Wine Terms

Just what does “Reserve” really mean? And could Noble Rot possibly be a good thing? Here are definitions to wine terms you’ll often hear in the world of wine.



A.O.C. – An abbreviation for Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, the French government agency that controls wine production there.

A.V.A. – An abbreviation for American Viticultural Area.

Acetic – Vinegary taste or smell that develops when a wine is overexposed to air.

Acid – One of the four tastes of wine. It is sometimes described as sour, acidic, or tart and can be found on the sides of the tongue and mouth.

Aficionado – Grape nut (in a good way). An aficionado is a more contemporary and less snobbish term for a connoisseur. While not always a collector, a wine aficionado appreciates the distinctions among wines of varying grapes, origins and ages.

Alcohol – Alcoholic strength is the ethanol (the main product of fermentation) in wine. Alcohol affects the taste, texture and structure of the wine itself.

Amarone (Ah-ma-ROH-nay) – A type of Veronese wine made by a special process in which grapes are harvested late and allowed to shrivel, thus producing a higher alcohol percentage in the wine and sometimes a sweet taste.

Appellation – Place of origin. An appellation is an official, regulated wine region; the term is derived from France’s AOC system.

Aroma – The smell of the grapes in a wine.

Aromatized Wine – Usually a fortified wine that is flavored by as few as one, or as many as fifty aromatic or botanical compounds such as flowers, herbs, or fruits. Vermouth is a good example.

Auslese – A sweet, white, German wine made from selected bunches of late-picked grapes.

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Barrel Fermentation – The process of fermenting wines in small barrels instead of large vats or stainless steel tanks.

Barrel-Fermented – A method of fermentation done in barrels, usually oak.

Beerenauslese – A full-bodied, sweet, white, German wine made from rich, ripe grapes affected by botrytis.

Bin number – Australians developed a practice of using “Bin” numbers to identify distinct bottlings. Bin numbers are just names, and have no official meaning.

Bio-Dynamic – From grapes grown without the aid of chemical or synthetic sprays or fertilizers and vinified with natural yeasts and the minimum use of filtration, sulphur dioxide and chaptalization.

Blanc de Blancs – A white wine made from white grapes.

Blanc de Noirs – A white wine made from red grapes.

Blush – An informal term usually applied to off-dry light pink wines made from red grapes, such as White Zinfandel.

Bordeaux – An A.O.C. in the southwest of France. Bordeaux is the biggest red wine area in the world. 25% of all A.O.C. wines come from Bordeaux.

Botrytis Cinerea – A mold that forms on the grapes, also known as noble rot, which is necessary to make Sauternes and the rich German wines Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

Bottle-Fermented – Reference to the second fermentation that occurs in the bottle during the production of sparkling wine via the méthode champenoise.

Buttery – Descriptor for rich flavor and smoothness of texture, somewhat akin to the oiliness and flavor of butter. More often refers to oak-aged white wines than reds; many Chardonnays and white Burgundies are said to have buttery aromas and flavors.

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Cava – Spanish name for sparkling wine.

Chablis – The northernmost region in Burgundy, or a wine that comes from Chardonnay grapes grown anywhere in the Chablis district.

Champagne – The region in France that produces the only sparkling wine that can be authentically called Champagne.

Chaptalization – The addition of sugar to the grape juice before and/or during fermentation. This process is not intended to make the wine sweeter, but rather to provide more sugar for the yeast to ferment into alcohol.

Charmat Method – Still wine is produced and left in the tanks. Carbon dioxide is added to create the sparkle. The finished sparkling wine is filtered. The dosage is added to determine the style, and the wine is bottled under pressure to maintain the artificial sparkle.

Chewy – Wines with unusual thickness of texture or tannins that one almost chews before swallowing.

Chianti – A D.O.C.G. red wine from the Tuscany region of Italy.

Chianti Classico – One step above Chianti in terms of quality, this wine is from an inner district of Chianti.

Chianti Classico Riserva – The best quality level of Italian Chianti, which requires more aging than Chianti and Chianti Classico.

Château – French legal term for a house attached to a vineyard having a specific number of acres with winemaking and storage facilities on the property.

Classified Château – Belonging to the châteaus in the Bordeaux region of France that are known to produce the best wine.

Clone –  A specific genetic strain of grape variety. Relevant only to winegrowers and studious enophiles.

Coarse – Rude or harsh in flavor.

Complete – Mature, with good follow-through on the palate, satisfying mouthfeel and firm aftertaste.

Cooked – Heavy, pruney flavor; also said of wines from very hot growing regions or wines that are overripe.

Crisp – Fresh, brisk character that is usually associated with high acidity.

Cuvée   Batch. Blends of wines effected prior to bottling are referred to as cuvées. As with “Bin,” the term appears on labels as an unregulated term.

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D.O.C. – An abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the Italian government agency that controls wine production.

D.O.C.G. – An abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita; the Italian government allows the marking to appear only on the finest wines. The G stands for guaranteed.

Decanting – The process of pouring wine from its bottle into a carafe to separate the sediment from the wine.

Distinctive – Elegant, refined character that sets the wine apart on its own.

Dull – Lacking liveliness and proper acidity; uninteresting.

Dumb – Not revealing flavor or aroma; closed; typical of wines that are too young or too cold.

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Earthy – Smell or flavor reminiscent of earth. A certain earthiness can be appealing; too much makes the wine coarse.

Eiswein (ice wine) – A wine made from harvesting frozen grapes and crushing them to produce a sweet style of wine.

Enology – The study of winemaking; also spelled oenology.

Enophile –  Someone who enjoys and appreciates fine wine; also spelled oenophile.

Estate-Bottled – Wine that’s entirely made, produced and bottled by a single winery.

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Fermentation – The process by which grape juice is made into wine. Caused by the interaction of yeast (natural and added) with the sugars in grape juice.

Filtration – A step used by some winemakers to clarify wine just prior to bottling.

Finesse – Distinctive balance; fineness; elegance and flair.

Flat – Dull, lacking in liveliness; wine without sufficient acid.

Flavored Wines – The process of beginning with a base wine and adding natural or artificial flavoring.

Flinty – Dry, mineral character that comes from certain soils, mostly limestone, in which the wine was grown; typical of French Chablis and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs (Sancerre).

Flor – A type of yeast that develops in some Sherry production.

Flowery – Aroma suggestive of flowers.

Fortified Wine – A wine such as Port and Sherry that has additional grape brandy that raises the alcohol content.

Forward – Developed ahead of its peers; also, when the fruit is prominent, it is said to be forward.

Foxy – The grapey flavors of wines made from native American grapes.

Frizzante – Semi-sparkling or spritz.

Fruit-Based Wines – Wines made from something other than grapes; like pineapple or apples.

Full-bodied – Full proportion of flavor and alcohol; big, fat

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Gran Reserva – Spanish wine that has had extra aging.

Grip – Firmness of flavor and structure.

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Half-Split –  A bottle—typically Champagne or sparkling wine—containing 187 ml, which is half the size of a Split, and approximately a quarter of the size of a standard bottle.

Halbtrocken – The German term meaning semi-dry.

Harmonious – All elements (fruit, acid, tannins) in perfect balance.

Harsh – Rough, biting character from excessive tannins or acid.

Herbaceous – Aromas reminiscent of fresh grass or hay; grassy, as in certain Sauvignon Blancs; also the green pepper character of some Cabernet Sauvignons.

Herby – Reminiscent of herbs such as mint, sage, thyme or eucalyptus.

Hermitage – A red wine from the Northern Rhône Valley region of France.

Honest – Without flaws, typical and straightforward, simple but not great.

Honeyed – Smell or taste reminiscent of honey; characteristic of late harvest wines affected by noble rot.

Hybrid – A cross between two or more different varieties of grape.

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IGT  Abbreviation for Vino a Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a relatively new official term (developed in the 1990s) used to indicate a quality wine made with untraditional grapes but from a defined area. For example, Super Tuscan blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are labeled IGT Toscana.

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Joven  – A term applied to any DO or D.O.C. wine; typically, the wine sees little or no time in oak and is sold as a fresh and fruity wine.

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Kabinett – A light, semi-dry German wine.

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Late Fortification – The addition of alcohol to a wine after fermentation is complete with any sweetness added afterwards, rendering a wine with up to 15% alcohol by volume.

Late-Harvest – Grapes left on the vine after initial harvest to intensify the sugar content.

Lees – Sediment that accumulates at the bottom of a vat during fermentation.

Light – Refers to wines light in alcohol but also to texture and weight (how the wine feels in the mouth). Lightness is appropriate in some wines, a defect in others.

Lively – Crisp, fresh, having vitality.

Long – Fine wines should have a long finish or aftertaste.

Luscious – Rich, opulent and smooth; most often said of sweet wines, but also intensely fruity ones.

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Maceration – The period of time that grape juice spends in contact with the skins and seeds.

Macroclimate – Describes the average, overall weather conditions in a large wine-growing region such as Bordeaux, France or Napa Valley, California.

Magnum –  A bottle that holds 1.5 liters of wine, the equivalent of two standard bottles.

Malolactic Fermentation – A secondary fermentation which converts the malic acid in a wine to softer lactic acid. This winemaker’s trick reduces the overall acidity of the wine, softening most red wines and imparting a creaminess to white wines such as Chardonnay.

Meaty – A wine with chewy, fleshy fruit flavor; sturdy and firm in structure.

Mechanical Harvester – A machine used on flat vineyards that shakes the vines to harvest the grapes.

Mellow – Smooth and soft with no harshness.

Méthode Champenoise   The method—perfected if not actually invented in the Champagne region of France—of inducing a secondary, inside-the-bottle fermentation to create authentic sparkling wine. The process is expensive and labor-intensive; cheaper bubblies are made in huge tanks.

Meritage – A proprietary designation for an American Bordeaux-style blend made up of two or more grape varieties. Approved varieties:Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Mesoclimate – Describes the climate of a small area, typically an individual vineyard or hillside.

Microclimate – Describes the climate immediately around the vine. It is influenced by canopy management.

Moldy – Wines with the smell of mold or rot, usually from grapes affected by rot or from old moldy casks used for aging.

Muselet   A wire cage that fits over the cork of a champagne or sparkling wine bottle to prevent the cork from opening under the carbonation’s pressure.

Must – Grape juice before fermentation.

Musty – Stale, dusty or rank aromas.

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Noble – Great; of perfect balance and harmonious expression. The so-called noble grapes are those that produce the finest wines in the world.

Noble Rot – See Botrytis Cinerea.

Non-Vintage – A blend of grapes from two or more years.

Nose – A general term referring to the olfactory sense of wine.

Nutty – A term used for some wines, such as Sherry or Tawny Port, that have a crisp, nutty characteristic.

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Oak   The wood of choice for wine barrels. French and American oak are considered the best, American being a bit more aggressive. Both impart vanilla and spice aromatics and flavors. Increasingly, oak chips may be used (added to wines in large tanks) as a less- expensive means of adding oak character to bulk wines.

Old Vines –  An unregulated term used by wineries (usually Californian, French, or Australian) indicating significant age in the vineyard (usually 40-100 years). Old vines are believed to yield more concentrated fruit flavors. The French term is Vieille Vignes.

Old World –  Europe, basically. But “Old World” as a term is also used to describe traditional means of winemaking, as well as wine styles that lean toward refinement and subtlety.

Off-Flavors – Not quite right; flavors or odors that are not correct for a particular type of wine.

Open – Revealing full character.

Organic Wines – A generic term for wines produced using the minimum amount of sulphur dioxide. From grapes grown without the aid of chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

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Passito – Winemaking technique using raisins or semi-dried grapes.

Petrol/Petroleum – Sensory term used to describe the faint smell of petroleum found in some wines, specifically Riesling.

Phylloxera – A root louse that kills grape vines.

Pips – Small seeds of a fruit.

Pomace – Solid remains of grapes after pressing containing the skins, seeds, and stems.

Proprietary Wine – A wine that is given a brand name and is marketed by that name.

Punt – Dimple at the bottom of the bottle.

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Qualitätswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (QbA) – Quality wine from a specified region in Germany.

Qualitätswein mit Prädikat (QmP) – The highest quality category of wine defined by the German wine laws adapted in 1971.

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Racking – The process of siphoning the wine off the lees and into barrels. Racking allows for clarification and stabilization.

Reserva/Riserva – A term that means a wine has extra aging; it is often found on Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian wine labels.

Reserve – A term sometimes found on American wine labels, usually indicating a better quality wine, but with no legal significance.

Ripe – Mature, fully developed fruit.

Rosé   White wine made from red grapes. Usually, the rosy pink color comes from a brief period of skin contact (as opposed to extended skin contact which renders the wines fully red and richer); rosés are typically dry. Many of the best hail from the South of France.

Rough – Harsh edges, biting, unpleasant.

Ruby Port – A dark, sweet, fortified wine blended from non-vintage wines.

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Sake – Often called Japanese rice wine. Considered by some to be a beer because it is made from a grain.

Sec – Dry.

Sediment – Small particles, mostly of pigments, that fall out of suspension during a wine’s aging. Not recognized as a flaw.

Sekt – German name for sparkling wine.

Sharp – Biting acid or tannins.

Short – Refers to a wine’s finish or aftertaste, not desirable.

Silky – Smooth, sinuous texture and finish.

Simple – Opposite of complex, straightforward.

Skin Contact – The maceration of skin in the fermenting juice can extract varying degrees of color, tannins, and various aromatic compounds.

Smoky – Aroma and flavor sometimes associated with oak aging.

Sommelier   A wine steward in a restaurant. While there is a certification system for sommeliers in the U.S., the term is most often applied informally as a job designation. Formal sommeliers are dwindling in number and these days are usually found in restaurants whose long wine lists require frequent maintenance and where diners often seek advice on specific bottles.

Spätlese – A white, German wine made from grapes picked later than the normal harvest.

Split –  A bottle containing 375 ml, which is half the size of a standard bottle.

Spumante – Italian term meaning fully sparkling.

Stainless-Steel Tank – A container used to ferment and age some wines. Preferred due to its capability for temperature control.

Steely – Firmly structured; taut balance tending toward high acidity.

Still wine   A term that applies to any wine that is not sparkling. Synonymous with table wine.

Stiff – Unyielding and closed; dumb.

Strong – Robust, powerful, big.

Stuffing – Big, flavorful, full-bodied, robust.

Sturdy – Bold, vigorous flavor; full-bodied, robust.

Sulfites   A derivative of sulfur and a natural by-product of fermentation. Also can come from the addition of sulfur dioxide, widely used during fermentation as a preservative. Most fine wines contain very low levels of sulfites; bulk wines contain more. Under U.S. law, wine with sulfites higher than 10 ppm (parts per million) must state “contains sulfites” on the label; effectively, this threshold means that all wines bear the same notation, even though the precise level of sulfites varies.

Sulfur Dioxide – A substance used in winemaking and grape growing as a preservative, antioxidant and sterilizing agent.

Super Tuscan – A term coined in the 1980s for the blended Italian wines not legal to be called D.O.C. or D.O.C.G., but generally of very high quality.

Süssreserve – The practice of adding unfermented grape juice into fermented wine to increase sweetness.

Sur Lie   See Lees.

Sweet – Generally applies to the sense of taste, but can also apply to smell.

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Table wine   Still wine. In the United States, the term applies legally to wine that is under 14% alcohol, but the term is usually not found on labels. These wine are also called dinner wines because they are intended to be consumed with food. In European countries, any form of “table wine” on the label (vin de table, vino da tavola) indicates a very basic wine, considered of lesser quality than wines with a stated region of origin.

T.B.A. – An abbreviation for the German wine Trockenbeerenauslese.

Tafelwein – A German table wine.

Tannin – A natural compound and preservative that comes from the skins, stems, and pips of the grapes and also from the wood in which wine is aged.

Tart – Sharp; acceptable if not too acidic.

Tartrates and Tartrate Crystals – Tartaric acid crystals that precipitate out of a wine when exposed to low temperatures but which do not affect the taste or quality of the wine.

Tawny Port – A Port that is lighter, softer, and aged in wood longer than Ruby Port.

Terroir – A French term, not easily translated, used to define the total environment of a grapevine—not just soil, but also climate, rainfall, drainiage, elevation, slope, and sun exposure. Connoisseurs often ascribe particular characteristics in wine to a vineyard’s terroir. Most often used in reference to Old World wines.

Thick – Dense and heavy in texture.

Tough – Past its peak of flavor development; old.

Transfer Method – Sparkling wine production method where wine is transferred from bottle to tank after secondary fermentation for filtering and flavor adjustment prior to being bottled again for sale.

Trockenbeerenauslese – The richest and sweetest wine made in Germany from the most mature grapes.

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Ullage – Refers to any amount by which a barrel is unfilled. Also applied to the unfilled air space at the top of a bottle of wine, which is essential to allow for expansion due to temperature changes.

Unfiltered – A wine that has not been filtered before bottling and contains dead yeast cells and other sediments.

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Vanilla – A scent imparted by aging in oak.

Varietal Wine – A wine that is labeled with the predominant grape used to produce the wine.

Vendange Tardive – French for late harvest.

Verdejo – A variety of wine grape that has long been grown in the Rueda region of Spain. Verdejo was generally used to make a strongly oxidized, Sherry-like wine.

Veronese Wines – The wines from Veneto, Italy: Valpolicella, Bardolino, Soave, and Amarone.

Vigorous – Firm, lively fruit, strong body; assertive flavor.

Village Wine – A wine that comes from a particular village in Burgundy, France.

Vinegary – Having the smell of vinegar; see also Acetic.

Viniculture   The science of winemaking.

Vinification – Describes the entire process of making wine from the moment the grapes are picked to the point that it is bottled.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano – A D.O.C.G. red wine from the Tuscany region of Italy.

Vintage – Denotes that the grapes for a wine were grown and vinified in the year on the label. 85% in the E.U. and 95% in U.S. must come from the vintage on the label.

Vintage Port – A port produced in one vintage during exceptional years and bottled after only two years in wood. Generally only 3 in 10 years are declared vintages in Portugal.

Vintner   Wine producer or winery proprietor.

Viticulture – The cultivation of grapevines or the study or science of grapes and their culture.

Vitis Vinifera – The European grape species used to make European and Californian wines.

Vitis Labrusca – A native grape species in America.

Viura – A grape used to make mildly acidic and young white wines, typically suitable for early consumption or blending; often the main grape of white Rioja.

Volatile – Smells of acetic acid and/or ethyl acetate; quite disagreeable when excessive though a tiny amount may enhance aromas.

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Watery – Thin, lacking in flavor.

Weak – Lacking grip typical for the wine; without character.

Weighty – Strong, powerful, full-bodied, forceful.

Whole Berry Fermentation – A variation on the normal red wine fermentation process in which the winemaker keeps some of the whole grapes separate while the bulk is crushed, pressed and then fermented. The whole grapes are added during fermentation, extending the fermentation process and reducing the tannin level of the wine and adding more of a berry flavor.

Wine Thief – A syringe-like instrument used to remove a sample of wine from a cask, tank, or barrel.

Woody – Excessive aromas of wood, common to wines aged overlong in cask or barrel.

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Yeast – Unicelluar microorganisms that bring about fermentation by eating the sugars in the grape juice and giving off alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Yeasty – A wine-tasting term used to describe the yeasty, fresh bread bouquet found in certain wines that have been aged sur lie.

Yield – A term used in grape growing and winemaking circles to express the productivity of a set amount of vineyard land.

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Zone   Another word for place of origin, often used in Italy, as in the Chianti Classico zone.

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