So you want to learn more about wine – who could blame you? There’s always more to know, new flavors to try, and fresh food pairings to test out. There’s a ton of terms, varieties, and descriptive words for flavors that you probably hear when you’re out with wine aficionados but you’re too embarrassed to ask them to define.
Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. We’re going to take it nice and slow.
When talking about wine, it’s important to be able to speak the language! If you’re totally new to the world of wine, you’ll notice there’s a fair amount of terminology that’s not necessarily self-explanatory. But rest assured, the more wines you try, the easier it’ll become to identify their qualities according to the vocabulary people use when talking about different wines.
Body (also referred to as “mouthfeel”)
This is the word people use to describe the thickness and “weight” of a wine. A “full-bodied” wine will be more dense and will stick to the sides of the wine glass as it’s swirled. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a “light-bodied” wine has a much lower viscosity and is much more fluid and free-flowing. A “medium-bodied” wine will be somewhere in the middle.
This is where wines get their colors. Tannins come from the shade of the grape’s skin, so if red grapes are fermented along with their skins, the color of the resulting wine will be that familiar dark red. Mostly tannins are used when describing the taste of red wines. Wines with little or no exposure to grape skins (even if technically from red grapes) will stay the color of the inner grape pulp, a white or pinkish shade. It’s important to note that the more tannins a wine contains, the more bitter it’s likely to taste.
Usually used to describe white wines, acidity is measured on a scale of “crisp” or “tart”. Without enough acidity, a wine might be referred to as “flat”.
Sweetness vs. Dryness
The sweeter the wine, the more sugary and juice-like, while dryer wines have a more bitter or tart taste. Sweetness and dryness are descriptors on a spectrum – wines can be medium-dry or off-dry (mostly dry but with a hint of sweetness).
The term used for a wine made primarily from one grape variety. The opposite would be a blend, where two (or more) varieties are blended together and listed on the label.
When wine is fermented or stored in oak barrels, a particular oaky flavor can be identified. Oakiness is typically related to a smokiness or spiciness, with it’s opposite being wines aged in stainless steel that adds no oaky quality.
A negative descriptor of a wine with a low acidity, flabby wines are syrupy and unbalanced.
(ABV of 11.5% to 14%)
Most basically, red wines are made with red grapes, and fermented along with their skins. After the grapes are picked and moved to the cellar to be made into wine, red wines are produced in environments with more oxygen to achieve the smooth, velvety flavors that red wine is known for. Red wine producers tend to use oak barrels to increase airflow to the wine for those softer, nutty, oaky flavors. Additionally, red wines are fermented along with the seeds of the grape, meaning the consumer has a greater exposure to the naturally beneficial compounds found in the grape’s seed, which is why red wine is thought of as healthier than white. Reds also usually have a higher alcohol content than white wines, since red grapes are picked when they’re riper and therefore contain more sugars that convert to alcohol during fermentation. Red wines tend to be paired with red meat, pork, chocolate, and cheese.
Types of Red Wines
A bright pale red wine, cabernet franc is made from a blue-black grape and contains flavors of violets, blueberry, earth, black olive, and coffee.
This is usually a full-bodied wine high on tannins. made from black grapes. Flavor notes include bell pepper, green olive, herb, cassis, and black cherry.
Generally a fruitier and more light-bodied wine, Gamay’s flavor profile is more berry-centric, with notes of strawberry, raspberry, and cherry.
This grape ripens early, and results in a wine that’s high in alcohol and low in acidity. It usually produces a spicy, cherry-like, more bold flavor.
A thin-skilled purple grape, Malbec has prominent tannins and makes for a tart, spicy, cherry flavored wine that tends to be thick and dark.
One of the most popular and agreeable red wines, Merlot is a dark blue grape with versatile flavors, including watermelon, strawberry, cherry, and plum.
This red grape produces a medium-bodied, lightly spicy cherry-flavored wine that’s high in both alcohol content and tannins.
Only grown in Italy, makes for a light, ruby colored wine with notes of plum, cherry, and tar.
This grape is fragile, difficult, unpredictable, and overall a huge hassle to grow. The result is a light-colored, medium-bodied, low tannin wine with notes of beet root, pale cherry, blackberry, cola, and plum.
A purple-skinned grape, its wines are fairly light in color and acidic. Young Sangiovese wine has fruity flavors of strawberry and light spice, but when aged in barrels it transitions into a oakier and tarry flavored wine with notes of tobacco leaf.
This is a versatile grape with dark/black skin that makes for a medium to full-bodied wine with high tannins when grown in more moderate climates and a consistently full-bodied wine with subtler tannin levels when grown in hotter climates. The flavor profile ranges across blackberry, boysenberry, plum, pepper, clove, mint, and licorice.
A black-skinned grape, Zinfandel has a high sugar content and high levels of alcohol as a result. Flavors include raspberry, blackberry, black cherry, raisin, and prune.
(ABV of 10.7% to 12.4%)
White wines are made with green grapes, but unlike with reds, the skins and seeds are omitted from the fermentation process so whites tend to be mostly colorless. White wines are usually deprived of oxygen as they age in order to preserve the fruity and floral tastes and aromas, and for this reason white wines tend to be kept in stainless steel vats rather than wooden barrels. The flavor profile of white wines is quite varied, containing notes that range anywhere from flowery to citrusy to honey-like to fruity notes. Typically white wines are paired with seafood, poultry, pork, and fruits.
Types of White Wines
One of the most well-known and popular wines, Chardonnay is a green-skinned grape grown all over the world. Chardonnay tends to be light-bodied to medium-bodied with a high acidity, and flavors of green apple, citrus, pineapple, and papaya, though the flavor profile of Chardonnay is generally versatile.
A white grape from the Loire Valley of France, this highly acidic grape can produce dry, off-dry, sparkling, and dessert wines. Flavor notes of apple, lemon, pear, and honeydew are typically observed, in addition to floral aromas.
This is a white wine grape that happens to have pinkish-red skin color and grows at its best in cooler climates. These grapes are naturally high in sugar and typically result in an off-dry wine, with flavors of lychee, grapefruit, and flowers.
Generally known as a grape from Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, Grüner Veltliner makes for a wine with a wide range of flavors. Young and unoaked, this wine tastes of green grape, apple, peach, and citrus. Though when aged in oak, flavors of white pepper and spice blend with the fruit flavors for an expressive taste.
Marsanne is a reliable grape producing full-bodied, less acidic wines featuring almond, white peach, and pear notes with a touch of spice.
Though used to make white wines, Muscat grapes occupy a full spectrum of colors, from white, to pink, to yellow, to nearly black. Technically, Muscat refers to a family of over 200 grape varieties, almost always producing a distinctly sweet floral aroma. Flavors tend toward citrusy – with tastes of orange and tangerine.
Similar to Chardonnay (but nowhere near as popular), Pinot Blanc is actually a genetic mutation of Pinot Noir. If produced in Alsace, Italy, or Hungary, Pinot Blanc will be a full-bodied, dry wine, while if made in Germany or Austria, it may be dry or sweet. This wine is best when aged in stainless steel, and has flavor notes of green apple and citrus.
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio
This grape comes in colors from brownish-pink to black to white, and produces a wine that varies in color from yellow to copper to pale pink. Grown all around the world, different areas produce vastly different styles. These wines are light and pair well with food, and flavors tend to include citrus, pear, and melon.
A highly aromatic fruit, Riesling is highly acidic and used to make white wines that range anywhere from bone dry to extremely sweet to sparkling and dessert wines. Reislings flavors largely depend on their area of origin, but flavors include green apple, citrus, apricot, peach, and honeysuckle.
These grapes are identified by their reddish-brown coloring, as well as their aroma of floral herbal tea. This grape variety is one of the more difficult to grow, but the result is a full-bodied white wine with notes of lime, citrus, and stone fruits.
Common in many of the world’s wine-growing regions, this green grape variety is known as a classic crisp, dry, and refreshing white wine. In cooler climates, this grape produces a wine with “grassy” flavors, like grass, green bell peppers, nettles, passion fruit, and elderflower. If grown in warmer climates, the tropical fruit notes may still develop though they’re more likely to leave slighter traces of grapefruit and peach.
Low in acidity, Sémillon has a thin, golden skin and is mostly blended with other wines as opposed to being sold as a varietal. Flavor notes like fig, melon, and light herb can be observed, though the flavoring can vary substantially depending on time of harvest.
A challenging wine to master making, Viognier can be bitter when underripe, and then flat when more ripe than necessary. It’s extremely aromatic, and when at its sweet spot of perfect ripeness, smells like apricots, peaches, and citrus rind. Viognier is sometimes blended with Syrah, combining notes of citrus and flower to the red wine.
Popular during celebratory events and associated with ringing in the New Year, sparkling wine refers to white wines infused with fizzy bubbles for a carbonated effect. Sparkling wine is created when grapes go through the ordinary fermentation process in fully sealed containers rather than vats that breathe and allow in air. Without ways for carbon dioxide gas to escape, the gas becomes trapped in the wine, resulting in many tiny, foamy bubbles when the bottle is uncorked, and a carbonated texture when consumed.
There are four levels of sweetness to sparkling wines:
- Extra-Brut: the driest sparkling wine available, this result is achieved when the yeast overtakes all the sugar in the fermenting grapes and none can be detected by taste
- Brut: the most popular sparkling wine type and the most common type of Champagne, this is a dry wine with a touch of sweetness
- Extra Dry: dry with a slight sweetness that is not sugary, this is most common in Prosecco wines
- Demi-sec: the sweetest sparkling wine type, typically consumed with dessert and noticeably sugary
Sparkling Wine vs. Champagne vs. Prosecco
All Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagnes. The word Champagne is sometimes used interchangeably to mean sparkling wine generally, but this is not correct. The designation “Champagne” refers specifically to sparkling wine hailing from the northeastern region of Champagne in France, produced by blending primarily chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier grapes.
Similarly, Prosecco comes from the Veneto region of Italy and is made primarily from the Glera grape. Unlike Champagne, Prosecco can refer to wine textures other than sparkling (“spumante”), like semi-sparkling (“frizzante”), or still wine (“tranquillo”).
After-dinner wines are made from the same grapes as regular wines, but they tend to have sweeter, more unique, rich flavors. Due to the universal sweetness, dessert wines tend to have lower alcohol content since so much sugar is preserved. These drinks can be enjoyed on their own, with dessert after a meal, or with an assortment of fresh fruits and cheeses. Keep in mind that these wines are meant to be consumed in smaller quantities since the flavors are quite intense.
Types Of Dessert Wines
To make this very sweet wine, grapes are frozen so the sugar can be concentrated. Traditionally, this wine is made of grapes that have been left on the vine long after the initial harvest, until temperatures have dropped and the grapes freeze over. Authentic ice wine is expensive since it tends to be challenging to make, and true icewine is crisp, elegant, and flavorful.
A fortified wine is a wine that’s had extra alcohol added during the fermentation process. Introducing alcohol while the grapes ferment interferes by killing yeast and leaving unfermented sugar behind. The result is highly alcoholic sweet wines like Sherry, Port, and Madeira.
Lightly Sweet Dessert Wine
Very aromatic and intensely flavorful, lightly sweet wines tend to be crisp and acidic. White lightly sweet dessert wines often tend towards notes of peach, apple, and citrus, while reds contain notes of strawberry, cherry, and raspberry.
Richly Sweet Dessert Wine
Made of high-quality grapes, many of these wines age for decades and maintain their flavor and sweetness due to the acidity. Some are produced through a “late harvest” technique, meaning the grapes are left on the vine longer and become more raisiny, resulting in a wine with a high level of sugar. Another means of making a richly sweet dessert wine is the “noble rot” technique, in which a spore called Botrytis cinerea is allowed to rot on the grapes. While it doesn’t sound appetizing, the ginger and honey flavor that this creates is highly sought-after.
Dried Grape Wine
This wine is sweet as a result of the fruit being left on the vine to dry, laid out deliberately in the sun, or picked and hung on indoor racks. This leaves the sugar to remain when the grape dries up and the water has evaporated. Dried grape wines tend to have flavors of candied fruit, honey, and spice.
Other Wine Variations
Technically a red wine, Rosé gets its color from its brief exposure to the red grape skins that richly colored red wines are exposed to for weeks at a time. The most prominent flavors are red fruit, flowers, citrus, and melon, though depending on the grape the rosé is based on, the flavor can vary dramatically.
Contrary to popular belief, orange wine is not made from oranges! Also known as “skin-contact” wine, the amber color is the result of green grape skins and particularly the seeds remaining in contact with the fermenting grapes for days or months. Orange wine is essentially the opposite process of rosé, as the deliberate exposure of the grape skins when making white wine is the inverse of removing red grape skins early in the process of making red wine. Because of the high levels of tannins, orange wine is quite bitter and tart, with bold, nutty flavors.