Wine Glossary of Terms
Acid/Acidity – Acid is one of the main structural components of any wine. Although we often think of acid in a negative light, it is actually critical for a well-balanced wine. Wines are made up of four types of acid: citric, lactic, malic and tartaric. It is the acidity which ensures that a wine tastes fresh and balances any residual sweetness. A lack of acidity in any wine, and in particular in dessert-style wines, can cause the wine to have a cloying mouth feel and leave an unpleasantly sweet impression.
Aftertaste (finish) – The lingering taste of a wine that stays in your mouth is known as the aftertaste, or finish. Again, aftertaste as a term is sometimes viewed as negative, but the best wines have a balanced aftertaste that lasts for many seconds or, in some cases, minutes. Now if the finish is not balanced, then that’s not so positive after all. For example, some wines might taste hot or leave a mild burning sensation in your throat – this usually means the wine has a high and unbalanced amount of alcohol. Others might taste soft (lack of acidity), tannic or seemingly have no finish at all.
Aroma – It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the seemingly endless list of descriptors used about a wine’s aroma. Rose petals, cherry, vanilla and cocoa -- how can these all exist in one wine? Well, all wines are made of aromatic compounds found naturally in the grapes. These are known as primary aromas and are most often associated with fruit character but can have touches of herbs or vegetables, depending on the grape. Wines can also have secondary aromas, like vanilla and cocoa, which speak to the process of making the wine. Also see Bouquet.
Astringent – This term refers to a wine that is so dry that it made your lips pucker. It usually means that the tannin level of the wine is extremely high.
Austere – A wine might be referred to as austere if it is lacking in fruit character and body, yet has high levels of acidity or firm tannins. Austere wines are generally young wines from cool climates and the austere character of these wines may reduce over time.
Balance – All good wines strive to have balance. Acid balances sweetness, fruit character balances oak and tannin, and alcohol is balanced by fruit character. If a wine is not in balance it may be tagged as hot (alcoholic), acidic (too much acid), soft (not enough acid) or tannic (too much tannin relative to fruit).
Body – A reference to body is common in just about all wine descriptions. Body refers to the weight of a wine, whether it feels more like water or milk in your mouth. The impression of weight comes from alcohol as well as glycerin and sugar.
Bouquet – Bouquet is often confused with aroma, but they are not the same. While aroma reflects the scents provided by the grape or winemaker, bouquet is the aromatic qualities associated with the age of the wine. A young fresh wine will have aroma while an older wine can have both aroma and bouquet.
Closed – Professional wine tasters will often describe a young full-bodied wine as closed. This means that these wines often don’t reveal their personality without time in the cellar.
Corked – In rare instances, a wine may have an undesired wet cardboard-like aroma. This may be the result of cork taint. If a cork that has not been properly sterilized is inserted during the bottling process, an off-flavour can develop in the wine.
Cru – This is a word often used with premium French wines. Cru refers to a wine made from a vineyard that is recognized as superior and is often preceded by the word Premiere or Grand. For example, the Grand Cru wines of Burgundy are among France’s best and most expensive wines.
Decant – The act of decanting is simply the process of pouring a wine from a bottle into another glass container. Decanting may seem a bit redundant – why dirty yet another container? However there are valid reasons for doing so. The process of decanting is often reserved for older wines to separate the wine from the natural sediment that has developed in the bottle over time. You may also use decanting to expose young wines to oxygen in an effort to soften the wine’s youthful aggression. In this instance, use a wide mouthed decanter to ensure the wine gets as much exposure to the air as possible.
Dry – A wine with little or no residual sweetness is often referred to as dry. This lack of sugar accentuates the wines acidity and tannin, creating a drying impression in the mouth.
Estate Bottle – This term is used to refer to a wine that is made from grapes grown on the winery’s own property.
Firm – When a wine is described as firm, it doesn’t mean it’s physically hard, but that the finish of the wine has high amounts of acidity and/or tannin. Firm is generally regarded as a positive comment and is reserved for wines with excellent structure.
Fleshy – When a wine is described as fleshy, it means the wine’s texture is rich, and sometimes oily and soft.
Green – Wines from unripe grapes are often described as being green, because they will provide hints of either herbs or vegetables in their character or a very high, citrus-like acidity.
Hot – You might describe a wine as hot if the impression of alcohol is high. Often alcohol can either be smelled in the wine or it comes across as a burning sensation in the throat in the finish of the wine.
Icewine – Wine made from frozen grapes. The grapes must be picked when the outside temperature has dropped to -8 Celsius or lower for a prolonged period of time. High minimum sugar levels are also required in the grape juice (known as must) to be able to make an icewine.
Jammy – Red wines from Australia and other warm countries are often described as jammy. In very warm climates, the character of red wines often veer from fresh fruit flavours to more cooked, jam-like fruit character. In extreme conditions, this fruit character can become dried or raisin-like in nature.
Legs – After swirling a wine around your glass to release its aroma, natural streaks develop on the sides of the glass. These streaks are referred to as the legs of the wine. The character of the legs can give clues about the wine. The thicker the streams, the higher the alcohol or sugar levels of the wine.
Meritage – This is an American term created for wines made by blending a minimum of two of the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties; namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenere for red wines. On rare occasions, some wineries also label a wine as a White Meritage, which is a blend of at least two of the Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Vert, Semillon and Muscadelle grape varieties.
New World Wine – New World wines are those made in countries that were discovered by the Europeans, such as countries in North and South America as well as Australia and New Zealand. South Africa is also often referred to as a New World country.
Nose – The nose of a wine refers to the wine’s aroma, which includes both the primary and secondary aromas as well as the bouquet of the wine.
Old World Wine – Old World wines are those made in traditional European countries as well as in North Africa and Asian Minor.
Oak – Oak is the most common aging and storing vessel for wine. Wine aged or fermented in oak is often described as having aromas suggestive of vanilla, coconut, spice, cedar or possessing a toasty character.
Oakey – A wine may be described as oaky if the aromas of the oak such as vanilla, toasty notes, coconut or freshly hewn oak dominate the fruit character of the wine.
Reserve (Reserva) – Wines labeled in North America as reserve often refer to premium wines or wines aged for extended periods in oak. However there is no legal definition of reserve so the term is often used for marketing purposes. In Europe, the term is more stringently monitored, with individual regions having thier own definition for the term.
Super Tuscans – This term refers to a group of wines made in Italy’s Tuscany province, which are made outside of the traditional wine law and will often incorporate international grape varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
Tannins – The effect of tannins in a wine is the drying sensation felt in the gums and at the back of the tongue. Tannins are phenolic substances found naturally in the seeds, skins and stems of grapes as well as oak. Red wine grapes tend to have more tannins than white wine grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are two grapes that are particularly high in tannins, while Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir and Grenache are known for being low in tannins.
Terroir – While terroir in literal terms means soil, in the case of wine the term has a broader definition. Terroir refers to the complete growing conditions of a region, but more appropriately a vineyard or even an area within a vineyard. This may include aspect, climate, slope and soil amongst other variables. Some even argue the culture of a region may be included as part of a definition of terroir. The word terroir traditionally was reserved for classic Old World wine regions such as Burgundy, but increasingly New World wineries are discovering and promoting the terroir of their vineyards.
Vanilla – Vanilla is the most often used descriptor of a wine aged in oak barrels.
Vintage – Most wines are labeled with a year (vintage) which refers to the year when the grapes were picked. In most countries, in order to label a wine with a vintage, at least 85% of the grapes used to make the wine must have been picked in the year indicated on the label.
VQA – VQA is the acronym of the Vintners Quality Alliance. The VQA is regulatory body that governs the production of wine in Canada. Currently, only wines made in British Columbia and Ontario are sanctioned by the VQA. The VQA symbol found on wines made in British Columbia and Ontario indicates that the wines are made from grapes grown in those provinces and assures the consumer of other quality standards. The wineries of Nova Scotia have their own quality standards, indicated by the Winery Association of Nova Scotia’s lobster claw holding a glass of wine symbol.