Basic wine terms

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Image: Heidi Butzine

            When shopping for a bottle of wine, sometimes it can seem like the labels are written in some kind of code.  This guide can help you figure out some of the most common terms.

 Varietal is the primary type of grape used in the wine.  Some examples of varietals are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. This is a common labeling scheme for wines produced outside of Europe.  European wines are referred to not by the varietal or grape type but by the region they came from i.e., Chianti. 

Appellation is a regulated geographic area where wine is grown.  Both France and Italy have appellation systems.  There is an organizing body such as the AOC in France that determines strict boundaries for an appellation.  The wine must be produced within that area and sometimes meet other standards to be allowed to use the name of that appellation on the wine. Appellations can be large geographic regions such as Bordeaux or smaller regions or towns within those appellations as well.

Old vines are also not legally regulated.  The term is usually used to apply to vines that are several decades old though.  Older vines produce fewer grapes, and the grapes they do produce have a more concentrated flavor.  Wine produced from these grapes is more likely to have an intense flavor as well.

Reserve is a loose term which may indicate that the winemaker has set aside or reserved a certain amount of wine that they find to be unique or perhaps a higher quality.  This may mean that they set it aside to be aged in a certain way.  Keep in mind that the riserva title on Italian wine labels and likewise reserva on wines from Spain are officially controlled titles that indicate that a wine has been aged to a certain required length.  However, in America there is no legal definition for reserve, so the label can be applied to any quality of wine and depending upon the winemaker, may be used solely for the purposes of marketing to make the wine sound special.

Estate bottled means that the entire production of the wine all happened at the estate.  The grapes were grown, picked, and processed in one place rather than sourcing grapes from other vineyards or bottling offsite.  This often indicates a higher quality of wine because it means the winemaker had hands-on control of every step of the process.  For French wines look for mis en bouteille au Chateau on the label.  This means it was bottled at the chateau or winery.

Meritage is a combination of the words merit and heritage.  This term is not a fancy French word used for years in winemaking, but is a manufactured term used to denote wine made from a blend of grapes.  There is a Meritage Association which regulates the use of the term and requires that wines meet certain standards to be considered Meritage blends.  Meritage wines must be made from at least two of the grapes used for traditional Bordeaux blends such as Cabernet and Merlot, or Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. 

Cuvée can have several different definitions.  In general it is used to describe a specific blend of wine from different vineyards or even different varieties.  In Champagne and sparking wines using the traditional champagne methods, cuvée is used to describe the best juice which comes from the first few thousand liters of the grapes pressing.

Unfiltered means what it sounds like, that the wine was not filtered after fermentation.  During the fermentation process there are particles that may be imparted to the wine.  Some wine is filtered to remove these and make the wine more clear and others are unfiltered.  Some people believe that with filtering a certain amount of the wine’s flavor and character actually gets filtered out and so they prefer the unfiltered varieties.

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