Here a few of the terms our passengers most often encounter at wine tastings. Being familiar with some of the verbiage used by your “wine ambassadors” will enhance your experience, and give you more confidence in finding a wine you enjoy.
Varietal: This term refers to the botanical variety of wine grape used to make the wine. All European wine grapes are of the same species, Vitis vinifera, which has been domesticated into 5,000-10,000 different varieties over the last 5,500 years. Each variety has different growing requirements, and aroma and flavor characteristics which are expressed in the wine made from them.
Many wines are made by blending vintages of different varietals. For example, Bordeaux wine from France is made by blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Other wines are made from a single varietal. In America, it’s more common for the wine to be identified by the varietal(s) used to make the wine, rather than the region where the grapes were grown.
Some of the most popular grape varietals include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio.
Appellation: The officially designated area where wine grapes are grown. Each region has particular growing conditions and climate that affect the quality and characteristics of the grapes grown there. Grapes grown in different regions will produce wines with noticeable differences in aroma and flavor.
Each appellation will be more successful growing one or more varietals than others. For example: Oregon is known for producing superior Pinot Noir, whereas the Finger Lakes region in New York grows exceptional Riesling.
Some appellations have very strict regulations about how the grapes are grown and how the wine is made, in order to be officially labelled as coming from that appellation. For example, in order for a wine to labelled as “Champagne,” the grapes must be grown within particular parts of the Champagne region; they must be Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, or some blend of those three; the wine must undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle; the grapes must be grown according to certain practices, and pressed in a certain way, etc.
In the United States, wine appellations are designated by the Department of the Treasury, and are called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Appellations also apply to other agricultural products, such as cheese or meat.
Legs: When evaluating the appearance of wine, tasters take into account the color and clarity of the wine. They can also determine the body, or viscosity, of the wine, by swirling it around in the glass and watching as it cascades down the sides of the bowl. If the wine is light-bodied, it will quickly rush down the glass like water. If the wine contains a lot of glycerol, which is a fatty acid that adds body to the wine, it will drip slowly down in long tear-drops. These are known as “legs.” A wine with pronounced legs has more glycerol, which means it will coat your mouth and tongue more fully, will feel sweeter on your tongue, and probably has higher alcohol content and stronger flavor.
Bouquet: As grapes ferment, and the sugar in the fruit is converted to alcohol, a number of highly complex chemical reactions take place, which release different organic compounds that your nose can detect. These aromas are more complex than just the smell of grapes, because there are now chemicals in the wine that weren’t in there before. These aromas that come from fermentation are often the very same smells that also come from other foods or plants.
The “primary” aroma is the smell of the grapes used to make the wine. This will be the first thing you detect when you smell a wine. The primary aroma of Chardonnay grapes will be noticeably different than the primary aroma of Zinfandel grapes.
The “secondary” aroma is the smell of the wine. Because of the added complexity caused by fermentation, you may smell different fruits, like apples, pears, berries, cherries, melon; or other plants like fresh-cut grass, moss, flowers, or herbs.
The “tertiary” aroma, or “bouquet,” is the most complex aroma produced by the wine. This smell comes from wines that have been aged, particularly in oak barrels. These aromas develop as the chemicals in the wine combine with each other over time in the barrel or the bottle. They also come from the barrel itself, if the wine has been aged in oak. These aromas can be woodsy, earthy, mineral (which sometimes comes from the soil in which the grapes were grown), leafy, or culinary. It’s not uncommon for the bouquet of a wine to be described as having notes of tobacco, leather, peat, fresh baked pie, etc.
Don’t be alarmed or dismayed if you don’t detect the same aromas in a wine as others. We all have different degrees of olfactory sensitivity, and we each detect different compounds as having different smells. Smell the wine first, figure out what, if anything, you can detect in the bouquet, and then see what notes the winemaker has made about the aromas. You may disagree with those notes, or you may discover new wrinkles in your experience of the wine.
Dry: This means the wine is not sweet. If there is residual sugar left in the wine after the fermentation has been completed, then the wine is sweet. If there’s just a small amount of sugar left in the wine (less than 50 grams/Liter), then we call it semi-sweet. Less than 20 grams of sugar per liter is barely detectable by human tongues, and is called off-dry. When there is no sugar in the wine, it is called dry.
Port: Port wine is a particular fortified wine made in Portugal. In the Douro Valley of Portugal in the 17th century, when a batch of wine was made that turned out poorly, or there was left-over by-products of winemaking that would be wasted, these materials would be distilled into a neutral spirit known as aguardiente. The next year, during the wine-making process, some aguardiente was added to the fermenting grape juice. This greatly increases the alcohol content in the vat, and kills the fermenting yeast before they consume all the sugar in the juice. This results in a fortified wine that is higher in alcohol (usually 17-20% alcohol by volume) and also sugar. These wines are shipped down the Douro River to the city of Oporto, from where they are sent around the world.
In the 18th century, when Great Britain was at war with France, and could not import any French wines, a treaty was signed with Portugal assuring a continual supply of Portuguese wines, including Port, to the British public. Port became the drink of choice in England of the 1700s, and the Anglican Church to this day uses Port as communion wine.
True port must come from the Douro Valley, but port-style fortified wines are made everywhere, including Texas. Some excellent examples can be found at Texas Hills Vineyard and Messina Hof. They can be served with dessert, particularly cheese and chocolate, or as dessert itself, perhaps with a fine cigar.
Fruit-forward, fruity, or jammy: When grapes are fermented into wine, the original flavor of the fruit is altered, and can become subdued. The grape flavor may be overpowered by some of the secondary aromas of the wine, such as those of plum, cherry, berries, cocoa, tomato, etc. But when the aromas and flavors of the original grapes are allowed to remain prominent, the wine is described as being fruit-forward, or jammy. Because we naturally associate the flavor of grape or grape jelly with an inherent sweetness, some people think of fruit-forward wines as being sweet themselves. But the truth is, a fruity wine can be completely dry, and still have a prominent jamminess to it.