There is a lot to learn when it comes to wine, both as a server and as a consumer. As a salesman and an educator, I am constantly trying to find ways to make wine accessible to new learners in a way that prevents them becoming overwhelmed. So, here are ten important words/subjects that you are likely to encounter as you begin learning about wine:
Appellation-The place a wine is from. Every country has different rules for their appellation systems, so there is a lot to learn here. I consider the first and most important parts to be the fact that old-world wines are often named only after the region, whereas most new-world wines will bear the name of the region and the grape variety. Also, generally speaking, the smaller an area a wine comes from, the higher it’s assumed quality, price, etc.
Bold-This is a common descriptor, but it is unfortunately also not very specific. This word can be used to describe a wine with heavily concentrated fruit flavors, with intense tannins, a wine high in alcohol, or any combination of these factors. When faced with a customer asking for a bold wine, I try to lead them with additional questions to find exactly what the word means to them.
Burgundy-Burgundy is a region in France, but it is also a word that has been used for wines from California, and there are consumers who are unfamiliar with the distinction. The goal of clarifying this distinction should never be to be a pedantic know-it-all, but simply to clarify the customer’s actual need. In a retail setting, a person may be looking for Californian “Burgundy”, meaning inexpensive box wine, or they might need a higher-end French Pinot Noir.
Buttery-This is a descriptor that is most often used to describe California Chardonnay, but it is important to know that not all Chardonnay is buttery. It is a characteristic imparted by part of the fermentation process, not a characteristic inherent to the grape itself.
Champagne-Like Burgundy, this is a term that was co-opted by California winemakers, though now very few still use it. Many consumers still use the term broadly to refer to any sparkling wine. My two cents, it’s not necessary or in fact prudent to automatically launch into education every time a consumer misuses the word. I recommend using leading questions to find out more specifically what the customer needs. There are three factors that make Champagne what it is; the location, the fermentation, and the grapes. Two of these factors can be duplicated, and there are many wines from other parts of the world that are made in the same method as Champagne, and using the same grape varietals, and the finest among these can rival the quality of Champagne. There is a second fermentation method called the Charmat method, which is less difficult and costly than the Champagne method, and produces sometimes excellent wines, but with a distinctly different character from Champagne, owing largely to the fact that they are not left in extended contact with their fermentation lees.
Chianti-A third term that is often misunderstood by American consumers, Chianti is a region in Italy where the wines are made primarily of the local grape Sangiovese.
Oaky-Oak barrels are commonly used for the fermentation of many types of wine, the age and type of barrels. Oak barrels will impart flavor to wine for about 3 years, after which they are considered ‘neutral’.
Old World/New World- Simply put, the old world is Europe, and the new world is everywhere else. Stylistically, old world style wines are generally lower in alcohol, higher in acid, and often considered more austere or more of an ‘acquired taste’, particularly to American consumers. Wines made in the actual new world can be described as old world in style, or vice-versa.
Sweet/Dry- Actual sugar sweetness is a characteristic that can be measured, however there are several characteristics in wine that can make a wine seem more or less sweet, we can call this perceptual sweetness. A wine with no residual sugar can seem sweet, and a wine with residual sugar can seem dry, depending on the alcohol, acid, and tannin levels of the wine.
Terroir- Terroir is the French word for soil and environment in which a wine is produced, but in a broader sense can include many of the factors that go into creating a wine, from the farming of the grapes, through the specific decisions that can be made during the winemaking process.