By Greg Masinton
Wine Consultant and Club Carboy Manager
It's not always what you know, but what you sound like you know and what others think you know. Like wine, wine lovers can be organized into a few categories based on the level of their knowledge. And who does the categorizing? Well, everyone else. It's a subtle judgment thing.
For the wine novice, there are certain terms that you should know in order to solidify your knowledge and experience. The better you can define, the better your understanding.
Once you know a bit, take the next step and build your vocabulary so you can communicate with just about everyone.
After that, you hit rarified air and achieve total wine-term master status. This doesn't necessarily mean you know everything, but you can certainly talk like you do. Or, you're a winemaker or Master Somm. Either way, you sound super cool and can impress anyone at the local urban winery.
For whatever level you are now or want to be, we present you with this somewhat comprehensive list of somewhat snobby wine terms, broken down into plainer English - a glossary for the every-wine drinker, if you will - reduced to what you need to know, what you probably should know, and what terms will make you sound like a serious elitist (you know who you are...or want to be). Study hard.
Level I - Terms you Need to know
Acid - Not like your flashbacks from the 70’s. Present in all wine, and captured by the sides of your tongue. The more acid, the more light and crisp it will seem.
Aerate - It’s breathing for wine and helping it mellow and develop its flavors. Breathe in - Breathe out to wake it up.
Balance - Between the fruit, wood, tannin, alcohol, and acid. A well-balanced wine is like doing Warrior 3 in a glass.
Body - Think weight. Think texture. Is it lemon vapor and satin or is it 30-weight motor oil.
Character - What makes you different? What makes the wine different? All the features that make a wine unique make up its character.
Complex - Like your brief fascination with that Goth girl in high-school. Deep, brooding and artsy, but just a little scary. All good wine should be complex.
Crisp - Light and fresh, like biting into a grapefruit. The crispness in wine is brought on by the acid.
Decanting - Aerating the wine by pouring it from its original bottle into another, fancier container you probably got as a wedding gift and haven’t used yet.
Delicate - Subtle and light enough that you’re almost afraid it will break pouring it into the glass, let alone sipping it.
Dry - The opposite of sweet in wines. Low sugar, alcohol, and tannins make you want to drink another bottle to quench the thirst caused by the first bottle.
Earthy - Like eating mud, smelling fresh compost or licking a rock, close your eyes and imagine planting your garden and you’re there.
Finish - It’s not how you start. We want memories in our mouths. The longer the finish the better for describing and enjoying.
Floral - Lots of wines smell of flowers. elements of lavender, violet, and rose are common. If you get geranium, you’re a pro.
Forward - Whatever you taste first and most in a wine is its forward component. Like “fruit forward.”
Fruity - One of the key elements of tasting wine. Yeah, it’s made of grapes, but what other fruits do your nostrils and taste buds get? Trust me, there are more.
Legs - These are the sexy, oily traces left running down the inside of your glass after it’s been tipped. The longer the legs, the more sugar, and alcohol.
Mellow - Low acid, low alcohol, soft and low maintenance. Smoooooth...Like, hey man...everything is everything.
Oaky - Most wine rests in oak barrels for a while. That makes a lot of wine taste...wait for it...Oaky. It could taste like wood. It Could taste like vanilla and caramel. All are elements of oak.
Robust - Kind of big and bold, robust wines are full-bodied and usually high in alcohol. It’s the wine equivalent of eating a filet.
Sediment - That perfectly normal, yet purple sandy and crusty stuff left in the bottle after you pour out the wine. It won’t hurt you , but don’t drink it. It tastes terrible. Decant, friends. Decant.
Level 2 - Terms you probably should know
Appellation - It’s like drinking a geography lesson. The appellation is the specific geographic area from which a wine is produced.
Astringency - Pucker up. Young wines can show sourer and astringent caused by acid and tannins. It should mellow with age.
Bouquet - Like standing a few feet from a bouquet of flowers and not being able to pick out any one smell. The bouquet is the combined odor of the wine.
Chewy - Chewy wines feel think in your mouth, and can seem earthy and rich and big, almost like you should be eating it with a spoon.
Fat - It’s okay to call a wine fat. Fat wines are a little sweeter, lighter in acid and full of body and full of love.
Green - Like an intern just out of college. A green wine just isn’t ready yet and can smell and taste like a salad or a piece of celery. Maybe it’s the grapes. Maybe it’s the process.
Harsh - Harsh wines generally lack any fruitiness. There’s too much acid or alcohol. Maybe too much wood or tannic bitterness. They’re just not nice.
Malolactic Fermentation - A fancy wine snob term for the process that turns bitter malic acid into creamy lactic acid. Think a buttery Chardonnay. Just be careful. If you call it “malo,” you might get slapped.
Mouthfeel - Kind of a gross term, but perfect. This is the essence of touching different textured things...you know...with your mouth.
Minerality - This is the essence of rock, sand, and limestone that is easy to acknowledge but nearly impossible to specifically pinpoint in wine unless you’ve really studied your geography and appellations. But when you hit on one, it’s really cool
Muscular - Bigger red wines, like Cabs and Malbecs, can put hair on your chest and be called muscular.
Nose - Formally a real snob term, now inching its way into regular vernacular. This is simply the smell of wine and should be used as a noun. “Good nose.” “Bad nose.”
Nouveau - One of our fancy French terms, meaning “new” or young. If a wine says this, drink it. It’s not supposed to be around long enough to get old.
Oxidation - Like botox. Can be good in small doses, but WOW - too much and the situation can turn sour, vinegary and ugly.
Palate - This one is on you. It’s how you perceive the taste of the wine. No one is more right than anyone else.
Spicy - It's that peppery and sharp sensation, like anise, cinnamon or spearmint.
Sweet - Not fruity, but sweet. Sweetness can be a result of fruitiness, but more likely residual sugar.
Tannin - Another "snob" topic of years past that is now a must know. A product of all the product, grape skins, seeds, and stems that make wine dry different.
Terroir - another fancy French word meaning absolutely everything. The cumulative of nature and how it affects the wine. It's earth, wind, and fire, without the groove.
Varietal - One wine made from mostly one grape. Usually, it's a legal thing. A Napa Cab has to be a certain high percentage of Napa Cab by law. A Varietal.
Level 3 - Terms for the Elitist Parvenu - (look it up)
Austere - Like the Greek economy, too tight, closed, strict, struck and no hope for the future. Give it time and room to maneuver.
Barnyard - I taste leather, grass and cow poop. For the elitist, these are the sought after qualities brought to the wine from the field...and then never leaving the wine.
Brett - Short for Brettanomyces and often a result of bad sanitary conditions during winemaking. The wine just tastes off, like juice that has just started to turn. Be careful using this one.
Closed - Like your eighth-grade love affair. Awkward, young and definitely in need of maturing. Doesn't mean it's bad, just needs some wisdom.
Feminine - Think runway model or Zoolander. Perfect for the budding Parvenu. Light, sweet and fruity, low in alcohol and delicate.
Fruit bomb - Imagine taking a big swig of fruit preserves. Fruit bombs don't age well, so sip them down young.
Garagiste - The artisan. This fancy French term refers to a really, really small wine producer. Good or bad, the Parvenu seeks out these rare wines simply to feel special.
Glycerine - This is what gives wine its sense of thickness. Like puffy lips and boob jobs, glycerine is totally natural. Totally.
Hang time - "What was the hang time, man?" Means how long the grapes stayed hanging on the vine before being picked. Generally, the longer the hang time, the more character.
High-Toned - Think about a strong cough drop...not the taste, but what it dies to your senses. The sharpness and acid and hit your sinuses strong, like menthol. Those are the high-tones.
Must - The must is the mix of crushed grapes, stems and skins from which that glorious wine is pressed.
Oenophile - You're well on your way. An oenophile is one who studies wine. Keep it up and study these terms.
Phylloxera - this little buggy-boo feeds on vines and pretty much wiped out European vines and wine production a couple hundred years ago. It's American, of course.
Pipi de chat - French term for cat piss. Yeah, cat piss. It's an acidic and mineral essence that is actually a good thing in some wines. Oh, and you'll know it when you smell it.
Pips - Grape seeds. Why not just say "seeds"? Because they are pips. A major source of bitterness and tannin in wine.
Punt - You know that little thumb indentation-type-hole thing on the bottom of wine bottles? That's it. Now you know.
Pyrazine - Vegans get this, as do a few serious wine term snobs. Pyrazine is the chemical part of what gives bell peppers their odor.
Silky - Smooth with little to no bitterness and usually more alcohol. It's confident sex appeal in a glass.
Umami - A snobby word for the essence of savory. Meaty and delicious. This is actually our fifth sense of taste and a great term to pull out to impress probably only yourself.
Velvety - Thick, smooth and silky with low tannin, low acid. Think brie and butterscotch.
Well? Which level are you now? There will be a test the next time you hit the wine bar.