The approaching holiday season means more entertaining than usual–which, for one thing, means more serving, bringing, or at least drinking wine! Keeping up with connoisseurs can be intimidating, but a few simple phrases and terms can up your wine IQ significantly. Whether you're bottle shopping to soiree schmoozing, these six key terms will make you sound like a total pro.
To school us on wine lexicon, we went to Elizabeth Schneider, author of the forthcoming book and host of the podcast Wine for Normal People, and Laura Maniec, master sommelier and owner of Corkbuzz Wine Studios. They curate the wine selections for weeklytasting.com, a subscription-free wine delivery website that assembles four bottles of wine, tasting notes, and a video to provide expert—but not low-key—wine education. Users choose the boxes that most appeal to their taste for $69.99. So what do wine lovers really need to know to get through the holiday season in style? Below, Schneider and Maniec tell all.
VIDEO: Holiday Entertaining with Actress Claire Holt
Earthy or Minerally
Here’s one term you may hear from your wine-snoot uncle or boss, so you should know it. A red wine can be earthy or minerally. Here’s the deal: Depending where grapes grow (not just area but also what soil), some wines taste like dirt and others like mountain streams! Don’t believe me? Grab a bottle from Bordeaux, France, and smell and taste potting soil or a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in the Loire Valley and smell a mountain waterfall. You’ll be throwing around this key term with the best of them!
Our pick: 2012 Chateau de Francs Francs-Cotes de Bordeaux, France
If you love a crisp, refreshing New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a zippy Oregon Pinot Noir that makes your mouth pucker a bit, you probably like acidic wine. If your mouth waters after you take a sip and you love that tart sensation, the wine is acidic. Certain grapes like Riesling and Gamay, especially from cooler climates (think Germany or Burgundy, France) are good bets for acidic wines!
Our pick: 2014 Brella Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Oregon
Put the Sommelier to Work
So how do I use a sommelier (suh-muhl-YAY)? We all eat out during the holidays so this is a good thing to know! First, the simple definition: A sommelier is a person who knows a lot about wine and who is committed to helping you select wines that meet your needs, so you should ask them questions! Asking what pairs well with a certain food on the menu will let the sommelier really show his matching talents. If you have a couple of wines that you are choosing between and you know some flavor descriptors you like or don’t like, use them—it will get you closer to something you like. Don’t be afraid to give them your budget for the bottle as you’re asking the questions about the wine either. Their job is to serve you and help you, so there’s no shame in that at all!
Our pick: 2015 Gustave Lorentz Alsace Riesling Reserve
Dry vs. Sweet (But not necessarily fruity!)
Picture it: You’re picking up wine for your best friend’s party, and the salesperson asks what kind of wine you like. You think about this awesome Malbec you had from Argentina that tasted like plums and vanilla, and you tell her you love sweet wine. Uh oh! That’s going to score you a truly sweet wine with perceptible sugar. In wine terms, dry is the opposite of sweet, meaning there is an absence of sugar. Your tongue can actually perceive sweetness without your nose. Try this: hold your nose and stick your tongue in the glass and it will get a sweet tinge—that’s the sugar! If it doesn’t happen, the wine is dry, or absent of sugar. (Winemakers sometimes add sugar into cheaper dry wines to cover up flaws like unripe or bad fruit.)
If you want a dry wine but one that tastes like fruit and vanilla, be sure to ask for a dry, fruity style.
Our pick: 2014 Pascual Toso Reserva Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina
Your best friend’s boyfriend hands you a bottle and says it needs to be decanted before dinner. What do you do? Decanting just means moving liquid from one container to another. We do this to let the wine “breathe” after it’s been in a bottle with virtually no oxygen for years. Seems minor, but allowing a wine to air after opening it improves the aromas and textures. Expert tip: Skip the fancy decanter! Just pour the wine into the wine glasses you’ll be drinking from and let them sit for 20 minutes to smooth out the edges and get the perfect glass. Try your newly acquired decanting skills with something like the wine below.
Our pick: 2014 Clos d'Alzan Côtes Du Rhône Villages Signargues, France
Tannic or Tannin
You may hear wine lovers discuss tannin, a key term in wine. Some red wines can make your mouth feel so dry, it can make you pucker. This is a result of tannin, a chemical compound that occurs in grape skins, seeds, and stems. Because red wine stays in contact with the skin and seeds so the juice can get color, the side effect is that the wine becomes tannic. Some grapes are more tannic than others, like Nebbiolo from Italy or Cabernet Sauvignon—and they can really make your mouth feel dry. Although they aren’t great for sipping, tannic wines are fantastic with food, especially fatty or protein rich foods, which they combine with to make everything seem more velvety and smooth.
Our pick: 2015 Boschi Dei Signori Nebbiolo D'Alba Bosio, Italy
We have to say, there are a lot of anthropomorphic terms in wine, and body is probably the queen of them! Body is how a wine feels in your mouth—basically its weight and texture. So a full-bodied, round, soft, or even voluptuous wine is generally really mouth-filling and has lots of flavor. It’s bold, rich, and often has a higher alcohol level. These are great ones for winter. This would be like a California Cabernet Sauvignon or an oaky Chardonnay or even a sweet wine like Port. A light-bodied wine is crisp and generally high in acidity. It’s refreshing in the way that citrus is refreshing—it’s something you probably want on a hot day that won’t weigh you down and doesn’t stick around in your mouth after you swallow it.