Say What?

Sometimes when I hear people talk about wine I get confused by some of the terms they use. Help?!

Wine language can be confusing, but when you know some of the basic terminology it gets a lot easier. Let’s start with some of the more common terms that may be difficult to understand.

Terroir  You may hear someone talk about a wine expressing terroir or how terroir affects the taste of a wine. Terroir is a French word that really doesn’t have an English counterpart or easy translation. A pretty good descriptor for terroir is “sense of place.” It’s a combination of environmental factors like soil, sunlight, climate, and topography. Terroir is one reason why Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, CA tastes different from a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Colchagua Valley in Chile…or even from Paso Robles, CA.

Body  Full-bodied, light-bodied, medium-bodied. You’ve probably heard all of these. Body refers to how the wine’s structure “fills” your mouth – not in the sense of a big gulp will fill it more than a sip, but the feel of it in your mouth. Think of the difference between drinking skim milk (light body) and whole milk (medium body). Or cream (full body). Sometimes you’ll hear somebody use the term “mouthfeel” to mean body. How do you know if a wine is light or full-bodied? Wine labels – usually – won’t tell you, unless the winery’s marketing department thinks it’ll sell more wine by telling you. But I like a different way better: experience! The more you taste, the more you’ll get a feel for the body of various wines. Here’s a general guide of some popular wines to get you started:

  • Full-bodied Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot, Malbec
  • Medium-bodied Reds: Grenache, Sangiovese
  • Light-bodied Reds: Pinot Noir, Beaujolais
  • Full-bodied Whites: Chardonnay
  • Medium-bodied Whites: Pinot Gris/Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc
  • Light-bodied Whites: Riesling, Vinho Verde

Tannins  Tannins contribute to a wine’s body. Tannins are (wine nerd alert!) a phenolic compound found in the skins and seeds of grapes. That’s why white wine (which has the juice from the grapes pressed off the skins and seeds before fermentation) does not have any tannins of significance, and red wine (which is fermented with the skins and seeds) does have tannins. Tannins are what cause your mouth to feel a little dry when you drink certain wines. Think about how your mouth feels after eating a plain cracker. That’s how tannins work – the more tannic the wine, the dryer your mouth will feel. Tannins aren’t bad. They just…are. And some people like them; some people don’t. Tannins are a big enough topic that they might get their own post sometime. (stay tuned!) But in the meantime:

  • Higher tannin: Zinfandel, Syrah, Bordeaux blends
  • Medium tannin: Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Lower tannin: Pinot Noir, Grenache

Old World/New World  You might hear these terms when somebody is comparing two or more different wine styles. The Old World is considered to be essentially the wine producing regions in Europe and the Mediterranean. The New World is everywhere else (North and South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and China.) The Old World and New World are separated by more than geography. In general, winemakers in the Old World tend to focus more on minimal intervention in the production process, thereby letting the wine express the terroir. (See, now you know what that means) New World winemakers more freely manipulate the production process to have the wine express the flavors and structure that they want it to have.

Legs  “This wine has good legs.” Just what the heck does that mean? Think about swirling some wine in a glass. When you’re done swirling, you see that some of the wine has coated the glass and is slowly (or quickly) sliding down the sides. Those are legs. For sweet wines, legs will be an indication of how much sugar is in the wine. The thicker the legs and more slowly they slide down the side of the glass, the more sugar the wine has. For non-sweet wines, legs will be more of an indication of alcohol content. Wines with higher alcohol will have thicker/slower legs. So when somebody says, “This wine has good legs,” they probably mean that the legs are pretty thick and/or slow. Whether that’s actually a good thing is up to the individual drinker.

Now, let’s look at a couple terms that are often misused or misunderstood.

Dry  We just learned that tannins can make your mouth feel dry, right? When a wine is described as dry, it doesn’t have anything to do with tannins…or your mouth feeling dry. For wine, dry is essentially the opposite of sweet. Yes, that’s kind of a new concept for a lot of us. Put another way, the less sugar a wine has, the more dry it is.

Here’s a very basic explanation of sugar content, with the promise of a longer explanation of wine production in a future post. Grapes have lots of sugar. During fermentation that sugar gets converted into alcohol. Sometimes fermentation goes all the way and ferments all of the sugar. That wine is dry. Zero sugar = bone dry. Sometimes the winemaker will stop fermentation before all the sugar is fermented, leaving some level of sugar in the wine. That’s called “residual sugar.” There are varying degrees of sweetness, so you might hear the terms “off-dry” or “medium sweet.” But for our purposes today, know that dry doesn’t mean mouth-drying. It means not sweet.

Fruity  Many times I’ve described a wine as fruity only to have somebody respond, “Oh, I don’t like sweet wines.” It’s happened so often I’ve started to say “fruit forward” or “fruit focused” instead. The thing to remember is that a fruity wine has flavors that might include plum or blackberry or raspberry or melon or apple, to name a few of the many fruit flavors associated with wine. Think back about 30 seconds or so. Sweet means the presence of sugar, right? Ok, so you can have a wine (Zinfandel is a good example) that is fruity but dry. You can also have a wine that is fruity and sweet, like a Port or Muscat. Just remember, fruity describes flavor, dry/sweet describes sugar content.

Extra credit! While this isn’t really a wine term, it’s something that a LOT of people get wrong and you’ll be a star if it ever comes up in conversation. Paso Robles is a city and a wine region (we’ll talk about American Viticultural Areas, aka AVAs, in a future post) in California. What people get wrong is the pronunciation of “Robles.” It’s not the Spanish pronunciation (like ro-blaze) that one would assume. It actually should sound like ro-bullz — rhymes with “nobles.” (Or you can just call it “Paso.”)

What else? Have you heard a wine term that is confusing? Let me know. Send me an email or comment on this post. 

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