Decoding the bottle: a beginner’s guide to wine terminology

Man pouring a glass of red wine

Tianna Nadalin

Posted March 02, 2023

Know how to talk about wine like a pro with our guide to the most commonly used, and misunderstood, wine words, terms, and descriptors.

If you’ve ever felt daunted trying to choose a bottle of wine at your local bottle shop, you’re not alone. With so many styles, varieties and vintages available from all over the world, buying a bottle of wine often feels like an expensive gamble. 

While you don’t have to be fluent in wine-speak, understanding some of the basics can make it a little easier to interpret a tasting note, order wine at a restaurant, or ask the right questions to help you choose a bottle you’ll love. 

RACV Cape Schanck Resort wine program manager Aaron Christian says wine is there to invoke memories, which can then influence what you are smelling. For example, if its a memory of summer time then it could be peaches, mango or strawberry in the glass, while climbing trees as a child could be a scent of eucalypt.

"Wine is very personal," he says. "If anyone tries to tell you what you are smelling or tasting is wrong, don't waste your time talking to them."

Everyone's sense of smell and taste is different, but Aaron says knowing the difference between sweetness and fruitiness, or being able to make sense of why wines have a nose, body and legs but no arms, makes it easier to decode what’s in the glass.

To get you started, here is his wine cheat sheet; a glossary of some of the most commonly used wine words to have you speaking somm in no time.  

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Wine 101: the most common wine terms explained

Understanding structure

Every wine has four key elements that make up its structure and flavour profile: acidity, alcohol, tannin and sweetness. It’s the interplay between each of these that determines how a wine tastes and whether it is balanced.


All wines have some level of acidity, which is often referred to as tartness or sharpness in wine. If a sommelier uses words like bright, vibrant, lively, crisp or crunchy, they are describing wines with a high level of acidity.


How heavy a wine feels in the mouth is largely determined by its alcohol content. Lighter-bodied wines generally have lower alcohol by volume, or ABV (less than 12 per cent), while full-bodied wines tend to have a higher ABV (more than 14 per cent).


Sweetness refers to the level of residual sugar in a wine. To make wine, grapes are fermented and their natural sugars are turned into alcohol. Most wines are fermented to dry. Sweetness, however, is not to be confused with fruitiness. Wines can have a very fruity profile but still be bone dry (have no residual sugar). Look out for descriptors such as ripe, floral, jammy or juicy, as these often hint that a wine is more fruit-driven and may be perceived as tasting sweeter.


That mouth-puckering feeling you get when you drink wine is largely thanks to tannins. Tannins are bitter, astringent compounds found mainly in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes, and are what give red wines that puckering feeling. Words such as fine, feathery, silky, soft, grippy or bold will give you an idea of how well tannins are likely to feel on the palate. 


Close up of bunches of grapes in vat

Cab mac, or carbonic maceration, is a technique used to produce soft, fruity wines. Image: Getty

Winemaking terms

If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting and heard your wine guide throwing around terms like ‘cab mac’, ‘ambient’, ‘malo’ or ‘late harvest’, they are giving you clues as to how the wine was made. Winemaking is complex process and decisions made both in the vineyard and the winery can impact what you get in the glass. 

Ambient yeast

These days natural wines are all the rage so you've probably heard winemakers talk about wild or ambient yeast. When making wine, a winemaker can choose to allow ambient (or wild) yeast – which are naturally present in the winery, as opposed to inoculated – to trigger the process. Ambient yeast is often chosen to add extra complexity or interest to a wine. 

Cab mac

This is an increasingly popular technique among modern winemakers, often used to produce accessible and easy-drinking light to medium-bodied reds. Cab mac – or carbonic maceration – refers to an anaerobic fermentation process that uses whole bunches of uncrushed grapes to produce fresh, fruity, low-tannin styles. If a red wine is described as fruity, with bubble gum, cinnamon or earthy flavours, cab mac might be behind it. 

Late harvest

If a wine is labelled as late harvest, it means the grapes were left on the vine longer, allowing the sugars to become more concentrated. 


Sometimes referred to as natural or minimum intervention. Lo-fi winemaking refers to a style of wine that has been made with fewer interventions across the whole winemaking process. 


Malo or MLF refers to a winemaking process known as malolactic fermentation. This is, simply, the process of converting the harsh tartaric acid (think biting into a green apple) to a softer, creamier lactic acid (think yoghurt).   

On the lees

Lees are dead yeast cells leftover from the fermentation process that settle at the bottom of the bottle. Wines that have been aged ‘sur lie’ – or on the lees – typically have more body, texture and complex nutty or yeasty flavours. 


No, it’s not a type of small dog. Terroir is a term used to describe the unique environmental factors, such as soil type, climate and altitude, that give wines a sense of place.  


This refers to the year in which the grapes were harvested and made into wine, not the year they were released.


Row of glasses filled with red, rose and white wine

Knowing how to describe wines you like makes it easier to choose a bottle you'll love. Image: Getty

Tasting notes

There might be an art to winemaking but wine tasting is a skill and, like any skill, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Thankfully, there is a system critics use to assess a wine, which provides an easy framework for novices to use as a guide.


This refers to the scent or smell of a wine, which is often described as fruity, floral, earthy, spicy or even herbal. White wines tend to exhibit white flower, citrus, tropical and stone fruit aromas, while red wines tend to lean more into berry, cherry, plum and spice characteristics.


As well as exhibiting fruity and floral aromas, many wines also have an earthiness or mineral characteristics. This can present as flint, wet stones, forest floor, mushroom and even wet leaves.


How long the taste of a wine lingers on the palate is known as the finish. Wines that fade quickly are known as having a short finish, while wines that linger have a long finish.


For white wines, floral aromas such as acacia, elderflower, chamomile, and blossom tend to predominate, while notes of rose, potpourri and violet are more common for reds.


Refers to the taste and aroma of fruit in a wine, which can range from citrus to berry to stone fruit and even dried fruit. Fruit-forward wines tend to showcase fruit flavours, such as apple, lime, cherry, raspberry, or blackberry. The type of fruit can also be an indicator of a wine's age. Younger wines tend to display more fresh fruit characters, while older wines tend to exhibit more dried fruit aromas.


When a wine has been aged in oak, it can impart certain characters to the wine, such as vanilla, spice, and toast. It can also help to soften tannins and allow the development of aromas.


When it comes to wine, off-dry refers to wines with a low-level of residual sweetness. They’re not sweet, but they’re also not bone- dry.


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