A little knowledge is a dangerous thing...
There is a ton of information all over the internet and in numerous books, but here are just a few, of the many, wine terms that can make you seem extra knowledgeable at a dinner party:
Acid: This is the term for describing sharp or sour flavours. A wine’s acidity is very important it helps red wines keep their colour and gives white wines their balance. Too much acidity, and a wine is tart and unpleasant but too little and the wine is 'flabby' and uninteresting.
Alcohol: C2H5OH or ethanol. Alcohol is formed when sugars (from grapes for a wine) are fermented by yeast. Alcohol is tasteless but as we might all know, has some pronounced biological effects. We should say that over consumption leads to drunkenness, but even a small amount impairs judgement and therefore it can be dangerous to drive after even a sip of wine. The pathway of alcohol metabolism in the body involves the progressive oxidation of alcohol to acetate via acetaldehyde. This molecule is toxic and thought to be largely responsible for hangovers.
Appellation Contrôlée: The French like their red-tape! A wine with Appellation Contrôlée (AOC), translated literally as "controlled designation of origin", on its label will have had to meet many stringent regulations. This can be give some comfort as to the quality of the wine, but doesn’t guarantee that what is in the bottle will be of any interest.
Balance: A wine is balanced when all the many parts that form its taste and nose, tannins, fruit, acidity, sweetness and alcohol are correctly matched and nothing stands out as ‘too much’ or too little’.
Bin: Originally, bin numbers referred to a storage area in a wine cellar where wines were held before being sold. The term ‘bin end’ is used by wine merchants when they want to get rid of their last few bottles of a particular wine.
Château: Generally a winery in Bordeaux although the term is sometimes used for wineries in other parts of the world, such as the Barosa Valley in Australia.
Cork: Many believe a screw top is a sign of cheap wine, and a cork is the sign of quality. Wrong! Buying wine with a screw top is practical and removes the risk of wine being corked. Corked wine has been contaminated by a chemical called trichloroanisole (TCA) which has come from bacteria in the cork. A wine that has a pronounced smell of damp cardboard is strong indicator that the wine is corked – though not always! A wine is not corked if it has small pieces of cork in it, these can simply be fished out. If you have bought any wine that you think is corked simply bring it back to us.
Claret: An old-fashioned English term for red wines from the Bordeaux region of France.
Cru: A French term that literally means "growth" referring to a vineyard or a winery.
DOCG: The abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, or controlled and guaranteed place name, which is the category for the highest-ranking wine in Italy.
Eiswein: Originally a German method for sweet wine making from frozen grapes that have been deliberately left on the vine until winter. The juice that is released is very concentrated and the resulting wine is extremely sweet. Unlike most other expensive dessert wines, the grapes used will are not affected by noble rot. There are some extremely good new Canadian Icewines that use the method as it is obviously more reliably suited to their climate.
Élevage: A French term for the progression of wine between fermentation and bottling. In English this would translate as "raising". The raw fermented juice is shaped during this period into something resembling its final form, through techniques such as barrel aging, filtering and fining. Good winemaking decisions during élevage can help the juice achieve its full potential; bad decisions can leave it flawed.
Finish: Perhaps the tasting term used most wrongly! It refers to the flavours left in the mouth after you have swallowed or spat out a mouthful of wine. For example, a finish can be alcoholic, bitter, hot, dry, acidic, short or long.
Flabby: A word that is used to describe a wine that does not have enough acidity to balance the other elements. Buttery Chardonnays with rich tropical fruit flavours from warm-climate regions are most likely to show this sort of character, especially if they are perhaps a few years old.
Flinty: Best understood by actually smelling some flint – often used to describe the characteristics of a youthful Chablis.
French paradox: The French eat lots of fatty foods, yet they have less heart disease than you'd expect. This phenomenon is known as the French paradox, and one proposed explanation has been that wine consumption, which is higher in France, is protective against heart disease. However you should take proper medical advice rather than learn anything from the French.
Green: A tasting term for a wine that tastes youthful, unripe, raw and acidic. This is undesirable and occurs in cheaper wines where the grapes have been picked too early. This can apply to a white wine with vegetal notes, or a red wine with bell pepper or herbal notes.
Hermitage: This small hillside appellation in the Northern Rhône region of France is famous for being the home of the Syrah grape before the New World got its hands on it and called it Shiraz. Because the wines are usually of high quality and very little is made, they are usually expensive. These dense, perfumed red wines need years to reach their best, and from a good vintage they'll go on improving for decades.
Irrigation: Grape vines need water, and if there isn't enough of it in the environment, it is necessary to supply this artificially, by irrigation. Although it is frowned upon in European wine regions, used carefully it can be used in the production of high quality wines.
Jammy: Another negative term. It's good for wines to be fruity, but jammy wines are those that taste of stewed fruit, which is not very nice. This usually happens when grapes have been grown in areas which are just too warm for that particular variety and do not develop a decent balance between tannins and fruit.
Kabinett: Translated literally as cabinet, originally implied a German wine of superior quality, set aside for later sale. It is essentially the German version of the French wine term Reserve. Kabinett is the lowest level of Prädikatswein, lower in ripeness than Spätlese. In Austria, Kabinett is subcategory of Qualitätswein rather than a Prädikatswein, and the term always designates a dry wine.
Laying down: A term that means storing wine that came from laying bottles on their side to keep the cork in contact with the wine so that it does not dry out.
Leathery: This is a difficult one to pin down but usually refers to a wine high in tannins, with a thick yet soft taste giving a chewy result. Or just a wine that tastes of leather.
Length: A wine’s length is the time that its flavour lingers in the back of one’s throat after swallowing. This property is measured in seconds, or caudilies, a fancier word that means seconds. In a young wine, the difference between something good and something great is the length of the wine. Thirty seconds to several minutes is a great length.
Malic acid: This is found most commonly in unripe grapes, it has a tart, sharp flavour. It is lost as grapes ripen, which is one reason why wines from very warm climates often have a low natural acidity and can taste flabby.
New World: A term used to describe wines not from Europe such as: California, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Noble Rot: Generally rotting grapes are not a good thing but there is one type of rot caused to white grapes that is desirable. Damp conditions (often from mists) cause a fungus called Botrytis to attack the grapes making them shrivel up and go rather furry. This is known as noble rot – the grapes look awful, disgusting even but when harvested in this condition they yield small quantities of concentrated juice that produces some of the world's most complex, sublime sweet white wines. Characterised by a nose of marmalade and apricot and although sweet, good examples have plenty of acidity to give balance. Because of the risk associated with producing these wines and the low yields involved, these wines are expensive, but innovative Australians are now producing delicious, affordable botrytized wines from grapes that have artificially been infected with Botrytis spores.
Nose: Generally found in the middle of your face. This is also the term for the smell or bouquet of a wine. Smell is critical in the way our brains process and analyse taste (this why we can’t taste properly if we have a cold), and in wine tasting the wine is always smelt before tasted (unless particularly thirsty).
Oak: Oak barrels are an important and complicated variable in the production of the majority of serious red wines and an increasing number of whites. Many white wines, in particular Chardonnays, are fermented in small oak barrels. This adds complexity to the wine, and also imparts toasty, nutty and vanilla flavours to the wine, especially when the barrels are new. Red wines are rarely fermented in barrels, but will often spend a lengthy period ageing in them. Barrels allow a small amount of oxygen to come into contact with the wine, thus accelerating the development of more complex flavours, and when new oak is used, the wine picks up flavours of vanilla and spice and tannins from the wood. Different effects can be achieved depending on the type of oak used. The quality of the wood used is important, as is the size of the barrel. It all gets rather complicated. Oak barrels are expensive, and for cheaper wines, the effects of barrel fermentation and ageing are simulated in stainless steel tanks by the use of oak chips in what are sometimes referred to as ‘tea bags’.
Old World: The inverse of New World otherwise known as wines from the classical regions of Europe.
Oxidized: A term describing a commonly encountered wine fault, caused by the exposure of a wine to oxygen, which eventually turns the alcohol to acetic acid otherwise known as vinegar. A mildly oxidized red wine has a brownish colour. A mildly oxidized white wine has almost a gold colour and unappealing flavours of butterscotch and coffee. The most common cause of oxidation is cork failure, letting air into the wine.
Plonk: Slang for an inexpensive bottle of wine originating from the French word for white wine: blanc. Whilst particularly useful in the 70s and 80s wines generally available even at lower prices have definitely improved somewhat as has our national palate.
Quinta: Portuguese word for a winery.
Reserve: You'll often find the term 'reserve' on the label of a bottle, as it is a term used throughout the wine world. There is no formal definition of what makes a 'reserve' wine: producers usually use this to indicate a wine that is made from selected grapes or has been given lavish oak treatment.
Structure: Refers to the relationship of the different components in wine acidity, tannins, and alcohol. Structure itself does not really describe the flavour but will give you some clue as to how the flavours of a wine will age: wines with good structure are more likely to age well, while wines lacking in structure are unlikely to improve by laying down.
Tannin: This is the term used for the bitter, astringent group of chemicals found in the skins, pips and stems of grapes, and also in oak barrels that wine ages in. The sensation of red wine coating your teeth and drying your mouth is the tannins doing their thing. Tannins are a vital component of red wines. They contribute structure, which in turn facilitates ageing and the development of the complexity. Without tannins to counteract the fruit, most red wines would taste flabby and unbalanced.
Terroir: Terroir is a French term which to site-specific differences in wines that are caused by factors such as soil types, drainage, local microclimate and sun exposure. Debate rages about the importance of terroir versus the role of the winemaker, and also exactly how factors such as soils influence the flavour of the wine.
Unctuous: Our favourite tasting descriptor, used for wine that has layers of soft, concentrated, velvety fruits. Unctuous wines are lush, rich, and intense.
Vin: French for wine.
Vintage: Vintage is the process of picking grapes and creating the finished product. A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all, or primarily, grown and harvested in a single specified year.
Wine: An alcoholic beverage made from the fermentation of unmodified grape juice.
Xylem: The woody tissue of a vine, inside of the vascular cambium layer, that includes heartwood and sapwood, which transports water and nutrients from the roots towards the leaves.
Yeast: A micro-organism present on the skins of grapes that reacts with the sugars inside and results in the production of ethyl alcohol during a process called fermentation. The ‘lees’ are the deposits of spent yeast cells leftover after fermentation. Lees are nourishing and potentially beneficial, imparting a particular character to the wine and functioning as a natural antioxidant. Before bottling, the base wine for champagne is sometimes aged on its fine lees, those leftover from the initial fermentation. However, lees aging in Champagne generally refers to the aging of the wine in bottle, where the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation are trapped inside the bottle until the bottle is disgorged. This period of aging on the lees is fundamental to the creation of champagne's character.
Zymology: The science of fermentation in wine.