a connoisseur of fine wine terms. Knowing your varietal from your vintage and your tannins from your terroir can be a useful trick on gaining access to that group of friends who simply love to chat about wine.

It takes a lot of studying to become an expert, but these are some essential wine words to know in your next vino conversation.

vintage

The year that you see on the front of a wine bottle is the vintage, which is the wine from a particular harvest or crop. A wine labeled with the vintage 2010, for example, means that it was made using grapes harvested in 2010. In-the-know wine experts may seek out certain vintages because the year had exceptional weather for grape growing in a certain region, though it’s important to note that a good vintage in California doesn’t necessarily equal a good vintage in somewhere like Italy.

In addition to the harvest year, vintage can also relate to quality. Wines with a specified vintage can be more expensive than non-vintage wines that are made by blending wines from various years. Champagne is a good example of this. Most Champagnes are non-vintage blends, but in years with optimum conditions to make a fine sparkling wine, producers release vintage Champagne bottles.

 

Sip on more fun facts about some of your favorite wines, vintage or not.

varietal

In winemaking, a varietal wine is one that’s made entirely from one variety of grape. It’s the opposite of a blended wine, and you’ll often see the grape variety listed on the bottle. You might enjoy a varietal cabernet sauvignon, for example, more than a Bordeaux wine that’s made by blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and other grape varieties.

Varietal is a word that’s often confused with variety in the wine world, even by people who really know wine. Strictly speaking, a varietal wine only refers to a wine that’s made with one grape type, while variety refers to the grape type itself. So varietal wines are made with a specific grape variety, not a specific grape varietal.

terroir

Of all the nebulous wine words out there, one of the ones that pops up most frequently is terroir. Literally speaking, terroir is French for soil or land. Wine language often isn’t so literal, though. The first thing you should know is how to pronounce it: [ ter-wahr ]. The second is that it’s a word with a wide meaning. In wine, terroir means the environmental conditions that grapes are grown in that contribute to the flavor and aroma. It refers to soil and general average climate, though terroir is also influenced by the landscaping (which way the vines face, for example) and the elevation.

A malbec wine made in the mountains of Argentina will taste much different than one made in the south of France (where the grape variety originally comes from) because Argentina has a different terroir than France. Think of terroir like a wine phenotype—though a grape variety may be genetically the same around the world, the terroir of where it’s grown changes the end result.

tannin

Say you’ve just taken a sip of red wine and your mouth is hit with a bitter taste. Part of what you’re picking up are the wine’s tannins. Tannins are naturally occurring compounds called polyphenols that can dye leather, clarify wine and beer, and add color to black tea. In grapes, tannins come from the skin, seeds, and stems. A tannic wine is often described as bitter or astringent (meaning it contracts the body tissues or canals). That may sound bad, but tannins act as a balance to sweet and acidic characteristics in wine.

Fun fact: tannins are most associated with red wine because the juice sits on the skin, seeds, and stems for a period of time while fermenting, as opposed to white wines, which typically only ferment the grape juice.

bouquet or nose

Though you may describe a wine by saying that it smells like cherry, oak, or vanilla, wine aficionados don’t say that’s the wine’s “smell.” Instead, they say it’s the wine’s bouquet or nose. Some rieslings have a bouquet of honey, pear, and apricot, while you might pick up peppery notes in the nose of a zinfandel.

These are two more terms to add to the list of wine words that don’t literally make sense. A bouquet literally means a bunch of flowers, but in wine-speak it refers to the aroma of the beverage. Nose, similarly, does not literally mean that the wine has nostrils. Instead, it refers to what you smell with your own nose, and it can be used as a verb in the wine world as well: to nose a wine means to smell it.

sommelier

The person serving you wine in a fine dining restaurant or wine bar is not a bartender or general waiter, they’re a sommelier, pronounced [ suhm-uhl-yey ]. It’s a position that’s not completely different (sommeliers work with alcohol like bartenders and wait on tables like a waiter), but it’s a more specific designation. A sommelier is a waiter who is in charge of wines, which often encompasses wine buying for the business as well as helping a guest pick a wine to drink and serving it for them. A restaurant’s sommelier could purchase a case of special wine that they then sell to the diner, for example.

The French word comes from the Middle French term sommerier, which itself comes from a term that means “one charged with arranging transportation.” That’s a far cry from today’s definition. Sommeliers are trained in wine history, tasting, and restaurant service. The test to become the highest level of sommelier, the master sommelier test, is often considered one of the hardest educational exams in the world.

red, pink, white, and orange

Wine drinkers are usually confronted with two options when selecting a wine: red or white. Red wine is always made from grapes that have a dark skin color that ranges from blue like cabernet sauvignon to a deep purple, almost black color like pinot noir. It’s called red wine instead of bluish-purple wine because the pigments in the grapes come off as red when vinified.

White wine is often made with grapes that have a light greenish color skin, like chardonnay or gruner veltliner. Not all white wines come from light-skinned grapes, though. Many of the most popular Champagnes are sparkling white wines, but they’re in part made with dark-skin grapes like pinot noir and pinot meunier. The final wine is white instead of red because the wine gets its color from the skins, and Champagne is made by separating the juice from the skins.

In between white and red, there's rosé, a pink wine that's a summertime favorite. There are many types of rosé, though getting the color isn't like mixing up a paint where you can simply mix red and white. One method is to take out some of the red wine from a fermenting tank before it picks up too much color, which is called saignée. Saignée is the French word for "bleeding," as in "to bleed out" some of the wine. The other most popular way to make rosé is to let the wine sit on the grape skins for a very short amount of time until they pick up some of the pigments but not as much as a deep red wine.

Then there’s a fourth option: orange. If red and white are the equivalent of black and white, then orange is the gray area. Orange wine is made with white wine grapes but it has extended contact with the grape skins, seeds, and stems. This turns what would be a white wine into an orangish wine and also adds a noticeable amount of tannins.

Champagne

For many people around the world, Champagne is a one-word signifier for quality and celebration. Bottles are popped on New Year’s Eve and basically whenever someone wants to make something into a special occasion. In some cases, however, people popping the bubbly aren’t drinking Champagne.

To be Champagne, a wine has to follow a strict set of production guidelines and come only from the Champagne region of France. There are other types of sparkling wine like Italy’s Prosecco, and there are even some that use the same production methods as Champagne, like Cava from Spain. Yet only Champagne is made with pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay that’s grown in a designated area and using the Champagne method of adding bubbles to a bottle. These special guidelines are also part of the reason true Champagne can be so pricey.

These types of regional designations are common in wine. You wouldn’t call a red wine from Virginia a Napa Cabernet, for example. It all has to do with the terroir that makes a place a special wine region, and the designations ensure that a consumer knows what to expect when buying a bottle.

 

Learn more about what makes a Champagne so special at our article discussing the wine.

corked

Corks are the most common type of wine bottle closures and come from the bark of cork trees. Popping a cork is a near universal sign that wine is about to be drunk. There’s a negative aspect of a wine that is corked, though. A corked wine is one that has cork taint, which is when natural fungi interacts with cleaning chemicals and spoils a wine. It’s not harmful, but it does make the wine smell and taste like wet cardboard or newspaper.

Producers have gotten better at preventing cork taint, and it’s very unlikely you’ll encounter one unless you drink a lot of wine and know what to look for. Still, vestiges from when corked wine was more common persist, like when a sommelier hands you the cork to the bottle that was just opened in order to check for cork taint. Nowadays, thanks to a better understanding of the science, you’re more likely to hear corked used in the sense of the British slang word for drunk than you are to encounter a corked bottle.

sulfites

Sulfites are compounds that are naturally produced during fermentation, and minimal amounts are sometimes used as an added preservative in food and wine. Some people who avoid wine say it’s because the sulfites give them a headache or make them feel ill. While there are people out there who have a sulfite allergy, it’s rare, and the level of naturally occurring sulfites (as well as added sulfites) is low in wine. In fact, dried fruit has much more sulfites than wine. If you’re looking for the lowest sulfite wine possible, though, red wine typically has the least while sweet wines typically have the most.

Natural, biodynamic, and organic

Walk into a wine shop or peruse a wine list at a fancy restaurant and you’ll quickly see that there are more options to choose from than red, white, rosé, and orange wine. There’s often an option for organic, natural, or biodynamic wine, too.

Organic is one that you’re likely familiar with. Similar to organic produce, organic wine goes through a certification process and producers follow certain rules set by the US Department of Agriculture.

Biodynamic wines are made by using holistic, ethical farming methods that sometimes take in account astronomical and astrological—yes, astrological—calendars. These wines are often organic even if they’re not labeled as such since biodynamic farmers eschew pesticides and opt for natural growing methods.

Natural wine is more ambiguous and lacks a standard working definition. In general, a natural wine is one that’s made with as little human intervention as possible. The wines are naturally fermented, for example, and winemakers avoid filtering and additives or preservatives.

 

If wine's not to your taste, perhaps you would like to know more about craft beer? If so, take a look at this article.