In your quest for that perfect vintage, you may find this glossary useful. Below are some short definitions of wine terms and types along with defining characteristics for some of the more common varietals and grapes. (Most American wines are identified by their varietal name, while most European wines are associated with or named after the region in which they were produced.) Although each varietal description details where it originated or is grown in the greatest abundance, most of them are now grown right here in Texas as well.
Aging—All wines age to some extent, first in the cellar (in a barrel, cask, tank or vat) and then in the bottle. Many times, if properly stored, wine will improve somewhat with aging. It’s good to keep in mind though that 90% of the wine produced in the world is as good when six months old as it is ever likely going to be, and many wines will actually deteriorate with age rather than improve. As a rule of thumb, white wines are better consumed young, and fine red wines, such as red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignons, Barolo, vintage port and others can need upwards of five years in order to achieve the qualities for which they are best known.
Aperitif—A French word now used in a very general way to describe almost any alcoholic beverage consumed before a meal to whet the appetite.
Barolo—One of the finest red wines of Italy, full-bodied, richly textured, complex and long-lived, with a distinctive bouquet and taste often described as reminiscent of truffles and faded roses.
Beaujolais—One of the most popular and best loved wines of France, nearly always red and produced in the Beaujolais district in southern Burgundy.
Blending—The practice of mixing wines from different grape varieties, geographical origins or vintages, or similar wines with somewhat different characteristics.
Blush Wine—A term used informally to describe a category of wines whose color varies from pale salmon to pink, and which are usually simple, light-bodied and slightly sweet.
Bordeaux—A town of 225,000 on the Garonne River in southwestern France. This is the home of one of the most prolific wine growing areas in the world.
Bouquet—This can be defined, quite simply, as the way a wine smells.
Breathing—The practice of aerating a bottle of wine (particularly red wine) before consuming it. Although the neck of a bottle of wine is so small that it really allows little air to mix with the content of the bottle. The proper way to aerate wine (when possible) would be to pour the contents into a decanter or other clean container. Uncorking and leaving a bottle of wine to “breathe” is largely ineffective.
Burgundy—An extensive region in France that includes Chablis, the Cote d’Or, the Cote Chalonnaise, and Beaujolais.
Cru—A French word meaning “growth,” when applied to wine, it refers to a specific vineyard and, by implication, one of superior quality as in the grand crus and premiere crus of Burgundy,
Domaine—French for “Estate,” most often used in Burgundy where it refers to all the vineyards making up a single property.
Enology—The entire science of wine production, from the harvest and vinification to bottling, the name is derived from Oeneus, the Greek god of Calydon and originally the god of wine.
Hybrid—In viticulture, the result of a cross between two different grape varieties.
Late Harvest—A term used in California and elsewhere to denote wines made from especially ripe grapes, or, in many instances, from grapes infected with Botrytis Cinerea or noble rot (see below).
Loire—The longest and most scenically beautiful river in France, which traverses 600 miles through some of the best wine country. Wines that grow in its vicinity are sometimes collectively referred to as Vins de la Loire.
Micro Climate—A term that refers to the combination of soil – gravel, chalk and clay – and such factors as altitude, angle of slope, drainage, and orientation toward the sun, their influences on quality have been recognized for nearly 2,000 years.
Napa—The most celebrated wine country in California.
Noble Rot—Also known as Botrytis Cinerea, this is a beneficial mold responsible for the special taste of such wines as Sauternes, from the Bordeaux district of France and others. The mold forms on the skins of ripe grapes under specific conditions – humidity alternating with dry heat – and sends filaments into the grapes, perforating the skin.
Oak—The one wood in which wine can almost always be counted on to improve, oak is used for such small- and medium-sized containers as barrels, casks, pipes and the like. All the fine red wines of the world owe at least a little of their taste to the oak in which they’ve been aged.
Phylloxera—Whereas Noble Rot can help grapes develop wonderful and distinctive flavors, phylloxera is a devastating insect, which destroys grape crops.
Sediment—The deposit that most red wines tend to throw as they age in bottle, it is as natural a part of an old wine as the shell is part of an egg. It should not be confused with cloudiness, haziness or lack of clarity, any of which potentially indicate that a wine is not fit to drink.
Supple—A term that describes an attribute of quality wines – smooth and drinkable, yet with character and backbone.
Tannin—Technically a group of non-organic compounds, known as phenolic compounds, that exist in bark, wood, roots, seeds, and stems of many plants. The tannins present in many red wines are extracted from the grape skins and seeds – and, if not previously removed, the stems during fermentation. Tannin imparts structure, flavor, texture, and complexity to a wine, and since it is an antioxidant, also enables a wine to age.
Vinifera—By all odds the most important of the 40 odd species that make up the genus vitis. Appropriately named “wine bearer,” vitis vinifera is responsible for virtually all of the world’s wines.
WINE AND GRAPE VARIETIES
Barbera—A red wine grape of Italian origin that produces sturdy, tannic wines capable of aging. Barbera is widely planted in Italy’s Piedmont region, where it accounts for half the total acreage. The grape is also found in California in the San Joaquin Valley.
Cabernet Franc—An excellent red wine grape most often associated with the wines of Bordeaux. Cabernet Franc grapes produce wines similar in style to the more famous Cabernet Sauvignon, but lighter-bodied with less tannin and a little aroma.
Cabernet Sauvignon—A superb red wine grape responsible for many of the great wines of the Bordeaux region as well as some of California’s finest red wines. The best examples of Cabernet Sauvignon are well structured, complex and among the longest-lived of all wines.
Champagne—The true “Champagne Region” is a well-delimited region about 90 miles northeast of Paris, and the sparkling wine produced there is known the world over as methode champenoise. The practice of making sparkling wine has spread throughout the world, but the popular drink takes its name from the region in France where it was first produced.
Chardonnay—Chardonnay are among the very finest of all the white wine grapes. The grapes have an unmistakable class and an appealing balance of fruit, acidity and texture. Some tasters associate Chardonnay with apples, ripe figs, and melons, while some others describe the wines as creamy or buttery. Winemakers play a particularly important role in the style of the Chardonnay, which can range from clean, crisp bottlings with a hint of varietal fruit to rich, complex, oak-aged examples that need several years to bottle age to fully display their character. Chardonnay grapes are also used to produce fine sparkling wines.
Chenin Blanc—An excellent grape capable of producing white wines that range from clean, crisp, and fruity to rich, sweet, honeyed, and exceptionally long-lived.
Chianti—A wonderfully agreeable and, in some cases, quite distinguished Italian red wine from Tuscany. Chianti is normaly consumed while still young, and sometimes looked upon as an inexpensive table wine of indifferent quality. Better examples of Chianti can be complex and enjoyable, and very pleasing with Italian food.
Dolcetto—An Italian red wine grape of good quality, widely grown in Piedmont (where it accounts for 15 percent of the total acreage). The grape gets its name from the sweetness of its juice at the time of harvest, and produces soft, lush, supple reds, at their best within two to three years of harvest.
Gamay—An excellent red wine grape, grown almost exclusively in the Beaujolais district of France. Cousins of this grape are grown in California, and the grape is characterized mostly for appealing lighter red wines.
Gewurztraminer—An excellent and unusual grape that produces distinctive white wines with a pungent, perfumed aroma and a rich, even, oily texture. The grape is usually associated with Alsace, but it is also cultivated with some success in Germany, Austria and northern Italy. More recently it was introduced to California where it is generally used to produce sweeter wines with a hint of spice that offsets the natural bitterness of the grape.
Grenache—A productive red wine grape widely planted in Southern France, where it gives a full-bodied, somewhat alcoholic wine that tends to age quickly. It’s also an important variety in Spain, especially in Rioja and Navarre. Additionally, Grenache is planted in California, where it has lessened in importance over the years, likewise in Australia.
Madiera—The wines produced on this Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean first gained an international reputation in the American Colonies. Madiera has a unique taste, characterized by a pungent tang attributable to the volcanic soil of the island. Madiera has the reputation for being the longest-lived of all the wines, and there are some expensive vintages, which can be found going back to the nineteenth century. The special characteristics of the grape are revealed as the wine ages, and can provide the remarkably intense and pungent flavor.
Malbec—A red wine grape cultivated in Bordeaux, where it is also known as Cot or Pressac and where it plays a relatively small role compared to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Cabernet Franc. It is the principal variety in the Cahors district, where it is known as Auxerrois, and where it is used to produce firm, well-structured wines as well as lighter, more supple flavors. Malbec is also planted extensively in Argentina.
Marsanne—A white wine grape found in the northern Rhone, where it produces white versions of appellations such as Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Saint-Josephs. The wines are likely to be full-bodied, sometimes characterized as heavy.
Mourvedre/Mataro—A French red wine grape grown in Southern France, where it is often used to add color and sturdiness to such wines as Cotes-du-Rhones and Cotes-du-Provence. The grape is known as Mataro in California.
Merlot—A distinguished red wine grape, as important as Cabernet Sauvignon in the Bordeaux region. Merlot contributes softness, fruit, suppleness, and charm to many of the famous wines that otherwise would be less attractive. Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet, produces grapes with more sugar, and yields wines with fewer tannins, which are ready to be consumed sooner than Cabernets (although they also tend to be shorter-lived). The grape was originally planted to take some of the edge off Cabernet varietals but in recent years has become one of the most successful varietal wines on the strength of its own merits.
Muscat—A table, raisin, and wine grape of which literally dozens of subvarieties exist. The grape ranges from prolific to shy-bearing, and in quality from excellent to poor. Muscats are widely planted in Italy, Southern France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Tunisia and most of the Mediterranean Islands. The grape is also used to produce wines from the Piedmont region in Italy and used in sweet fragrant wines produced in the U.S.
Pinot Blanc—Considered a true Pinot grape variety, Pinot Blanc produces attractive dry white wines with perhaps less flavor than Chardonnay and not quite as aromatic as Pinot Gris. Pinot Gris is planted in Alsace, Germany, and more recently introduced into California.
Pinot Noir—A distinguished and celebrated red grape variety that produces all the great red Burgundies. Pinot Noir is a fragile grape and produces fine wines only in certain wine-producing areas, and is not terribly reliable from year to year. At their best, wines made from Pinot Noir have a subtlety, complexity, elegance and finesse unmatched by any other wine variety, and it’s the search for those elusive qualities that have encouraged winemakers the world over to cultivate the grape. Some of the very best Pinot Noir grapes in the world are also grown in Oregon, where the Willamette Valley has gained international reputation for fabulous wine.
Petite Verdot—A superior red wine grape grown in Bordeaux in limited quantities, which produces full-bodied, deep-colored wines, high in tannin. Petite Verdot has declined a bit in importance in recent years because of its difficulty in harvesting.
Port—A sweet, red, fortified wine, probably the most famous of the fortified wines traditionally served with dessert or after a meal.
Riesling—One of the greatest white wine grapes, a native of Germany’s Rhine Valley. Riesling is the classic grape variety of Germany, where it is cultivated in all the best sites available. The grape is able to retain its acidity as it ripens, with a flowery, fragrant aroma and distinctive fruity acidity. The grape ranges in style from light and delicate to full and ripe, depending on its region of origin. The grape is known as Johannisberg Riesling in California, where it has been planted extensively in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
Rosé—The French word for pink, and adopted word in the English language. It is made from black grapes whose skins are left in contact with the fermenting juice just long enough to extract the desired amount of color. The grapes are then pressed and the now-pink juice continues to ferment. Many of the resulting wines are simple, semi-sweet and undistinguished. Some made from such varieties as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel can be distinctive and flavorful. The wine should be served chilled and consumed young.
Sangiovese—An excellent Italian red wine grape that is one of Italy’s two finest native red varieties. The dominant grape of Tuscany, it is the principal variety of Chianti. The grape can be found throughout Italy, from Umbria to Rome.
Semillion—An outstanding white wine grape, widely grown in southern France, Australia, and Chile, and to a lesser extent in California. It usually produces its best results when blended with another variety, especially Sauvignon Blanc. In Washington State, the grape takes on the grassy, acidic flavors usually associated with Sauvignon Blanc.
Tempranillo—The most famous table wine produced in Spain and generally considered the best, especially for its reds. It takes its name from a small tributary to the Ebro River known as the Rio Oja. Since they are produced at high elevation, the wines tend to be lighter, lower in alcohol content, softer, and more polished than most Spanish Wines.
Sauvignon Blanc—A popular white wine grape, planted extensively in Bordeaux along the Loire, in California, and increasingly in Australia and New Zealand. It produces wines noted for a grassy herbaceous flavor, with aggressive acidity. Some of the most exceptional examples of this variety are now being produced in Australia and New Zealand.
Syrah/Shiraz—An excellent red wine grape, cultivated in the Northern Rhone Valley in France. It produces deep-colored, slow-maturing, long-lived wine rich in tannin, with a distinctive and memorable bouquet often reminiscent of spice or black pepper. Syrah is also the most widely planted grape in all of Australia, where it is known as Shiraz or Hermitage.
Viognier—A rare and celebrated grape found in the northern Rhone, which is used to produce excellent white wines characterized by hints of peach or apricot.
Zinfandel—Although virtually all of the world’s plantings are in California, this variety of grape is actually a transplant from Europe. The grape lends itself to a number of wine styles, and is most often described as spicy, berry-like, or brambly. Zinfandels vary in character from light and fruity to ripe, rich, tannic and intensely flavored.