Wine Glossary

The language of wine can sometimes be overwhelming. So to make life easier, we've created this list of typical words and phrases you might hear people use when they talk about wine.

We'll keep adding to it over time so that it covers all you need.

ABV

Stands for Alcohol By Volume. In technical terms it refers to the amount of pure alcohol in 100 litres of wine. In most countries it is mandatory to include ABV on wine labels. Most wine is between 12% and 14.5% ABV, but remember that climate change is pushing average temperatures up, which means more natural sugars in grapes, which means potentially more alcohol through fermentation.

Acidity

A key wine tasting term (acidez in Spanish), acidity refers to the tart, sharp or sour tastes caused by the naturally occurring acids in grapes. We normally taste acidity on the sides of our tongue and it can make our mouths water.

Appellation

From France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the country’s quality control system for designating the names of geographically-based production areas and controlling the rules governing what goes on within them (types of grapes allowed, production methods etc).

Barrel-aged

Refers to wine that has been kept in wooden barrels at the winery before bottling (envejecido en barril in Spanish). Wood is slightly porous, so barrel ageing allows tiny amounts of oxygen to enter the wine, allowing different components of the wine to evolve and more complex flavours to emerge. Barrels come in different sizes (225 litres is perhaps the most common), and are usually made of French or American oak.

Biodynamic

Part of the green farming movement inspired by the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925). All biodynamic wine growers adhere to organic principles (see below), but in addition believe in a less technology-driven approach to winemaking. A series of herb and mineral based ¨preparations¨ are used in biodynamic vineyards, and key stages like pruning, picking or bottling are reserved for different lunar cycles which are believed to be more favourable.

Cork taint

Ever poured  glass of wine and found it smelt of wet newspaper or musty basement? Chances are it was caused by cork tint, a fault in wine usually caused when bits of the tree bark used to make corks are contaminated by fungi, mould or bacteria.

Crianza

Spanish term for the process of wine ageing, as well as the youngest category for a wood-aged wine. Crianza wines must spend at least 24 months ageing, at least 6 of which must be in barrel (for white and rosé wines, total ageing must be at least 18 months). The rules for Rioja red wines are a little more stringent, with minimum barrel time set at 12 months.

Denominación de Origen Protegida (DO or DOP)

Spain’s geographical designation system for wine, similar to France’s AOC and both part of the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) wine category. The DO system establishes common rules for producers within a given geographical region, covering things like permitted grape varieties, maximum permitted yields, production methods etc. There are currently 96 DOs in Spain (including categories like Vinos de Pago; see below). See also: List of Spanish Wine Producing Regions.

Fermentation

Key stage in winemaking and the process by which naturally occurring sugars in grapes are converted into ethanol and carbon dioxide by the by the action of yeasts. Once the grapes have been harvested, they are brought to the winery, sorted and put into fermentation tanks (in commercial wineries these are often made of stainless steel). Careful temperature-control helps kickstart fermentation. Red wines are usually fermented at 25 – 30ºC, while whites 18 – 20ºC.

Fortified wine

A term used to refer to wines to which spirit - usually grape spirit – has been added, thereby stopping fermentation and increasing the ABV of the wine. Historically, fortification helped stabilise the wine before long sea journeys. The point during the fermentation process at which the spirit is added will determine how much residual sugar is left in the final wine and, consequently, how sweet or dry it is. Lots of wine producing countries make their own versions of fortified wines - in the case of Spain, of course, the most famous is Jerez or sherry, a generic term for a range of fortified wine styles including Fino, Amontillado, Oloroso and Palo Cortado.

Gran Reserva

Spanish term for a wine which is reckoned to be from a particularly good vintage and has been aged for a long time. The precise ageing period varies between DOs but in Rioja, for example, which produces some of Spain’s best known Gran Reservas, the wines must spend at least 24 months in 225 litre barrels (known as barricas).

Lees

The name for the dregs or sediment leftover at the bottom of the tank after fermentation (lías in Spanish). Lees are made up of dead yeast cells and all the bits and pieces from the grapes like pulp, and bits of stem and skin. In white winemaking, wine is often left in contact with the lees to help give extra structure, body and creaminess to the wine. Sometimes this process is enhanced by a process called bâtonnage, a French word which refers to the action of regularly stirring the lees.

Magnum

A large bottle size with capacity for 1.5 litres of wine, or twice the size of a standard 75cl wine bottle. Magnums are generally considered to be the optimum size for ageing fine wines, as they help slow down the ageing process but are not so large as to be unwieldy.

Minerality

Imprecise but increasingly fashionable term in wine-tasting circles. Minerality tries to transmit the idea that when you drink a wine, you can almost taste the land and soil the grapes were grown in, even if scientists are clear there can’t be a direct connection between the taste of the wine and the mineral elements in the rocks that sit under a vineyard. All that being the case, it can still be a helpful term when describing wines that are less about mature fruit, and are more direct and...well, mineral!

Natural wine

Refers to wine produced naturally – ie with no additives either in the vineyard or the winery. Natural winemakers follow sustainable, organic or biodynamic agricultural practices. While some critics accuse natural wines of being unstable – the lack of additives means bacteria and yeasts can remain in the wine and change it significantly even after bottling - they have become popular in recent years with younger drinkers. There are various natural wines "styles", including the so-called pet nat sparkling style, or orange wine, essentially a white wine made like a red wine with prolonged contact with the grape skins (hence the colour).

New World

The group of winemaking countries not encompassed by Europe and the Mediterranean basin, so essentially the Americas (North & South), South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Oak

Oak, or roble in Spanish, is the most popular wood for making barrels for ageing wine. Coopers (barrel makers; tonelleros in Spanish) like oak because it is hard and strong but relatively easy to work with, and good at holding liquids. There are lots of different species of oak, but generally in Spain you'll find wines have been aged in America or French oak (or sometimes a combination of the two).

Old World

In wine-speak, the term refers to Europe and the Mediterranean basin, and is used in contrast to New World (see above). In terms of winemaking practices, it’s hard to generalise and the sector is evolving all the time, but in general, Old World wines have traditionally attached more importance to terroir whereas New World winemakers have focused more on grape variety (reflected in how the bottles are labeled, either geographically or highlighting eg "Chardonnay" or "Sauvignon Blanc").

Organic

Refers to wine made from grapes produced by organic viticulture and made according to standards for organic winemaking. There is no single global standard; precise rules vary from country to country. Although here in Europe we do have a common set of rules to help us. The key rule is that organic wine must be made from grapes grown naturally (ie no man-made, chemical-based compounds like fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides or herbicides), and any additives in the winery (eg sulphur, which can be used to protect and preserve the wine) are strictly controlled. Look out for the EU organic logo on wine labels, it’s stars in the shape of a leaf.

Phylloxera

A plant disease, caused by a yellow aphid of the same name, phylloxera kills vines by attacking their roots. It came originally from the USA, helped by the growing trade in imported plants for European gardens, and ran riot through French vineyards in the 1860s, destroying an estimated 2.5 million hectares of vine. The disease was eventually controlled when growers realised that they could graft vines onto American, phylloxera-resistant rootstock (the bottom part of the plant that sits in the earth).

Reserva

Another Spanish wine ageing term, reserve wines can only be released four years after the harvest. In other words, a full three years of ageing is stipulated, of which 12 months must be in an oak cask (or, specifically, a 225 litre barrica if we are talking about wines from Rioja).

Sommelier

The smart French word for a wine waiter, although in smarter restaurants in addition to advising diners on wine and food pairings, his or her role can include things like devising the wine list, working with the chefs to devise new food and pairings, or even sourcing and buying the wine. While there is no fixed route to becoming a sommelier, the Master Sommelier Diploma qualification is so demanding it has only been awarded to about 300 candidates since the late 1960s when it began.

Tannin

Bitter, astringent compounds which are found naturally in lots of plants, and designed to make them unpalatable so predators don’t eat them before they are ripe (taninos in Spanish). Tannins in wine can come from the grape seeds, skins and stems, or from wood barrels if they have been used to age the wine. Tannins create the drying sensation in your mouth when you drink a wine, and they can vary by grape variety and winemaking method. For example maceration, or the amount of time red wine spends in contact with its skins during winemaking, can influence how much tannin is leached into the wine.

Terruño

A Spanish term which, when used in wine circles, is very similar in meaning to the French term terroir, which refers to the total natural environment where vines are grown. This includes everything related to the soil, from soil type – clay, slate, alkaline, acidic etc – to the orientation of the plot; the macroclimate in the immediate vicinity – temperature, rainfall etc – as well as the actual microclimate in the vineyard itself. There is a lot of debate in wine circles about the influence of terroir in wine, with some arguing that it has an important role to play given that wines made in the same area and in a similar way can often end up very different in terms of quality and style.

Vinos de Pago

Spanish term for single estate wines, made in a very specific geographical area with shared soil and climate characteristics, and which are effectively awarded their own appellation or DO. The word pago is a Spanish word for vineyard and is used a lot in Jerez in the south and in Castilla Leon.