We’ll admit it: it’s daunting to start learning about wine. There’s so much specific jargon and so many exceptions to ‘rules’ that it can seem impossible to even begin. We’re here to help.
This is the first in a planned series of terminology guides. Think of this article as the jumping-off point in your wine journey! Familiarity with these sometimes-confusing terms will set the foundation for the rest of your wine education. Our goal is to make wine more approachable and therefore more fun for everyone.
So…What is Wine?
Wine is a fermented beverage made from grapes. While other fruit can be made into wine, for our purposes we are always talking about fermented grapes.
There are thousands of wine varieties (more on that momentarily) and likely more we haven’t discovered yet. The majority of wine on the market falls under the species Vitis vinifera, which is different from the species of grapes you’d buy to snack on or that goes into making your jelly.
Red wine is produced by fermenting grapes with their skin on. The dark skins give the wine its color and also lend tannic structure to the wine (see ‘Dry vs Drying’ below for more).
White wine is made by pressing the juices from the grapes before fermentation begins. There are some exceptions but this is the most common method.
Varietal means the specific type of grape. Some varietals include:
- Pinot Noir
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Pinot Gris
And a thousand more. You may hear a bottle of wine referred to as single varietal. This means a wine that is made mostly or entirely of one grape variety.
Why ‘mostly or entirely’ to mean ‘single’? Different countries have different laws around labeling wine. In the United States, for instance, a wine bottle can be labeled Merlot as long as the bottle is made up of at least 75% Merlot; the winery is under no obligation to inform you of the other 25%. In many other countries, the minimum is 85%. Specific regions of countries require that a bottle is composed of 100% of the varietal advertised.
These regional differences and how to read a wine label will be covered further in later guides.
Pronounced tear-wah. Terroir is the total environment where a wine is produced – the soil, slope, sun orientation and sunshine hours, temperature, rainfall, wind, and every other aspect that affects a vineyard site.
If you think of your house and yard compared to your next-door neighbor, the two of you have different terroir. They may have more shade coverage than you do or poor drainage. The same can apply to side-by-side vineyards. Now think about the difference between your yard and that of someone on the other side of the country. You likely have pretty big differences in terms of what you can grow and when, how rain, wind, or fog impacts you, and so on.
That’s why terroir is talked about so much in the wine world: it’s the largest factor determining how the wine will turn out. It’s why Pinot Noir from Oregon tastes different than Pinot Noir from France, for instance. Even though the grape is the same, the terroir is not.
Vintage simply refers to the year the grapes were harvested. Some bottles will indicate the vintage for a few reasons:
- Regional legal requirements
- The winery’s own tradition
- It was a very good year and the winery wants to indicate that high quality
When it comes down to it, wine is an agricultural product. There are good farming years, bad farming years, and years that are pretty unremarkable. As you continue exploring wine, you may find that you like Producer X’s 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon but not their 2017.
Note: Not displaying a vintage is not an indication of poor quality. Some wineries simply don’t do it. In other cases, like Champagne, vintages are only displayed during a very good year (we’ll cover more on that in a later guide).
Dry vs Drying
This section and the next are the ones that trip up beginning wine drinkers the most. In the wine world, dry means little to no sugar in the wine. The vast majority of wine is vinified, or made, dry. We’ll talk about sugar in a moment.
When someone refers to a wine as ‘drying’ or that it’s drying out their mouth, they’re talking about the tannins present in the wine. Tannins occur naturally in bark, fruit skins, seeds, wood, and other organic material. They can produce an astringent or bitter sensation in your mouth ranging from gritty to as though your mouth is stuffed with cotton.
Tannins to varying degrees are present in any wine that is made where the skins of the grapes are in contact with their juices during fermentation. This happens with red wine as mentioned above, although some rosés and skin-contact whites (often called orange wines) can also be fermented skin-on and present tannic qualities.
Fruity vs Sweet
These are two terms that don’t necessarily mean the same thing in wine. Wine can be fruity and sweet or fruity and dry (see above). Fruity refers to the fruit qualities detected in wine, which can be to a low, medium, or high intensity.
Sweet is the amount of residual sugar present in the wine. While the majority of wine on the market is dry, some wines are made with varying amounts of sugar left unfermented. Some wines are barely sweet on the palate at all while others are like drinking syrup.
One quick way to tell if a wine may have residual sugar without tasting it first is to check the alcohol content on the label. A very low percentage, between 4 and 8%, could indicate that the wine may taste sweet.
We’ll cover sparkling wines in another article, as the rules and terminology are significantly different.
Contrary to popular belief, the legs or tears of wine (the droplets or streaks that form on the glass when you swirl the wine) are not an indication of quality.
Legs are only an indication of the presence of alcohol. That’s it. Pour some water into a wine glass, pour some vodka into another, and then swirl them both. You’ll see a difference in the way the liquids cling to the sides of the glasses. It’s the same with wine. Very low alcohol wines will sheet off the glass like water, whereas more alcoholic wines will flow down more slowly.
Nose, body, finish
The nose of a wine refers to the aromas that are most prominent when you smell the wine. These can be fruity, herbaceous, alcoholic, vegetal, earthy, chemical, or inorganic – there’s really no limit. See our tasting guide for more.
The body is essentially the weight of the wine in your mouth. Think about the differences between skim milk, 2% milk, and whole milk. They all feel differently in your mouth. It’s the same with wine, like this:
- A skim milk-feeling wine: light-bodied
- A 2% milk-feeling wine: medium-bodied
- A whole milk-feeling wine: full-bodied
The finish is the lingering flavor, texture, and sensation of the wine once it has been swallowed or spit out. If someone says a particular wine’s finish is ‘long’, that means those sensations stayed in their mouth for a while after tasting the wine. ‘Short’ finishes disappear quickly.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide! In future Sommelier 101 articles, we’ll cover sparkling wine, faults to be aware of, various production techniques, and more. Keep checking back as we explore the world of wine together!