10 Wine Terms You Need To Know

Learning about wine can be confusing, especially at the beginning. That’s why we have compiled a list of ten terms that are essential for all wine drinkers to know.

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1. Varietal

A varietal is a wine bearing the name of the principal grape from which it is produced.

In most wine regions, for a wine to qualify as a varietal, it must be produced from 85% of the grape listed on the label; in the United States, that percentage is only 75%.

For example, Pinot Noir, one of the world’s most popular red wines is made from black-skinned grapes that share the same name. Other examples of varietals are Chardonnay and Riesling wines.

This method of naming wines according to the type of grape used to make them is known as varietal labeling.

Prior to US Prohibition, only Germany and those regions under German influence, e.g. Austria and the Czech Republic, used varietal labeling. But after the Prohibition, winemakers in California started using varietal labeling. Soon after this wine naming system proved popular and quickly spread to other New World Wine regions like Australia and South Africa. 

2. Aroma

Have you ever wondered why wine tasters spend a good 10-20 seconds swirling a wine glass with some vigor, then stick their nose into the glass and inhale? It’s to detect the wine’s distinct aroma!

Aroma is the scent produced by wine. The aromatic expression of wine can be broken down into hundreds of aromatic compounds imparted by the grape variety, the environment surrounding the vineyard, or the winemaking and aging process.

And the human nose which can differentiate between thousands of unique scents, allows us to appreciate different wine flavors. 

When analyzing wines, professionals split flavors and aromas into three different categories::

  • Primary aromas come naturally from the grapes and the natural factors in the vineyard such as the type of soil. These can be fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy, or spicy). 
  • Secondary aromas like nutty or buttery notes are created by the process of fermentation ( turns grape sugars into alcohol)
  • Tertiary aromas like vanilla, cocoa, oak, or baking spices  which come from aging. For example, the vanilla aroma comes from aging wine in new oak barrels.

The next time you hear someone call a wine complex, know that this means the wine has displayed many aromas. 

3. Terroir

Terroir is a French term that loosely translates to “sense of place.” 

In winemaking, it refers to the environmental factors: climate, topography, soil; that give a wine its unique characteristics. These include:

    • Climate- divided into cool climate and warm climate. Grapes from warmer climates ripen faster generating higher sugar levels (which produce wine with higher alcohol content), whereas, in cooler climates, grapes generally have lower sugar levels and produce wine with higher acidity levels.
    • Soil- There are hundreds of different types of soil, rock, and mineral deposits in the world’s vineyards. And they all impact the wine produced in different ways. For example in our recent post: A Deep Dive into Old World Wine we talked about Mosel Valley in Germany and the unique minerality profile of the wines produced there.
    • Terrain- valleys, lakes, other flora all impact how a wine from a particular region tastes.

The idea behind terror is quite old, dating back to the Ancient Greeks who engaged in extensive winemaking. Ancient Greece had plenty of climatic variations, with vineyards exhibiting different results even when growing the same grape variety. This caused the Greeks to label their wine jars to identify where they came from. 

As the Romans expanded their empire, they applied the same practice to their wine-growing regions. Read our post: Origin of Old Wine to learn more about how winemaking has advanced from the days of Pharaohs to the 21 century.

4. Tannins

Refers to a wine’s textural elements that create a dry sensation in the mouth. They are most often associated with red wine and are largely responsible for giving red wines that heavy and rich taste they are so popular for.

These tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds, and stems. The scientific word for these compounds is polyphenols.

Red wines generally have more tannins due to undergoing longer maceration

Done at the beginning of the winemaking process, maceration often refers to the technique of cold-soaking unfermented grape juice in the crushed skins, seeds, and stalks of the grape.

This process helps to leach tannins, anthocyanins (responsible for color), and flavor compounds from the crushed grapes and into the grape juice.

The longer the skins, seeds, and stems soak in the juice, the more tannin characteristics they will impart. This explains why red wines have stronger tannins than white wines.

Tannins can also come from the oak barrels used for many aged wines. These wood tannins are absorbed into the wine and, in the case of oak, vanilla flavors become apparent in the wine.

5. Wine Appellation

If you like to read a wine label, then you may have noticed the acronyms AV or PGI on your favorite bottle. These terms are part of wine appellation which is a quality classification system for wine based on the geographical area where the grapes are grown.

The system strives to protect a wine’s quality, unique characteristics, and factors related to its production and reputation.

Appellations are found in almost every wine-growing region in the world. Other food products, such as cheese and tea, also have appellations, but wine is the most common product associated with appellations.

The government of a country is responsible for enforcing each appellation system, which means the classification system may vary from one region to another. 

Appellations are one of the differentiating factors between Old World and New World wine regions. In Old World, appellations were created to protect the producers. They regulate the quality, grape types, region, and, to an extent, how a wine is grown, harvested, and produced. 

In New World wine countries, appellations were created to protect the consumer. These ensure that the bottles are labeled correctly and indicate the origins of the wine. This allows wine buyers to make a more discerning decision.


6. Sommelier

A sommelier is a wine steward, a sommelier is a knowledgeable professional, generally found working in a fine dining establishment, trained in all aspects of wine service. This includes:

  •  Providing wine recommendations to diners
  •  Working with the chef to create food and wine pairings
  • Developing wine lists for the restaurant
  • Training other employees about the basic knowledge of wines

While anyone who works directly with wine in a restaurant setting can call themselves a sommelier, to be a bonafide sommelier you’ll need some level of formal education, training, and experience. And not to forget, a deep appreciation and passion for wine!

The pinnacle of being a sommelier is passing the level four sommelier exam and earns them a Master Sommelier Diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Established in 1977, the Court Of Master Sommeliers has grown to become the premier examining body for Sommeliers worldwide.

There are 269 professionals worldwide who have received the title of Master Sommelier since the first Master Sommelier Diploma Exam.

wine sommelier7. Vintage

Vintage refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested. 

  • In the Northern Hemisphere (North America and Europe) the grape growing season is from about April to October.
  • In the Southern Hemisphere (Argentina, New Zealand, etc) the growing season is from October to April (and vintage-dated with the later year).

The micro-climate of any particular wine-growing region varies, sometimes quite dramatically, from one year to the next. Different grape varieties also respond to varying climatic conditions in different ways. As a result, a wine’s vintage can greatly affect the taste and quality of the wine produced that year.

Nevertheless, it is said that a great winemaker can create a good wine from poor grapes; but a mediocre winemaker will only make an average wine, even if he has a harvest of perfect grapes. With the weather often so unpredictable it often comes down to the winemaker’s knowledge and experience to extract the best possible performance from the grapes.

Almost all wines show the year in which the wine was made on their labels. However, there are some wines without a vintage date: Non-vintage wine is made by blending grapes from multiple years. These include fortified and sparkling wines such as Champagne. 

But on some rare occasions, single-year champagne can be made if the wine producer deems the year’s harvest sufficiently good to produce a vintage wine.

sparkling wine production

8. Fortified Wine

Vermouth and sherry, have brought fortified wine into the limelight. For example, dry vermouth is commonly used in making classic cocktails such as Old Pal. But what exactly are fortified wines?

By definition, fortified wine is a wine that has a distilled grape spirit (brandy or cognac)added to it, to increase its alcohol content — fortifying it.

For example, in Portugal, it’s traditional to stop fermentation early and fortify a wine by adding brandy and aging it in barrels outside (under the sun) for a roasted and nutty flavor. This can take 20-100 years to produce the finest Madeira!. 

Centuries ago these distinct flavor notes were achieved by shipping Madeira barrels through tropical climates on lengthy voyages. But as demand for Madeira increased, producers were challenged to find a faster way of supplying their customers and as a consequence, the "estufagem" system was invented.

Today, fortified wines are transferred to large tanks called “estufas” and gently warmed up to temperatures of 113°F during a period of four months using a system of hot water jackets wrapped around the tanks. After the gradual cooling of the wine in the 4th month, the wines are then left to age for two years in Brazilian satinwood casks.

making of madeira wine

9. Decant

Decanting is the act of pouring wine into a separate container for the purpose of:

  1. Separating older wine from sediments. Older red wines naturally produce sediment as they age as the color pigments and tannins bond together and separate. If not removed they can impart bitter flavors and a gritty texture to the winemaking it less enjoyable to drink.
  2. Aerating the wine to introduce oxygen; the presence of oxygen will open up aromas and brings out the flavors in the wine. This is especially beneficial for young full-bodied red wines which can be tight or closed on the nose or palate.  On the other hand, most young whites do not need decanting.


10. Blend

The term Blend refers to wines that are made from more than one variety of grapes. By blending different varieties of grapes instead of using a single grape variety, the winemakers are able to produce a more complex and well-rounded wine with enhanced aromas, flavors, color, and texture. An example of a blend is champagne mentioned in the point above. Both reds and whites can be made from blends of varietals.

Right up to the 20th century, blends were more common than single-grape wines. This is because instead of grape varieties being planted in separate vineyards and parcels, as they are now, vines were often planted randomly.  But when the regulated classification of grape varieties gained momentum in the 1800s, distinct grapes varieties started being planted in separate vineyards. 

Appellations (mentioned in Point #5) generally dictate which type of wines are allowed to be blended. For example, Pinot Noir wines are not blended but on the other hand, Pinot Noir grapes are one of the three main grapes used in Champagne production, along with Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.

Final Thoughts

There you go, ten wine terms everyone should know!

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