Basic Wine Terminology

A crash course in common wine terms

One thing that is intimidating about wine is the seemingly endless list of wine terms used to describe wine and wine culture. It helps to know what these terms mean, and how they're used when discussing wine. 

Here's an A-Z list of wine terminology made simple.


The process of wine being exposed to air causing the wine to absorb oxygen and release the wine's aroma and flavor. This process also dilutes some alcohol vapors, which allows for the subtler aspects of a wine to become more apparent.


This refers to a bitter, maybe to some unpleasant, flavor in a wine caused by high levels of tannins or acid. 


The process of storing wine in wooden barrels for prolonged periods of time in order to develop complex flavors and impart some of the barrel's wood flavors into the wine.


This term can refer to a wine or other alcohol that is served before a meal in order to spark the appetite. These wines are generally dry, as opposed to sweet.

Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC)

This French terms translates to Appellation of Controlled Origin. It refers to wine production laws that specify where certain wines can be produced, and also methods that can be used for wine production. It acts as a seal of quality. 


The smell naturally produced by a wine and the grapes used in its production.


When a wine is referred to as balanced it means that the flavor profiles of the wine—sweet, fruit, alcohol—are evenly present and proportional to the wines tannins and acid.

Barrel Aged

As touched upon above, the process of aging a wine in a wooden barrel. Oak is a common wood used in wine barrels and wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are commonly aged in oak.


A French term referring to the organic winemaking process. Organic winemaking is becoming a more popular production method and labels featuring both terms are now more common. 


A wines body refers to the complexity of the flavors and also to the weight of a wine. Heavier red wines, with lots of flavors are said to have more body than lighter bodied red wine that may have not been aged as long, or is made from grapes that were harvested earlier.


A term used for dry sparkling wines. A word of French origin that literally translates to "raw, rough," though brut wines are not to be thought of as raw or rough, but unsweetened. 


A Spanish term for sparkling wine. 


Similar to body, but strictly refers to the way a wine feels in the mouth. This can refer to the weight, but also the presence of tannins and acid that can cause salivation,
tingling, or a puckery feeling in the mouth.


A well-known style of French Sparkling wine, that under AOC law, can only be produced in the Champagne region of France. 


A French term meaning winery. A common term found on many French wine bottles, referring to the producer of the wine. 


This is a British term that refers to Bordeaux wines made in France. 


Used to describe a wine that has been spoiled or "turned." Originally used when preservation methods had failed due to an issue with a bottle's cork.


This is a French term meaning "growth." It is used to refer to a growing area like a single vineyard or a collection of vineyards and the vines where the grapes were grown. It is another indicator of quality. It is commonly seen in the term "Grand Cru" and is used when referring to a wine produced from an area with a good reputation. 


A French term meaning tank, or vat. Tanks and vats are used to store white and sparkling wines during production. Unlike barrels, Cuvée storage doesn't change a wines flavor profile or age it.


Refers to the process of separating a wine from the sediments found in a wine bottle. A decanter is a separate vessel that wine is poured into and served from. This also helps with the aeration process.


This refers to wines, often sparkling wine, that are semi-sweet.

Dessert wine

Wines that are sweet and low in alcohol. These shouldn't be confused with Ports or Sherries, which are wines often served after dinner but are fortified with other spirits. 

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)

This is the Italian version of AOC, and refers to the same regional origins and wine production protected by law. It is the most strict of the three Italian wine designations, it is followed by DOC. 


Refers to bubbles in liquid.


Someone who loves wine and all things related to wine. This guide will help you on your path to becoming an Enophile. 


A term heard during wine tastings that refer to chemical compounds that give a wine its aroma. 


This is the process of turning grape juice into wine. Also the same process that turns grain into beer and the first step in the distillation process used to make spirits. Fermentation when yeast interacts with sugars to produce alcohol.


An Italian term for semi-sparkling wine. These are wines that don't have the same bubbles as sparkling wine, but have a noticeable effervescence on the tongue when tasted.


A wine bottle that is only 375ml as opposed to the standard 750ml bottle size. 

Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT)

This is another Italian product control designation. This classification is less strict than the Italian DOCG or DOC, but is still an indication of good quality wine. 


The liquid that clings in streaks to a wine glass when a wine is swirled or sipped. Can indicate alcohol levels. 


This is a 1.5L wine bottle. It is twice the size of the standard 750ml.

New World & Old World

These two terms refer to wine making countries that are classified as old world or new world.  

  • New World countries include North and South American wine producers like the U.S.A, Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, as well countries like Australia and South Africa who have more recently begun producing high quality wines. 
  • New World wines are more often referred to by the main grape varietal used in the wine production, like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. 

  • Though in the U.S.A, where a wine is produced is becoming more notable as wine regions outside of California are producing outstanding wines. For example, an Oregon Pinot Noir is expected to have a different profile than a Pinot Noir from California's Santa Barbara county.

  • Old World wines are produced in countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Germany. They are countries that have a long history of wine making which has created common practices, traditions, and the importance of terroir, or where a wine is grown. 

  • Old World wines are generally referred to by the region they are produced in. Think Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, or Montepulciano or Chianti in Italy.

  • This is because where a wine is grown is important in Old World countries, and indicates the style of wine and types of grapes used. This is why AOC and DOCG are important indicators in both countries. 

Noble Grapes 

This term is often used, at least in the U.S. and especially in restaurants in the U.S. But they are grapes associated with high quality wines that maintain the same characteristics wherever they are grown. 

The six noble grapes are: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling,  and Chardonnay for white varietals. And Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot for red varietals.


A term referring to a light and fruity young wine. Young wine refers to grapes that are harvested earlier, which doesn't allow the complex flavors and sugars that develop during a longer growing period


An aromatic wine that is dry and fortified with spirits. Vermouth used to be more popular to drink on it's own, but is now commonly found in cocktails like Manhattans and Martinis.


A wine production style growing in popularity that refers to a wine making process, from grape growth to bottling that doesn't use artificial components like chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Organic qualifications vary from country to country. 


This is a natural substance produced by plants and barks which tastes bitter. Some wines will be marketed as tannin free. Tannins cause the puckering sensation in wine.


The aroma or smell of a wine.


The French term for Frizzante. 

Rosso and Rouge

Red. For red wine, duh.


A process in wine production, often used for Spanish sherry wine, that blends a wine with older batches of the same wine. 


A wine bottle that is 187.5ml, and contains a single serving of wine.


Italian term for sparkling wine.

Table Wine

This refers to a common drinking wine that is not exceptional but is ordinary. 


The science of grape production.

How to Properly Taste Wine

The nose knows, and the mouth confirms.

From commercials to the movie screen, everyone has seen the classic scene of a diner swirling their wine around the glass, then diving nose first into it to inhale the wine's secrets.

For most, the order of these simple actions is irrelevant, but to a wine expert, the steps for tasting wine are as important as the actions themselves. 

Here are the Do's and Don't of tasting wine.

The Swirl


The first and most important step. Take the glass by the bottom of the stem and swirl! This will release the flavors and aromas of the wine. 

The swirl also causes air to mix with the wine, which causes it to "open up" by allowing some of the alcohol vapors to dissipate. If you've ever used rubbing alcohol to sanitize a cut, you know how powerful a scent alcohol is.

By swirling, you cut down the impact of the alcohol smell and allow the more subtle aromas of the wine to shine.


Swirl the glass for longer than 5 to 6 seconds, it isn't needed. Remember it's a glass of wine, not a mixed drink.

While it can seem rudimentary (or even cliché), swirling is essential. To see for yourself, just take a sip of wine before swirling it. Then, cleanse your palate with some water, swirl the wine like a Frenchman, and take another sip. Take note of what's changed.


The difference in aromas and flavors is nearly impossible to miss! So don't forget to swirl! When serving, it might even be helpful to give this tip to your guest and quickly explain the benefits.


Not only will it increase their wine experience, but it will also make you appear very knowledgeable.

The Smell



Stick your nose in it! Not literally, but knowing what the wine smells like will help you  pair the wine with food. Note the first things the wine reminds you of. Is it fruity, flowery, herbal, spicy, buttery?


Taste the wine before smelling it. The wine aroma is important to the experience of tasting, so get to the know the smell before the taste.

The Taste

First impressions matter. And once the wine has introduced itself to you with smell, then you can take your findings from the first steps and you are finally ready for the best part, tasting!


Take a small sip of the wine, lightly swish it around your mouth, and swallow. This warms up the wine and enhances the wine's flavor profile. 

While the wine is swishing in your mouth, breath steadily through your nose. This activates your sense of smell which is a big part of tasting and allows your taste buds to be more perceptive.


 Gulp! The worst way to taste wine is by chugging it.  This method means you won't have the opportunity to enjoy the full experience of the complex flavors wine has to offer.

Wine Tasting Glasses

The most important aspect that all wine glasses share is the stem. A wine glass is designed so the glass can be held by the stem and not the bowl.

Holding the wine by the base of the bowl can change the temperature of the wine and impact the taste even before you have a chance to drink it. This also explains why it is important to serve wine by the stem and not by the bottom of the bowl.

Red Wine Glasses

Red wines are typically served in taller glasses with a wider opening and larger bowl.

This allows for more oxygen to interact with the wine. What does air do? Well, remember the importance of the swirl in tasting?


The more oxygen that interacts with red wine causes the flavors and aromas of the wine to become more apparent. This allows for a full and flavorful wine drinking experience. 

Bold Flavor

Red wines are typical more robust, with bigger flavor than white wine. The interaction of grape skin and grape juice during the red wine making process provides more depth in flavor, a depth that requires more air to mingle with the wine so the flavors can be enjoyed. 

Balancing Flavor

The skin contact of red wine making also results in some unwanted flavors, like tannins. While some tannins are good for wine, and even desired by some wine drinkers, the bitter flavor compounds can be too intense and overpower the more restrained flavors of the wine. The larger glass allows some of these bitter, unwanted flavors to be minimized so the wine has a smoother mouth feel. 

Shape Shifting

Even within the category of red wines, there are difference in glass type depending on the style of red wine. 

Burgundy Glass

A burgundy red wine glass has a large bowl, shaped like a balloon cut in two at the midsection. The burgundy glass can be thought of as the preferred shape for lighter style red wines. The large bowl helps capture the more subtle aromas and allow more air interaction so the overwhelming flavors like tannins and be reduced.

Bordeaux Glass

A Bordeaux red wine glass is has taller bowl than its burgundy brother, with sides tat are more straight. If a burgundy glass has a globular shape, than the Bordeaux glass is a cylinder.


The straight sides cause the heavier, bold wine to be poured right to the back of the tongue, where taste buds are concentrated so the full flavor makes a full impact. The height of the bowl also allows oxygen to interact with the wine as it moves from the bowl to the glass. 

White Wine Glasses

Unlike reds, for white wine you don't want to have as much interaction with oxygen. As a result glasses for white wine are narrower with smaller openings. This is because white wines have much more subtle flavors than red wines. Citrus and floral notes are more represented in white wine styles than red, and these flavors are more ephemeral and delicate.

Additionally, white wine generally has a lower alcohol content than red wines. This isn't a rule, but more of a generality. The alcohol volume in a wine (and all alcohol) is determined by the amount of sugar present at fermentation. Sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast.


Red wine grapes are generally left on the vine longer than white wine grapes, which allows more sugar to develop during growth before the grapes are harvested. 

With a lower alcohol content, there is less need to evaporate alcohol vapors for the subtle flavors and aromas to be detected. 

Sparkling Wine & Champagne

Sparkling wine and Champagne is commonly served in a flute, a glass with a long stem and a tall slender bowl. This glass preserves the drinks carbonation by reducing the its ability to escape. The shape keeps the bubbles in the bubbly.


And though the Champagne saucer is still used today, with its shorter stem and shallow, UFO-shaped body, it's more a novelty that captures the extravagance of the roaring twenties than it is a practical vessel for sparkling wine.


The wide mouth and shallow bowl cause oxygen to deplete the bubbles and take the fizz away from Champagne, leaving you with a flat and lifeless glass of wine. 

Wine Tasting Descriptions

How to sound like an expert

In our basic wine terminology section we talked about the importance of knowing the language of wine. In this section we want to provide you with some basic terms commonly used as descriptions when tasting wine.

These terms will be useful when talking to guests about wine and answering some basic tasting questions they may have. 


Acidity is present in all grapes and play a role in the preservation of the wine. Wines that have a sharper and more crisp taste will have higher levels of acidity.


A wine where the taste of alcohol is prevalent and overbearing. This is a wine that is not balanced.


A wine with a high level of alcohol that gives it flavors reminiscent of baked fruit flavors and sweetness. The alcohol present is more balanced than a wine described as "alcoholic."


When a wine is referred to as balanced it means that the flavor profiles of the wine—sweet, fruit, alcohol—are evenly present and proportional to the wines tannins and acid.


A wine that is full bodied, has complex flavors, and leaves a notable aftertaste. Think of a Bordeaux wine here.


High tannin levels will leave a bitter taste in the mouth.


Wines are generally classified as light, medium, or full bodied. It refers to the mouthfeel and the presence of alcohol in the wine which gives it weight. 


Another term for wine's aroma, can also indicate a floral aroma.


Wine with a rich mouthfeel that is creamy or velvety. Can leave a coating on the tongue. Wines that go through malolactic fermentation will have this characteristic. Many oak-aged chardonnays will be described as buttery.


A wine that has a distinct, but not overwhelming presence of tannins. This can be a good thing for some wine drinkers.


A sweet wine that isn't balanced and lacks acidity to counter the sugars. 


Wine that has many flavors and a deep taste profile, considered multi-layered.


Acid is present but not overwhelming, leaves the palate feeling refreshed and cleansed. 


Wine that consists of very little to know sugars. It may also have noticeable tannins, which can leave your mouth feeling tight after tasting a dry wine. 


A term for wines with "forest floor" flavors. Indicative of flavors like mushroom, that can leave a dry feeling in the mouth. This is one is harder to describe but is a sensation that can be readily identified when experienced. 


The aftertaste and mouthfeel left by a wine once it's swallowed. Wines will often be described as having a short or long finish.


Wine with a strong presence of tannins.


Refers to a wine with a heavy body.


A vegetal component of wine that is reminiscent of freshly cut grass or stalk flavors found in lemon grass and the stems of some leafy vegetables.


When the vegetal elements of wines profile are too strong, and can indicate wine produced from unripe grapes. 


A wine that has a high fruity presence, often of dark fruits, that isn't cut by tannic flavors. This can be good or bad depending on the drinker.


A lean wine has acidity but is unbalanced by fruit or other sweetness like sugar and alcohol.


A term exclusive to red wines, generally heavier with a high tannins. Tannins are also used in the process of making leathery, so the term has merit.


A mold like taste. The negative cousin of earthy. Can also indicate poor storage conditions.


The presence of oak in a wine that is aged. Oaky flavors can be dry and woody, but can also be sweet like vanilla and butterscotch, or have spices like nutmeg and clove.


These flavors are similar to flavor profiles found in bourbon whiskey.


Wine that can taste or smell like gasoline, also called diesel. 


A medium bodied wine that has a lower presence of tannins.


Wines with noticable spice notes like black pepper. Often used when describing Malbec from South America.


Wine can come in various levels of sweetness and it all depends on how the wine was made. The sweeter the wine the more sugar. Knowing the sweetness of a wine can play an important role in successfully pairing wine. 


Wine with a high level of tannins, which causes sensations of dryness and puckering.


Wines with a charred, smokey, or baked quality.


Wine with vegetable flavors, that are distinct from fruity or floral notes. Often used with green vegetables.