Booze 101: The language of wine

Knowing some simple terms can help you sound more like a wine expert on your next date. (iStock)
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Picture it: You are on your first date at a wine bar. You think, “I’ve got this. I know I like Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir!” Then you date starts waxing poetic about tannins and the terroir of San Diego County and you panic. You can feel the beads of sweat forming on your brow and the deer in headlights look creeping on your face.

To avoid this unpleasant first date scenario, here are a few must-know wine terms to have you conversing almost like a sommelier. ‘Somme,’ what?

Sommelier (suh-ma-li-yay) or (saw-muh-YAY): In simple terms, someone who knows a lot about wine and works in the service industry, generally at restaurants or hotels. This can be a self-administered title or one can be designated Certified, Advanced or Master Sommelier through rigorous testing with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Recommendation: Watch the documentary SOMM.

Terroir (ter-WAH): One of the most debated terms in the biz. While no exact English translation exists for the French word, it basically refers to the total environment a grape is grown in. Think: soil (composition and geology), topography, macroclimate and microclimate (sunlight, temperature, rainfall).

Corked: This is easy to pronounce, but will engender battle cries from folks in the industry. Basically it’s this: if your wine smells like wet cardboard, wet dog, or soggy newspaper - even a little - it is corked. It is NOT corked just because you don’t like it, it burns your nose hairs, or smells like rubber tires. Those are different flaws altogether. Scientific fact: Corked wine is caused by TCA (2,4,6 - trichloroanisole).

Mouthfeel: Suddenly your date is rambling about the mouthfeel of the wine. Take a deep breath, this just means the texture. Focus on smoothness, dryness, acidity, bitterness, and body. Words you’ll hear and use include: silky, velvety, supple, fleshy, viscous, dry, and full. And yes, we’re still talking about the wine.

Tannin: This refers to the bitter substance in a grape’s skin, seeds and stems. It comes out when the grapes are pressed and the juice has contact with the above. Oak barrels will also lend tannin to a wine. Easy way to relate? Think about the bitterness you get from tea bags. That drying sensation in your gums? That’s tannin.

Umami (oo-MAH-mi): Food term meets wine term. Heard in the inner circle of foodies and wine geeks, it refers to the salty, sweet, savory, je ne sais quoi combination of aroma and flavor you can’t put your finger on. Example: soy sauce.

Meritage (rhymes with heritage): Never fear, this simply means blend. First coined in 1981 by the winner of a Los Angeles Times competition, the designation separates it from a single varietal wine, such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Commonly seen on California labels and wine lists, the name is trademarked, can only be used by members of the Meritage Association, and must contain only specified grapes.

Cuvée (coo-VEY): A confusing word with many different meanings in different contexts. Great! For simple purposes, it commonly refers to the first and best flow from the press (in other words, the best juice) or can refer to a blend, but without the strict guidelines of Meritage. You will often see this on wine labels referring to a specific or special batch of the wine, like “Vintners Cuvee.”

Final tip: Please stop talking about “the legs,” as in “This one’s got great legs! Look at those legs!” Save that one as a compliment for your date. The saying is like carrying an umbrella in Seattle. It shows you have no idea what you are doing.


With 18 years in the restaurant and beverage industry and more than 850 reviews under her belt, Laurie Delk is a one-stop guide to all things craft beer, wine and spirits. You can follow Delk on Twitter @lauriedelklife or Instagram @sandiegobeer. Send ideas for featured drinks to