The world of wine is as vast and complex as it is enjoyable. There is always something new to learn and terms you’ve never heard before. For those in the industry and serious enthusiasts getting their certifications, I strongly suggest you seek out authoritative sources for proper definitions. But I hope that these “definitions” can serve as a good primer for everyone else!
Apertif: A beverage that’s used to stimulate the appetite before a meal. An aperif wine may also be used to refer to a wine that’s served as an appetizer before a full wine tasting. This is normally a white wine that is a bit lighter in body, higher in acid, with flavors that are less intense. Remember, this isn’t a wine that is supposed to fill you up - it’s a wine to prepare you for drinking more wine (e.g. adjust the pH in your mouth).
Cult Wine: It’s just like it sounds. Wines that have built such a strong following that it seems irrational, almost to the point you may call those followers a cult. This following is usually triggered by an amazing professional review and sustained by continued quality. But rarity / low supply-to-demand ratio is key to triggering an investment type behavior from people, where you buy a wine not to necessarily drink it, but sell it later for a high price because you know others will want it. Think about how Bitcoin’s value exploded the last couple years and you’ll understand why Domaine de la Romanee-Conti can sell for $14,000 a bottle.
Cuvee: Actually has two definitons (and people think English is complicated). When discussing Champagne, it refers to the juice from the first pressing of grapes (and higher quality). When seen on a wine bottle, its commonly mistaken as a wine of high quality, just because its a French word. Cuvee directly translates as “blend” in English - meaning its a combinations of multiple grape varietals.
Dosage: The final step of the traditional sparkling wine production process before corking the bottle. After the wine is aged in bottle on its lees, it is disgorged and topped up with a liqueur d’expédition. This process of “topping up” is called dosage. The amount of sugar used affects the concentration in the bottle and therefore its classification as well. You may have heard of them - from driest to sweetest, they are: Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Sec, Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux.
First Growth: The top designation of the Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855. Originally, only four were deemed to be the best-of-the-best (Chateau Lafite, Chateau Latour, Chateau Margaux, and Chateau Haut-Brion). But thanks to the efforts of Philippe de Rothschild and his decades of lobbying, Château Mouton Rothschild was elevated from Second Growth to First Growth in 1973. These wines continuously score at the top of the charts for all wine review publications, and thanks to the recent interest from Asian collectors, prices can approach $800-$1000 a bottle in the best vintages (e.g. 2009).
Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855: Probably one of biggest legacies of Napoleon. Back in 1855, before he held the Exposition Universelle de Paris, he requested a classification system of Bordeaux’s wines. They didn’t have the wine review publications we do today (e.g. The Wine Advocate, me?) to gauge quality, so they used fame and price to rank the estates, since that was their best indicator for quality. To this day though, only two changes have officially been made to the classification and no replacement classification has been agreed to since, so this classification still holds great influence over wine prices for the region.
Liqueur d’Expédition: The mixture added to a recently disgorged bottle of sparkling wine before it is bottled and ready for market. The composition is traditionally base wine, sugar, and a small amount of sulfur dioxide. The base wine and sulfur dioxide are to displace the oxygen from the bottle and the sugar is to ensure the acidity is balanced out and the desired wine style is achieved.
Varietal: The type of grape used to make a wine. Most wines are produced from the Vitus Vinifera species, but there are many subspecies (varietals) within that species. You’ve heard of them many times before - Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, etc. A varietal wine typically refers to a wine that is primarily composed of a single varietal. Varietal wines are more commonly produced in the new world (e.g. USA, New Zealand) than the old world (e.g. France) where blends/cuvees are more common.
Wine Cave: Proper wine storage is all about preventing fermentation from re-occurring. This means preventing oxygen from interacting with the wine (storing bottles on their side and keeping humidity at ~60% so the corks don’t dry out) and preventing activation energy levels (storing bottles at a cool constant temperature and with minimal exposure to light). Without the technology we have today, the best way to do this was to dig out a wine cave into the ground. This is still very popular at wines becauses this saves on storage costs and is very asthetically pleasing when walking through!
Wine Thief: In order to constantly monitor the barrel aging progress for a wine (and pour out glasses at barrel tastings!), you need to ability to siphon off with through the bunghole (a hole plugged by a cork plug, or bung, located in the middle of the barrel). A wine thief is what allows you to do that. It looks like a curved turkey baster without the rubber ball for suction at the end and works similarly to how you pull out water from a cup with a straw - you dip it in and use your thumb to plug the other end and pull out some liquid.
New World: People, including myself, like to use this term to refer to wines that present varietal/fruit (primary) flavors as the dominant characteristics, rather than the terroir / sense of place. This style is most common among countries that have a shorter wine making history (e.g. Americas, New Zealand, etc.), hence the term “new world”. NOTE: A winery in the new world (e.g. Napa) may choose to produce a wine that has flavors like an old world wine (e.g. Spring Mountain Cabernets taste like more like a sense of place raher than juicy cabernet). This is a generalized term that was adopted due to the high correlation of style.
Old World: Similar to the definition of New World, except that this term refers to wines that are traditionally blends, present strongly with tertiary flavors, and have less emphasis on the fruit (primary) flavors of the varietals. Similar to new world, an old world winery (e.g. Bordeaux) may choose to produce wine in a new world style (more fruit driven). With the new generation of winemakers and winedrinkers coming of age, styles will continue to evolve worldwide.
Sorting Table: Part of the winemaking process to increase the quality of wine produced. When harvesting grapes in the fields, workers will perform a high-level selection process (e.g. If there is rot on the grapes, they may choose to not keep that bunch). After the grapes are harvested and sent back to the winery, they are placed on a sorting table, which looks like a long conveyor belt where people more closely inspect the grapes. If the quality is deemed not acceptable, they will be hand-tossed off the belt. The remaining grapes will then be taken to a crusher or the fermentation tank, depending on the wine and style that is being made. Traditionally, longer sorting tables indicate a winery is aiming for higher quality wine, since it give the sorters more time to inspect the grapes and determine if there are bad ones to remove.
Malolactic Fermentation (MLF): One of the more common terms you hear, especially if you drink a lot of Chardonnay. When grapes are harvested, the #1 acid by volume found it their juice is tartaric acid. The second is malic acid, which has a flavor profile of tart green apples and is perceived low in pH (more acidic). Some wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blancs) taste better with those flavors and that clean first. In other wines, this flavor/high acid may seem out of place. MLF involves adding a certain strain of bacteria to a wine after it finishes its primary fermentation (sugar -> alcohol). This starts a second fermentation that converts the malic acid to lactic acid. Lactic acid is predominant in dairy products (butter, milk, cheese) and has a high pH (less acidic) than malic acid. This is why wines that undergo MLF have a buttery secondary flavor in them and feel rounder in mouth (less acidic means less crisp). If you are interested in tasting a wine that has obviously undergone MLF, try Rombauer’s Carneros Chardonnay - it packs a serious punch.
American Viticultural Area (AVA): Demarcating wine by place is important. In the USA, it can generally hint at the quality of the wine (wine from Pritchard Hill is usually very good), the style of wine (e.g. Finger Lakes AVA will produce sweeter wine generally), and possibly some flavor characteristics (e.g. Howell Mountain Cabernets usually have some cigar box / sweet tobacco character). In France, it can also identify the varietals since only certain varietals (by law) can be grown in certain locations (only Viogier may be grown in the Condrieu AOC). The smallest demarcated geographical area in the USA is know as an AVA. The rules are AVAs are funny - they can be very large (e.g. Central Valley), one can cross others (e.g. Carneros crosses Napa Valley and the Russian River Valley (RRV) AVAs. European demarcated areas usually convey more info about the wine than an American AVA will.
Primary Flavors: The primary flavors associated with the wine are those that are generally derived from the grape. Each varietal will have different primary flavors, but some may overlap (e.g. Cherry in Pinot Noir and Merlot). These flavors range from green fruit (e.g. green apple) all the way to deep black fruit (black cherry). Primary aromas may also include flowers.
Secondary Flavors: The secondary flavors associated with the wine are those that generally result from the winemaking process. For example, butter is a secondary flavor that may result from MLF while brioche/bread is a secondary flavor that may result from sur lie (lees aging). There are less flavors in the secondary flavor category than the primary flavor category because there is a finite set of set of actions are winemaker tradtionally takes in the making of a wine (so less outcomes), whereas the grape varieties and the terroir they grown in are endless!
Tertiary Flavors: The tertiary flavors associated with the wine are those that generally result from the aging of a wine. Its true that some flavors (e.g. animal fur) that are classified as teritary may result from a combination of the varietal and where it was grown (e.g. Syrah from Cote Rotie). In general though, tertiary flavors are a result of a wine aging. This ranges from marzipan from aging white wine or forest floor from aging red wine. Tertiary flavors are most common in old world wines where the flavor profile is terroir driven intentionally so you get flavors of ceder, spices, leather, etc.