Wine Glossary

Just what does "Reserve" really mean? And could Noble Rot possibly be a good thing? Here are definitions to fifty common wine terms you'll often hear in the world of wine.

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AOC: Abbreviation for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, the French system for regulating and defining wine geographically, which features more than 400 distinct regions. The AOC can refer to both a specific area and its wine; the Santenay AOC refers both to the Burgundian village of Santenay and the Pinot Noir wine made there.

AVA: American Viticultural Area. The U.S. system that parallels the French AOC system of classifying specific grape-growing areas. AVAs come in all shapes and sizes (from Walla Walla to California), but unlike the French system, American AVAs do not regulate which grapes can be grown within each region.

Aficionado: Grape nut (in a good way). An aficionado is a more contemporary and less snobbish term for a connoisseur. While not always a collector, a wine aficionado appreciates the distinctions among wines of varying grapes, origins and ages.

Appellation: Place of origin. An appellation is an official, regulated wine region; the term is derived from France's AOC system.

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Barrel: An oak cask. An important vessel for aging wine before bottling. A typical barrel holds 225 liters. Barrels may be cleaned and re-used several times; new barrels impart a stronger wood character.

Barrel-Fermented: Refers to wine fermented in oak barrels rather than in neutral containers such as stainless steel. Barrel fermentation can contribute complexity and suggestions of spice and vanilla from the interaction of the wine and the wood. Most often used in the fermentation of Chardonnay.

Bin number: Australians developed a practice of using "Bin" numbers to identify distinct bottlings. Bin numbers are just names, and have no official meaning.

Blanc de Blancs: Literally, "white from whites," this refers to a white wine made of white grapes; the most common example is Champagne made from all Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noirs: Literally, "white from blacks," this refers to a white wine (technically white but usually pale pink) made from black (red) grapes; the term usually refers to sparkling wines made from Pinot Noir.

Blush: An informal term usually applied to off-dry light pink wines made from red grapes, such as White Zinfandel.

Botrytis cinerea: The technical name for the fog-induced fungus that causes ripe grapes to shrivel and become concentrated and sweet like raisins. Also called "noble rot," botrytis is responsible for the honeyed richness of many classic dessert wines like French Sauternes.

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Champagne: Both a region in France and the famous sparkling wine made there. While imitated around the world, real Champagne can only come from the French appellation of the same name. American wines called "champagne" will also have an additional geographic identifier, such as "California Champagne."

Clone: A specific genetic strain of grape variety. Relevant only to winegrowers and studious enophiles.

Cuvée: Batch. Blends of wines effected prior to bottling are referred to as cuvées. As with "Bin," the term appears on labels as an unregulated term.

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DOC: Abbreviation for Denominazione di Origine Controllata, the Italian version of the French AOC system of geographically based wine regulation. There are more than 300 DOCs; some of the designations provide information on both grape and place, as in Vernaccia di San Gimignano (wine made from Vernaccia grapes in San Gimignano)

DOCG: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. A second, higher designation for Italian wine. Twenty-four have earned DOCG status and are considered the country's best (hence the "guarantee"). Examples include Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, and Moscato d'Asti.

Decanting: The act of pouring wine from the bottle into another container. For old reds the process separates wine from its sediment and revives dormant flavors; for young reds decanting helps open up the fruit and soften tannins.

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Enology: The study of winemaking; also spelled oenology.

Enophile: Someone who enjoys and appreciates fine wine; also spelled oenophile.

Estate Bottled: Indicates a winery owns (or has long-term deals with) the vineyards that supplied the grapes. "Estate bottled" on a label implies hands-on control of the winemaking, but it does not ensure quality.

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Fermentation: How juice becomes wine. Fermentation is the chemical process by which yeast turns sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Fortified: A category of wines with higher than normal alcohol due to the addition of neutral brandy or spirits. Port, Sherry, and Madeira are the best-known fortified wines.

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Half-Split: A bottle—typically Champagne or sparkling wine—containing 187 ml, which is half the size of a Split, and approximately a quarter of the size of a standard bottle.

Hybrid: A genetic cross between two species of grapevines. Most hybrids are crosses between American and European species, designed in response to the phylloxera scourge. Hybrids, such as Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin, are considered of lesser quality than Vinifera vines.

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IGT: Abbreviation for Vino a Indicazione Geografica Tipica, a relatively new official term (developed in the 1990s) used to indicate a quality wine made with untraditional grapes but from a defined area. For example, Super Tuscan blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese are labeled IGT Toscana.

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Late-Harvest: Refers to wines made from grapes picked later than normal (and therefore with higher sugar content), usually dessert wines. Some but not all late-harvest wines are affected by Botrytis cinerea.

Lees: Literally the "spent" yeast cells left over from fermentation; sometimes (especially in New World Chardonnays) winemakers leave wine in the barrel sur lie (French for "on the lees") for added complexity.

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Magnum: A bottle that holds 1.5 liters of wine, the equivalent of two standard bottles.

Malolactic Fermentation: A secondary fermentation which converts the malic acid in a wine to softer lactic acid. This winemaker's trick reduces the overall acidity of the wine, softening most red wines and imparting a creaminess to white wines such as Chardonnay.

Meritage: An official term coined in California for Bordeaux-style blends (usually red, based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). If a winery produces a Meritage wine, it is frequently their most expensive table wine. Many Meritage wines feature proprietary names, such as Flora Springs "Trilogy."

Muselet: A wire cage that fits over the cork of a champagne or sparkling wine bottle to prevent the cork from opening under the carbonation's pressure.

Must: Grape juice before it is fermented.

Méthode Champenoise: The method—perfected if not actually invented in the Champagne region of France—of inducing a secondary, inside-the-bottle fermentation to create authentic sparkling wine. The process is expensive and labor-intensive; cheaper bubblies are made in huge tanks.

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Oak: The wood of choice for wine barrels. French and American oak are considered the best, American being a bit more aggressive. Both impart vanilla and spice aromatics and flavors. Increasingly, oak chips may be used (added to wines in large tanks) as a less- expensive means of adding oak character to bulk wines.

Old Vines: An unregulated term used by wineries (usually Californian, French, or Australian) indicating significant age in the vineyard (usually 40-100 years). Old vines are believed to yield more concentrated fruit flavors. The French term is Vieille Vignes.

Old World: Europe, basically. But "Old World" as a term is also used to describe traditional means of winemaking, as well as wine styles that lean toward refinement and subtlety.

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Phylloxera: Name of the vine louse that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century; as a result, most vineyards now use resistant rootstocks. Phylloxera reared its head recently in California, prompting much replanting.

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Reserve: In its best sense, Reserve on the label indicates a producer's finest bottling. While the term is widely used, especially by American wineries, it has no legal definition; variations on the word are applied to modest bottles (e.g., K-J Vintner's Reserve) and collectibles alike. The terms Riserva (Italy) and Reserva (Spain), however, are legal terms indicating longer aging before release.

Rosé: White wine made from red grapes. Usually, the rosy pink color comes from a brief period of skin contact (as opposed to extended skin contact which renders the wines fully red and richer); rosés are typically dry. Many of the best hail from the South of France.

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Sommelier: A wine steward in a restaurant. While there is a certification system for sommeliers in the U.S., the term is most often applied informally as a job designation. Formal sommeliers are dwindling in number and these days are usually found in restaurants whose long wine lists require frequent maintenance and where diners often seek advice on specific bottles.

Split: A bottle containing 375 ml, which is half the size of a standard bottle.

Still wine: A term that applies to any wine that is not sparkling. Synonymous with table wine.

Sulfites: A derivative of sulfur and a natural by-product of fermentation. Also can come from the addition of sulfur dioxide, widely used during fermentation as a preservative. Most fine wines contain very low levels of sulfites; bulk wines contain more. Under U.S. law, wine with sulfites higher than 10 ppm (parts per million) must state "contains sulfites" on the label; effectively, this threshold means that all wines bear the same notation, even though the precise level of sulfites varies.

Sur Lie: See Lees.

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Table wine: Still wine. In the United States, the term applies legally to wine that is under 14% alcohol, but the term is usually not found on labels. These wine are also called dinner wines because they are intended to be consumed with food. In European countries, any form of "table wine" on the label (vin de table, vino da tavola) indicates a very basic wine, considered of lesser quality than wines with a stated region of origin.

Tartrates: Natural crystals sometimes found in wine. These deposits come from the tartaric acids present in wines and are totally safe.

Terroir: A French term, not easily translated, used to define the total environment of a grapevine—not just soil, but also climate, rainfall, drainiage, elevation, slope, and sun exposure. Connoisseurs often ascribe particular characteristics in wine to a vineyard's terroir. Most often used in reference to Old World wines.

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Varietal: As a noun, it means a grape variety. Syrah, Merlot, Chenin Blanc, Riesling?these are all varietals. Varietal character refers to the qualities one expects to find in wines made from a particular grape variety.

Viniculture: The science of winemaking.

Vintage: The year on the label, which represents the year the grapes were harvested, not when the wine was bottled.

Vintner: Wine producer or winery proprietor.

Viticulture: The science of grape growing.

Vitis Vinifera: The technical name for the species of grapevine capable of producing the world's best wines. The best-known Vinifera varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Riesling, but there are thought to be thousands of varieties of the species.

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Zone: Another word for place of origin, often used in Italy, as in the Chianti Classico zone.

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