Wine 101: terms of the trade

The first step to understanding wine is knowing how to talk about it.

Wine is one part chemistry, one part art, and one part English class. It seems there are more ways to talk about wines than there are types of wines. But, with the right terminology, you can go far. Here are some basic lingo to help you sound like and expert. 

A naturally occurring aspect of every wine and a key element of its longevity. Acidity is what gives wine its crispness. The more acid, the sharper the flavor. Wines with high acid content are often described as tart or tangy.

Have you heard of "letting a wine breathe"? After uncorking, you let the poured or decanted wine sit undisturbed. These brief moments, exposed to oxygen, unlock the chemical structure of the wine, softening its flavors and encouraging it to more readily release its aromas.

Almost everyone has heard the phrase, "to get better with age." Well, that too comes from the world of wine. The longer wines stay in their barrels, tanks, and bottles, the more mature and complex (i.e., more flavorful) they become. Of course, like all things in life, if it sits too long it will spoil. So drink up! 

A wine's aroma or "nose" is its overall smell. There are fruity aromas (like blackberry, cherry, or green apple), floral aromas (lavender, iris and rose) and even Earthy, oaky, nutty, spicy, yeasty and many more. Some aromas are obvious. Others are harder to grasp. For example, some flavors of Earthy wine might be mossy, damp or even (gulp!) gravel.

Balance describes how all a wine's elements (acids, sugars, tannins and alcohol) come together. If each element is equally present, it's considered a well-balanced blend. But if one of the elements dominates the others, the wine is considered unbalanced and less enjoyable to drink.

Usually, oak, barrels are the most commonly thought of device for wine fermentation. But why? Oak-barrel aging produces a richer, creamier, oaky flavor that other containers (such as stainless steel) can't replicate.

Blends are the hybrids of the wine world. It's when two or more grape varietals are combined after being fermented separately. In blends, each varietal adds a unique attribute for more depth or richness. Some of today's most common blends include red or white Bordeaux, Champaign and Pinot Noir.

A wine's body is actually first detected in the mouth, from the very first taste. Body describes the weight and fullness of the wine in your mouth. Light, medium and full are the most common descriptors, but many other levels exist in between.

Different from aroma in that bouquet usually references the complex aromas that exist in aged wines and is a key determinant of a wine's quality. While aromas usually describe the uppermost scents of the wine, its bouquet refers to the wine's tertiary characteristics, which develop only after the post-fermentation process. 

How hard can it be, right? It's either red, white or rosé. Actually, a wine's true colors go deeper than that. Color is a key determinant of age and quality. So, white wines get darker as they age while red wines become more brownish orange over time.

The definition of a complex wine is actually quite simple. It means the flavor changes from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow, delivering many nuances in aroma and flavor on the tongue. As you can imagine, the more complex the wine, the more enjoyable it is to drink as each new layer reveals itself to the palette.

Dry wines (the opposite of sweet) contain only 0.2 unfermented sugar, which give them a somewhat bitter flavor. Dry wines are often high in tannins and cause a puckering sensation in your mouth, but not always. There are also semi-drys or off drys, which have a mild or softly perceptible sweetness.

Ah, the process that turns a grape into wine. Oh, sweet science! But how? Fermentation converts sugars into alcohol with yeast. Today, a few producers still ferment wines in oak casks, tuns, etc., but most prefer thermostatically controlled stainless-steel vats, where the fermentation process can be more tightly controlled.

Perhaps the most satisfying sensation of wine appreciation. After you take a drink, the finish is what's left behind – the impression of the flavors and textures that linger on the palette. The finish can be described as spicy or sweet, savory or bitter, hot or harsh, or any other number of ways.

Welcome to the world of giants. From Cabernets to Zinfandels, these full-bodied wines are bursting with big aromas and full flavors. They also are high in Blood Alcohol Content. They shy need not apply. Most are red, but not all. Some whites, like Chardonnay, comfortably fit into this category.

Surprise! We're home to some of the best-made wines on the planet! Low rainfall, high elevation, nightly temperature swings of up to 40°F and plenty of microclimates allow everything from Tempranillo and Malbec to Syrah, Riesling and Viognier to thrive in our lush, rich soil.

Take your glass of wine and give it a swirl. If it sticks to the glass, the little streaks that begin to trickle down the side of the glass are the legs. The legs are caused by the amount of alcohol present. So the more legs you get, the more potent the wine. Sweeter wines are more viscous and present legs that roll slowly.

This term is tied to finish (see above), referring to the amount of time that flavors linger in the mouth after swallowing. Length is essentially, as it implies, a measure. A wine’s length may be described as long, moderate or short. In general, a long length is considered a sign of high quality.

One of the things that set wines apart are how they feel on the palette. They can be rough, smooth, velvety, gritty or even furry. These are opinions about the physical sensations each taste leaves in the mouth and includes body, alcohol, acidity, and sweetness. In a well-balanced wine these characteristics are all are present, yet none will dominate.

Oxidation occurs when a wine has been exposed to too much air and undergone a chemical change, damaging the character and flavor of the wine. It occurs when the bacteria naturally present in grapes turn the alcohol in wine into acetic acid, giving it a vinegar taste. There are several devices you can buy to preserve your wines after opening.

Meet the diplomat of the wine world. Pronounced "so - mall - ee - a," they are the wine masters, having undergone rigorous study, both mentally and physically, to achieve pro status. Forget about the outdated image of haughty, pompous French guys dressed all in black. Today's super somms are young, cool, covered in tattoos and come with an Instagram following.

A group of bitter and astringent compounds wildly present in nature and – naturally therefore – in the skins and pits of grapes. When a wine has a pleasant amount of tannins, noticeable but unobtrusive, it’s often described as “grippy.” When tannins are described as “green,” they’re slightly bitter and have unpleasant quality. Over time tannins die, making wine less harsh.

This French term refers, which when literally translated means earth or soil, actually refers to the the four main factors of a particular region – climate, soils, terrain and tradition – that influence the ultimate character and flavor of a wine. 

The opposite of a blend. A varietal is made and named from just the one grape it's made. Common varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling and many others. Understanding key characteristics of each wine varietal is one of the key ways of identifying the wines you like, and why.

One of the ultimate markers of prestige! It's the year the grapes were harvested. And why it matters is dependent on the weather, which can greatly affect taste and quality. Too much or too little sunshine and rain can have a big impact on flavor.

In addition to the glossary of words that describe how wine is made, there are an even greater list of adjectives that describe how it tastes. There are the common ones we all know and make sense: "dry," "sweet," "fruity." Then there's "petichor," "angular" and even "cliff-edge."