The wine world has its own vast lexicon of adjectives, nouns, and verbs. Fortunately, The PA Wine Land Post is here to help you get fluent. Bone up on your wine vocab below and drop us a line in the comments section if there are any other “wine words” you need to know.
Appellation: An appellation is a legally defined and protected area used to define where the grapes for a wine are grown. In the United States, official appellations are called American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. To list an AVA on the label, 75 percent of the grapes in a wine must come from the AVA. Pennsylvania appellations include Central Delaware Valley AVA (shared with New Jersey), Cumberland Valley AVA (shared with Maryland), Lake Erie (shared with New York and Ohio), Lancaster Valley AVA, and Lehigh Valley AVA
Aroma: Smell is an essential part of tasting and enjoying wine. The aroma varies depending on the grape varietal, where it is grown, when it is harvested, and more. Typical aromas include tropical fruits, berries, citrus, herbs, and flowers.
Bouquet: This word describes a specific part of a wine’s aroma, namely the non-grape or berry aromas a mature wine displays. The word has historically been used to describe olfactory notes resulting from the winemaking process (fermentation and aging) as opposed to the grape itself (then the word aroma is used).
Bud break: The moment in the vineyard when the buds first emerge from the vines. In Pennsylvania, this typically happens in late April or May, depending on the weather.
Buttery: This adjective is used to describe a wine that has a creamy, smooth texture and rich, toasty notes. This flavor profile is the result of malolactic fermentation — a secondary fermentation — in which tart malic acid in wine is converted to softer lactic acid. That process typically occurs during aging in oak barrels, which also adds vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg notes.
Carbonic maceration: This is a winemaking technique used mostly in the production of light- and medium-bodied red wines. Whole, uncrushed grapes are sealed in a tank that is filled with carbon dioxide. The CO2 starts the fermentation process inside the individual grapes, and when the alcohol level reaches 2 percent, the fruit bursts, releasing its juices. Invented in the Beaujolais region of France, this process produces wines that are fruity, bright, fresh, and low in tannins. You might also see a wine labeled as “semi-carbonic,” which means they are started using carbonic maceration but then finished with a traditional fermentation.
Corked: This is a wine fault caused by a chemical compound called TCA, formed when natural fungi from the cork come in contact with chlorides found in plant fungicides or sanitation products used by the winery industry. Your wine might be corked if you smell wet cardboard, wet dog, or a general musty odor. While not harmful to humans, TCA kills the vibrancy of wine and destroys the finish. Corked wines are one reason for the rise of screw caps.
Earthy: A wine aroma or flavor reminiscent of soil, minerals, and vegetation; the opposite of fruity.
Estate Wine: Wines labeled as “estate” must be made using grapes from vineyards owned by the winery. In addition, the wine must be made entirely at the winery — it can’t leave the property during fermentation, aging, or bottling. While the winery and vineyards don’t have to be contiguous, they must be located in the same appellation.
Fortified Wine: Distilled spirits (such as brandy) are added to wine during fermentation, creating a beverage that is both more intensely flavored and higher in alcohol (usually 17- 20 percent). Famous fortified wines include port-style wines, sherry, and vermouth. In terms of flavor profile, they run the gamut from dry to sweet.
Natural wine: “Natural” wines is a broad term to define wines that are made with little to no intervention. Grapes are typically grown without the use of herbicides or pesticides, are handpicked, and are fermented using natural yeast – the ambient bacteria in the air that will naturally kick off fermentation if a vat of grapes is left long enough. Winemakers eschew additives during the winemaking process (with the occasional exception of sulfites just before bottling as a preservative). The resulting wines are often a little cloudy, rustic, funky or even barnyard-y, but they can also be juicy, vibrant and gulpable (hence the French term Glou-Glou.)
Magnum: A magnum is a large bottle of wine containing 1.5 liters of the good stuff. A “double magnum” is 3 liters.
Off-dry: This descriptor is applied to wines with slightly more residual sugar than dry wines — usually 0.6 percent to 1.4 percent. Riesling is a classic example of a varietal that can be made in an off-dry style.
Peppery: This is a way of calling out spice notes in wine. Aging in toasted oak barrels can contribute to peppery aromas.
Pét-Nat or Pétillant Naturel: This is a rustic style of sparkling wine made using the “méthode ancestral.” Partially-fermented red or white wines are bottled and capped, and as the natural sugars continue to ferment, carbon dioxide is released, producing bubbles. These wines tend to be about half as fizzy as traditional bubbly, low in alcohol, and often unfiltered. This style is very popular among proponents of natural wine (see above).
Slip-skin grape: These grapes have a skin that is easily removed during the winemaking process and therefore does not impart much color to the resulting wines. For example, Delaware is a slip-skin grape with dark pink skin and light flesh that produces white and blush wines.
Split: A split, also called a half-bottle or demi, holds 375 ml of wine.
Steely: This adjective is used to describe wines with powerful acidity — think “sharp” — which creates a metallic sensation. It’s typically used in relation to young, light-bodied white wines.
Tannins: Tannin is a naturally occurring polyphenol (a type of organic chemical) found in plants, seeds, bark, wood, leaves, and fruit skins. When it comes to flavor, tannins create a dry sensation on the tongue; for example, think of unsweetened black tea. Most often found in red wines, they also add bitterness and complexity. Because tannins come from the skin, seeds, and stems of grapes, the winemaking process has a major impact on the tannin levels in the final product — more time in contact with the skins (or aging in oak) mean more of that particular mouth-feel.
Teinturier: A French word meaning “tinter” or “dyer,” it describes grapes with red esh. This is is surprisingly rare for a wine grape, as most have clear juice and the wine’s color is derived from the skins. Famous teinturiers include Saperavi and Chambourcin. In addition to providing a color boost, the pulp of these grapes contains the pigment anthocyanin, a powerful antioxidant.
Unctuous: This adjective refers to the mouthfeel of a wine, specifically an oily, lush texture, or soft, velvety tannins.
Vitis labrusca: This species of grapevines is native to eastern North America; examples of Vitis labrusca varietals include Catawba, Concord, Delaware, and Niagara. These grapes are known for their foxy character and hardiness.
Vitis vinifera: Most of the world’s famous grape varietals fall under this species, including Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Vitis vinifera vines are native to the Mediterranean region, Central Europe, and southwestern Asia. These grapes are often crossed with native varietals to produce more resilient hybrids.
Wine Legs: This phrase describes the drips that form on the side of a glass when a wine is swirled – an indicator of the wine’s weight. This is the result of fluid surface tension caused by the evaporation of alcohol. High alcohol wines produce more legs; sweet wines — which are more viscous — have legs that travel more slowly down the sides of the glass. Also known as: Tears of Wine, Church Windows, and the Gibbs-Marangoni Effect.
The PA Wine Land Post team will continually update this list. If you have suggestions for words to add, leave them in the comments.