Helpful Wine Terminology So You Sound Like You Know What You’re Talking About

There’s always something to be learned in the vast world of wine. Knowing a bit of the language will keep you from getting lost in translation and potentially buying something you might not like. Plus, you’ll sound informed the next time you’re in a tasting room.

So, while you study up on outstanding regions like Alto Adige and unique styles like White Pinot Noir, pack this handy term guide with you. It might just expose you to your new favorite bottle or producer.

Amphora

An ancient clay vessel used to ferment or age wines, famously utilized by Georgians thousands of years ago and re-emerging as a style today. Read more about it here.

AVA

American Viticultural Area, or one of an increasing number of wine-producing regions defined by their distinctive climate, geology, and growing conditions. As in Walla Walla Valley, Los Carneros, or the Dundee Hills.

Capsule

The foil enclosure at the top of the bottle, usually covering the cork.

wine capsule
Amy Chen

Cooperage

The age-old trade of barrel building, which involves all of the cool things (fire, wood, and hammering).

Inoculation

Adding yeast to fruit, often done togain more control over fermentations or for flavor reasons. Most who add yeast use commercial strains. 

Lees

The gunky-looking stuff at the bottom of a tank or barrel. It’s essentially spent yeast cells and other particles. Aging sur-lie means leaving the wine on this material instead of racking it off (more on that soon).

Must

The young grape juice, skins, seeds, and stems before it ferments into wine.

Native Yeast

The naturally occurring yeast on the fruit itself that can spark a wild (also called natural or spontaneous) fermentation.

Phenolics

The large family of flavor compounds, tannins, pigments, and more that contribute to a wine’s flavor, aroma, color and texture.

Phylloxera Aphid
Enrique Freire/Derechos Reservados/Getty Images

Phylloxera

Vine-eating blight caused by insects, an epidemic that nearly wiped out all of Europe’s vineyards not too long ago. Read all about it here.

Punch-Down

Breaking down the cap, or solid mass at the top of a fermentation vessel, allowing the wine to circulate and keep the cap wet and integrated. Also, a great way to build your triceps during harvest. Some winemakers prefer to cycle the wine over via a pump.

Punt

The bump at the base of the bottle, a feature full of theories. Most likely created to settle out solids, make it easier to ship, and help with the overall integrity of the bottle.

Racking

Moving the wine from one vessel to another for any number of reasons, from getting the wine off the lees to preparing a blend for bottling.

wine rack
Vicente Veras

Reverse Osmosis

Essentially a sophisticated version of filtration (so fine we’re talking molecular) used to adjust alcohol content, address smoke impact, and more.

RS

Short for residual sugar, which is the sweetness content left over in a wine after fermentation is halted. Most red table wines have little to none. Late-harvest and dessert-style wines can have a fair amount. It’s measured in grams per liter. 

Sabering

The best way to open a bottle of bubbly, period. Made famous by Napoleon and a surefire way to win over everybody at your next party. You can learn more about it here.

Smoke Taint

The poorly named title for wine negatively affected by smoke from fires. We suggest “smoke impact” in its place.

Sulfites

Sulfur dioxide, which occurs naturally and is often added in the process to prevent spoilage. Read all about ‘em here.

Tannin

The mouth-drying, structure-enhancing stuff that comes from the stems, seeds (aka pips) and skins of grapes.

winery vineyard grapes
Boudewijn “Bo” Boer

Terroir

The much-debated t-word essentially means the ability of a wine to reflect where its grown through unique flavors and characteristics.

Topping

Adding wine to barrels occasionally to keep them full and prevent oxidation. What’s evaporated is often called the angel’s share.

Whole Cluster

Leaving the stems on the grapes when fermenting the fruit, to impart additional flavor and structure.

Wine Key

The wine-opening contraption with the funny screw and typically a knife built in.

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