Wine has been a passion and great pleasure in my life for many years. However, I felt that most wine connoisseurs were pretentious, and this can turn many people off. I chose to spend my time drinking wine rather than getting knee deep in the jargon and worrying about describing my experience. For me, having the experience was enough.
However, hanging out with wine enthusiasts can make you feel like an outsider, especially if you don’t know their jargon. Working on my most recent book, Inside the Chinese Wine Industry, I enjoyed the opportunity to vastly expand my knowledge of wine.
In the process, I came to understand that there are many terms that were either unclear for me or completely new. Although there are hundreds, if not thousands of terms specific to wine appreciation, I have decided to share a list of ten that might not be the most obvious, but are interesting and important in their own way. I chose to use terms that are immediately useful for wine enthusiasts at all stages of their wine drinking lives except for perhaps the most advanced. So, in no particular order here are ten useful wine terms to know:
The French term terroir is derived from the Latin word terre which means “land.” Terroir refers to a combination of environmental factors that give a crop specific characteristics. The main factors are geomorphology, climate, soil type, and surrounding vegetation. Terroir is the basis for the French appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) laws which grant certain distinctions to wine, cheese, and other agricultural products based upon their geographical origin.
One of the most popular examples of this is that sparkling white wine derived from the Champagne region in France is the only sparkling white wine that can be referred to as Champagne. The AOC system is the basis for appellation. Regulation of wines is not only in practice in France, but around the world with most European countries having some sort of classification.
After you swirl a glass of wine, do you ever notice the streaks of wine that remain and slowly trickle down into the glass again? Also poetically referred to as “tears of wine,” these columns of residual wine are generally referred to as “legs.” The importance of legs is that the longer they hang around, the more they speak to the amount of alcohol in the wine, but can also give some indication about a wine’s sugar content.
Many people erroneously associate legs with viscosity and quality. However, the most important characteristic that it reveals is simply how much alcohol is in the wine.
The OIV is referred to as the International Organization of Vine and Wine in English. According to their website, the OIV is “an intergovernmental organization concerning itself with the scientific and technical aspects of viticulture, oenology and the vitivinicultura economy.” This international body has a wealth of information about the status of the worldwide wine industry.
(Pronounced: ee-nuh-fahyl) The word derives from the Greek oinos (wine) + philos (lover of). The word was used in Modern French as Oenophile to get the modern meaning.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is a lover or connoisseur of wine.
Although wine can be made from various types of grapes, nearly 99% of the wine consumed in the world is Vitis vinifera. The species is said to have originated somewhere between the Mediterranean and Southwestern Asia. It is estimated that there are between five and ten thousand types of Vitis Vinifera.
To gain a deeper understanding, consider contrasting Vitis Vinifera with Vitis Labrusca, which is native to North America and also produces wine.
Almost on the level of a great wine opener, a decanter is an essential tool in the hands of a serious wine lover. The decanter fulfills multiple purposes but there are two main purposes that we will cover here. First, there is the need to let the wine “breathe.” You will often hear people say that the wine needs to “open up” before drinking. This is just another way of saying that the wine needs to be exposed to oxygen.
Why? Well, the short answer is that within the bottle there are various chemical reactions taking place which are not all beneficial to the taste of the wine, especially when consumed immediately after opening. The exposure to the air can have dramatic transformative effects on taste. This is why you often see people swirling their wine in the glass before drinking, in order to accelerate the process.
Pouring the wine into a decanter is a way to get additional oxygen to the wine in order to allow it to “open up” more quickly and fully. This is can be helpful with many red wines (Burgundy being a notable exception) and certain whites like Sauvignon Blanc. For those who have a profound interest in the science behind decanting, this article is excellent.
The second major reason to decant is to deal with sediment. There is certain sediment from the winemaking process and from the aforementioned chemical reactions that settles to the bottom of wine bottles. This is especially true of older wines. There is nothing more disappointing than to have an old bottle that has been cellared for a special occasion compromised and sediment is one culprit.
In fact, it is widely held that dealing with sediment was the key reason for the invention of the decanter in the first place. If your bottle was rightfully stored on its side, it is best to let it stand upright and let the sediment settle to the bottom. Many oenophiles recommend standing the bottle vertically for a couple of days before opening and decanting. Then when you pour the wine into the decanter, do it slowly and with precision, checking carefully that there is no sediment. Once sediment from the bottom comes to the neck (toward the end of the bottle), it is time to stop. One pro tip here is that if you hold a light under the bottle, it is easier to realize when the sediment starts mixing with the wine. Once you see the sediment start to mingle, it is time to stop pouring.
This is a term for bad wine that is usually mass-produced. The term is used derisively by wine connoisseurs. It is also fun to say.
The term cru, which is often translated from French as “vintage” or “growth” can be the source of confusion, but it is better understood by learning the origin of Grand Cru. This was part of the 1855 classification in Bordeaux under the reign of Napoleon III. In 1855, the Universal Exhibition in Paris showcased exciting goods for visitors from around the world.
Wine was an important part of the Universal Exhibition and several regions put their best on display, including Champagne and Burgundy. Winemakers in Bordeaux knew they had something special and did not want to be outshone by their famous colleagues in regions like Champagne.
They decided to display the wine with individual bottles bearing the name of the owner along with the corresponding chateau. Each was placed on an enlarged map of the Bordeaux region, so revelers at the exhibition could get a sense of the region. Sixty wines were then ranked in a hierarchical system of five crus (growths) with the best wines placed in the category of Premier Crus (First Growths), then Second Growths, Third Growths, Fourth Growths, and then Fifth Growths (the lowest distinction within the 1855 system).
No one involved in the 1855 Classification expected it to last, for it was simply an easy way to solve a problem. Interestingly, the system was so popular that it became a basis for judging the region ever since its inception. In fact, the only change in the system until 1973 was adding Château Cantemerle to the Fifth Growths.
Now cru (and Grand Cru) is used in other French regions including Alsace and Burgundy. It is also utilized in Germany for example. Today some wineries around the world do use the term Grand Cru to distinguish their wines. But buyer beware because unlike the original purpose of using the term Grand Cru in a controlled and regulated fashion, wineries outside of France, in California for example, are not beholden to the same rules. Therefore, Grand cru can be more of a marketing angle without telling anything substantial about the actual wine in the bottle.
This is a tricky term that can be used in a misleading way. In a general sense, a reserve wine is something that is held back from the more general wines, but just because a wine is a reserve, it does not mean that it has been aged for a specific period of time or that there are necessarily special grapes in the wine.
In certain countries such as Spain and Italy, there are specific guidelines that a reserve wine must follow. For example, a wine must be aged for three or five years respectively. However, other wine-producing countries such as the US and Australia have no such guideline so shop with care.
You might have heard of a wine having round tannins, but you might not be sure exactly what that means. If you are like me, you have tasted enough wine to know that you generally prefer wine with soft tannins, which is very helpful in deciding what wine to buy. But still, you are unsure why you like soft tannins. Tannins are polyphenols that occur naturally in wine. They are chemical compounds that can be found not only in grapes but other food like red beans, cinnamon, and chocolate.
Tannins are actually good for your health in the right dosage. However, they can have a strong effect on your palate. Tannins tend to give wine an astringent taste and generally add bitterness to the character. Many people favor strong tannins because they give depth to the flavor which gives certain wines the complexity that many wine connoisseurs are after.
For my palate, a little tannins go a long way. Although I can appreciate some tannins in Cabernet Sauvignon (one of the more tannic wines), I generally prefer to drink wines that are lighter in tannins such as Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Also, white wines are far less tannic than reds as a general rule.
So there you have it. Ten useful wine terms for your next gathering. This is just a friendly reminder that wine drinking isn’t all about pomp; it is really about finding what you like. I hope these terms will be helpful in finding your next gem. Cheers!