Let’s face it, you know at least one wine snob. And every time they taste a wine you watch them swirl the glass and hold it up to the light while talking about how the supple bouquet of this single varietal Zinfandel brings an interesting layer of complexity that wasn’t present in the last vintage — or whatever. You’re not totally sure what they’re talking about, but you want to be. At the very least to be able to beat them at their own game.
Don’t worry. We’ve got your back. Here’s an ever-expanding glossary of wine terminology to keep in your back pocket:
Acidity: We all know that acid is, well, acidic. However, the natural acidity present in all wines can give it body, structure, and age-ability. While too much acid in wine can give it a tart or sour quality, a wine with a balanced amount can be described as crisp or sharp.
American Viticulture Area (AVA): An AVA is a legally defined grape growing region, which is defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Use of an AVA on a wine label requires 85 percent of the grapes to have come from that geographic area.
Appellation: A legally defined grape growing region, including AVA’s and other worldwide institutions, to which regulations other than geographic area may apply. In short: all AVA’s are appellations, but not all appellations are AVA’s.
Aroma: Smells originating from the grape, which is different from a bouquet (smells that build up during bottle-aging).
Astringent: If you’ve had a wine that left you with an immediate case of cottonmouth, you’ve had an astringent wine. Astringency is usually attributed to high tannin levels, and can leave a dry, scratchy feeling in the mouth.
Balanced: All elements in a balanced wine are present in proportions where nothing overwhelms anything else. The more sharp parts of a wine such as acidity and tannins coexist harmoniously with its sweetness, fruit and alcohol to make a product that tastes and ages better.
Big: Usually, a big wine is one that’s full bodied and full flavored. But it can sometimes mean a wine with higher levels of alcohol, residual sugar, or fruit than usual.
Blunt: No, not the one you’re thinking about. A blunt wine tends to be strong on flavor but lacking in aroma and development on the palate.
Body: The overall texture of a wine, including its weight and thickness. The mixture of alcohol, sugar, glycerin, and other particles come together to determine the overall body. Compare it to the difference between, say, light and dark roast coffees. A light roast tends to have a softer, lighter body, while a dark roast can have an intense, almost thick, full body.
Bottle shock / sickness: After wines are bottled or shaken in travel, the alcohol, fruit, and tannins can fall out of balance, creating a tight or nondescript nose along with an astringent or flat taste. Just like with people, give the bottle a few days to rest and it’ll be back to normal.
Bouquet: The smell that a wine develops while it’s aging in the bottle. Usually these smells are more complex than the fruit and oak aromas that come off a wine that hasn’t been aged in a bottle as long.
Bright: Usually a younger wine that is high in acid while still being balanced.
Brix: A measurement of sugar content in grapes and wine.
Bung: Stop laughing. This is serious business. A bung is a rubber or glass stopper inserted into a barrel’s bung hole (yes, really) so the wine can be accessed while in the barrel.
Buttery: Let’s set the scene: You’re out at a fancy dinner with some friends and someone has the gall to look the waiter dead in the eye and ask for their most buttery chardonnay. What are they asking for? Maybe a glass with one of those fancy little butter rounds dropped in it? Possibly. I don’t know your friends. But it’s most likely that they’re asking for a wine that is described as having a melted butter or toasted oak smell, along with a creamy mouthfeel — usually the result of malolactic fermentation.
Clean: A wine that’s basically good. Really. That’s it. There aren’t any strange smells or tastes, nothing off about the wine.
Clone: Vines coming from a single plant that are grown asexually from a single source.
Complex: A wine that has multiple elements — including varying flavors, aromas and bouquets — without any one element taking over.
Cooked: When a wine is exposed to excessive heat during shipping or storage, it can create a dull, muted flavor.
Corked: Wine flawed by an undetectable cork fungus (2,4,6-TCA, if you want to get technical). It’s not dangerous, but it can leave the wine with a distinctly unpleasant musty, damp cardboard smell.
Crisp: Almost on the opposite end of a buttery wine, a crisp wine — usually a white — has a pleasant acidity.
Decanting: A rapid oxidizing process of the wine.
Dry: A wine with little to no residual sugar — true of most wines that aren’t dessert wines. A dry wine can still be very fruit-forward.
Dumb: A stage in a young wine’s life where it’s underdeveloped (hey, we’ve all been there) in flavors and aromas.
Earthy: A common flavor profile in European wines, with earthy, savory characteristics that are reminiscent of places such as forests and barnyards. Certain grapes, including Mourvedre, have a natural earthy character that can be described as “mushroom-y.”
Enology: Also spelled oenology. It is the science of winemaking.
Fat / Flabby: A wine with low acidity and a full body. Without enough acidity, a wine lacks structure. Additionally, if you spell fat as “phat,” you can imply that the wine is totally excellent.
Fermentation: The blessed miracle of turning grape juice into wine by using yeast to make sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Filtering: Pumping wine through a screen to remove extra particles (wine pulp, if you will) left over from fermentation.
Fruit-forward: A fruit-forward wine shows immediately discernible flavors of fruit in the mouth. You’ll hear this a lot around Paso Robles, considering our proliferation of Zinfandels, a variety that is often fruit-forward.
Grapey: A somewhat negative term implying a lack of complexity of flavors and aromas. Basically, your wine should taste like much more than just grapes.
Green: A wine that tastes like unripe fruit, sometimes attributed to wines made from unripe grapes.
GSM: This is a local term used widely in the Central Coast wine regions; it’s an acronym for “Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre,” a popular Rhône varietal wine blend.
Herbaceous: A wine with grassy or herbal flavors and aromas. Wines described as herbaceous are typically white. If you catch hints of thyme, rosemary, or sage in your glass, you’re probably enjoying an herbaceous wine.
Horizontal Tasting: A tasting of several wines from a single vintage, highlighting different aspects of wines from the same year.
Hot: High in alcohol to the point of having an unbalanced, burning finish.
Inky: Deep and dark in color, like ink. Petite Sirah is a good example of a wine that tends to be inky.
Jammy: Often heard in Paso Robles, a jammy wine has flavors and aromas so fruit-forward and berry-like that they are reminiscent of jam or jelly.
Late Harvest: Usually a dessert wine made from grapes picked later than normal, with a higher sugar level than normal.
Legs: The droplets of wine that flow down the side of the glass after swirling.
Malolactic fermentation (MLF): A stage in the winemaking process where malic acid — a natural, tart tasting acid — is converted into lactic acid. This usually occurs immediately after fermentation.
Mature: The point at which a wine has reached its peak in complexity during bottle aging.
Meritage: The name given by California winemakers for a blend of Bordeaux varietals (usually Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot) when they were informed that they could no longer refer to their wines produced outside of France as Bordeaux. Despite popular mispronunciation meritage rhymes with heritage. There is no French enunciation on the word — unless you’re speaking with French accent as a funny joke that’s definitely appreciated and not overdone at all.
Mouthfeel: The physical feeling of the wine in the mouth, which can include adjectives such as silky, thick, sharp, and rough.
Nose: The wine’s general smell — its aroma or bouquet.
Old Vine: Vines that are at least 50 years old. They tend to give off smaller amounts of more concentrated grapes, which helps create more complex wine.
Old World: Parts of Europe where winemaking goes back centuries.
Oxidized: A wine that has been exposed to open air for too long. The wine will sometimes turn a tawny color.
Palate: A wine’s flavor, specifically the way a wine tastes on the front, mid, and back palates. The different sections of your palate process different notes, such as sweet or bitter.
Peak: The point at which a wine tastes best. This is pretty subjective, don’t worry too much about it.
Press: A process after fermentation where the juice, skins and extra solids are squished to separate the juice from everything else. Grapes for white wine are pressed before fermentation.
Punt: When a football player — wait, sorry, wrong list. It’s the indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle. Originally it was used to strengthen hand-blown glass bottles, but now it’s mostly for tradition’s sake.
Residual sugar: Grape sugar left over in a finished wine.
Shoulder: The point where the neck (the thin part where you pour wine from) of a bottle slopes outward.
Sommelier: A wine steward — usually working in fine dining restaurants — who has a strong, comprehensive knowledge of the wine industry.
Structure: A wine’s mouthfeel, created by the way the wine’s acidity, tannins, sugar and alcohol work together.
Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB): A bureau of the U.S. government that oversees regulations, taxes, labeling, labeling and permits for alcohol.
Table wine: A wine that might not be the winery’s highest quality product, but good for everyday drinking wine. You need a wine that you can sit at home on the couch and wolf down a whole pizza with? Then you’re looking for table wine.
Tannic: A wine with a lot of tannins, often creating a rough or dry mouthfeel.
Tannin: Tannic acid, a natural preservative that comes largely from grape skins. Red wines are fermented with the grape skins, which is why red wines are more tannic than white ones. Tannins are also present in coffee and tea among other things, and are often what give all of those things their bitter taste.
Terroir: The way a vine, soil, climate, and topography interact to make a specific and unique wine.
Varietal: A wine labeled as being from a single grape variety. A minimum of 75 percent of one grape variety (say, a Syrah) must be present in the wine to be labeled as a varietal.
Variety: A type of grape. A Zinfandel grape is a variety, a Zinfandel wine is a varietal. It’s confusing. Don’t worry, everyone accidentally switches those two up.
Viniculture: The study and act of grape production specifically for wine.
Vinification: The winemaking process of turning grapes to wine, from the initial crush at the end of harvest to barreling fermented juice.
Vintage: The year that the grapes were grown. In the U.S., at least 95 percent of grapes must have been grown and picked in a single calendar year to be considered as from that vintage.
Viticulture: The study, cultivation, and science of grapes.
Winemaking: Pretty similar to vinification, but includes the entire process, from initial harvest to bottling.