Wine Lingo 101

March 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

If you’ve ever been at a wine tasting and heard a wine-related word or phrase that went over your head, you’re not alone.

There are hundreds of terms in winemaking, covering everything from the time a vine is first planted in the ground to the time you enjoy the last sip in your glass.

The good news, though, is that you only need to know a handful of these terms to be an educated wine taster.

Today I’ll describe 22 of the most common wine tasting terms for you so that the next time you’re here at Sunset Hills Vineyard, you can banter with the best of them.


Good, because Wine Lingo 101 is officially now in session.

Acidity – Acidity simply refers to the level of acid in a wine. You can have too much or too little acid, but just the right amount makes the wine sharp, bright and lively on your palate.

Balance – Balance describes the harmony of the fruit, acid and tannins in a wine. When a wine is well-balanced, no one part dominates another.

Blending piece – In the United States, a wine only has to be 75% of certain varietal to be labeled exclusively as that on the bottle. However, most wines use one or more blending piece in small percentages to make a better final product.

Our 2008 Merlot, for example, is not 100% Merlot juice. We add a little Cabernet Sauvignon to make it a more complex wine.

Body – Body describes how full a wine feels on your palate. Body ranges from light to medium to full.

Complexity – Complexity refers to the layers of scent and flavor of a wine. The more complex a wine is, the more interesting it is to drink because you continue to find new layers as you drink it.

Dry – Dry wines have little to no sweetness and usually have less than 0.5% residual sugar.

Earthy – Earthy denotes a wine that expresses characteristic of the soil it was grown in. A great example of an earthy wine is our 2008 Benevino Cab Franc. Grown in limestone-rich soil, this wine has a wonderful mineral-like quality.

Estate-bottled – Estate-bottled means the wine is made from 100% juice from grapes grown on the vineyard’s property.

Finish – The finish of a wine is the taste and impression it leaves on your tongue after you’ve swallowed it.

Fruity – Fruity describes a wine that tastes strongly of (yep, you guessed it) fruit. Fruity wines are often mistaken for sweet wines, though the terms are not interchangeable. Take our 2008 Viongier, for example. This wine has bold fruit flavors on the palate but is a dry wine with less than 0.5% residual sugar.

Late harvest – Late harvest describes a wine made from grapes that were allowed to hang on the vine longer than most increasing their sugar content. Most dessert wines are made from late harvest grapes, like our 2009 Nettare which is made from 100% late harvest Vidal Blanc grapes.

Legs – Refers to the wine that streams down the side of your glass after you’ve swirled your wine in it and indicate the alcohol concentration is a certain wine. The higher the alcohol content, the faster and closer together the legs run (and vice versa).

Length – Length describes how long the taste of wine stays in your mouth after you’ve finished drinking it.

Malolactic fermentation – A secondary fermentation process that we put our 2008 Reserve Chardonnay through which turns the malic acid that’s naturally present in the grape into lactic acid. Malolactic fermentation gives wine a rich, creamy, buttery quality.

Neutral Oak Barrel – A neutral oak barrel is 5 years old or older. Neutral barrels do not add additional flavor to the wines that are aged in them.

Nose Nose describes the combination of smells you get from wine that’s been poured out of the bottle. While you might expect wine to smell like, well, grapes, this isn’t always the case. Our 2008 Viognier, for example, has a very floral nose as opposed to a fruity one.

Palate – Your palate is what you use to decipher wine and decide if you like it or not. Everyone has a different palate, and no preference for one types of wine (tannic, sweet, fruity, dry, ect.) is right or wrong. Palate is a matter of personal preference and often changes over time.

Residual Sugar – The amount of unfermented sugar left in a wine after fermentation is complete. A dry wine usually has less than 0.5% residual sugar while, on the other end of the spectrum, a dessert wine may have upwards of 12% residual sugar. Our 2009 Nettare has 7%.

Sweet – Sweet is the opposite of dry and describes a wine with higher sugar content.

Tannins – A bitter compound found in the skin and stems of grapes, tannins give wine a “dusty,” “dry mouth” feel. They mellow out with age, meaning they become less predominant in the wine.

Varietal – Varietal refers to the type of grape itself. We grow 8 varietals here at Sunset Hills: Chardonnay, Viognier, Albarino, Petit Manseng, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.

Vintage – Vintage refers to the year the grapes were harvested.

Now that you’ve got the lingo down, grab some friends and show off your new-found wine prowess at your next Sunset Hills tasting.


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