Every field of knowledge has its own special language. This helps the enthusiasts communicate with each other, but it risks alienating those who have an interest without a consuming passion. I try to express my zeal for certain wines in a way that people across a broad spectrum of experience can relate to, but I’m well aware that I often fail. That the failure is sometimes due to baffling terminology.

We often use a rough verbal palette to describe individual experiences and ideas whose subtlety vastly exceeds the words ascribed to them. Wouldn’t it be great if we actually understood each other? Think about your own use of such words as “person,” “God,” “love,” “yes,” “other,” “success.” We employ such seemingly objective words constantly, assuming our meaning is clear. It isn’t, we get into disagreements, we suffer.

Maybe if we were more deliberate in defining what we actually mean when we speak, we could more frequently find common ground. World peace through linguistic clarity is just outside the capacity of this little ol’ wine column, but I nonetheless have a worthy intention for what follows today: an introductory glossary of sorts for a variety of wine words.

My list is not comprehensive, nor even supremely well organized. It comes from my own review of past columns, where I found various words either under-explained or over-explained. If you find any of what follows here helpful, perhaps it’s worth clipping the article from the paper, either physically or digitally, for future reference (and to release me from feeling a need to repeat my definitions in the midst of future columns).

Anyway, the list below barely scratches the surface. I do hope you’ll write in with your own suggestions and questions. I intend to follow up with a Part Two in the near future. Here’s hoping that we can all continue drinking together and talking together in a way that draws us closer rather than breeding confusion:

Varietal: Type of grape. A wine can be single-varietal, such as cabernet sauvignon, or it can be a blend of multiple varietals, such as Bordeaux where the blend might be cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. Just to confuse matters, in the United States a bottle can be labeled as single-varietal if the wine is composed of at least 75 percent of that grape. So, the “cabernet sauvignon” you buy might in fact be a blend of that grape plus a bunch of others. Ah, so much for clarity.

Cépage (say-PAHJ): Literally, the t​ype of vine or grape variety. However, the word is commonly used to refer to the proportion of different varieties in a blend. “Try this Bordeaux,” you might say. “Ah, lovely,” I might reply. “It’s very soft and harmonious, yet young. What’s the cépage?” You might respond, “It’s from St. Emilion, so of course majority merlot; I believe the cépage is 80 percent merlot, 15 cab franc, 5 malbec.”

Cuvée (koo-VAY): Literally, the tank in which a wine matures. But, once again, the common usage is different. A cuvée denotes a wine from a specific blend or subparcel of land. “I just adore the Alsatian wines of Trimbach,” I tell you. You raise an eyebrow and one-up me, “Yes, but their classic riesling does not present enough geologic specificity for my tastes. The Cuvée Frédéric Emile riesling, however, now that’s a wine.”

Phylloxera (fill-OX-er-ah): A louse that loves to suck dry the vines of vitis vinifera, the species of grape best suited to fine wine. In the late 19th century, phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe, sparing just a few randomly located sites. The only solution, in that tragedy’s aftermath, was to graft vines to American rootstock, which was resistant to the insects. (Ironically, phylloxera is native to the Americas: It hitched a ride to France when American vines were shipped there for experimentation in European vineyards.) There are a very few pre-phylloxera vines left in Europe, prized for their age.

Appellation: A specific wine region, designated not just by geography but also by the way in which wine there is permitted to be made. For example, there is a field blend wine in Austria known as gemischter satz. (Field blends are wines made from vineyards that grow multiple varietals together.) Gemischter satz is a field blend, but Vienna gemischter satz DAC must be made from at least three varietals grown in designated vineyards in Vienna, with no one varietal commanding more than 50 percent of the blend and the third-most-common grape in the blend commanding at least 10 percent. Phew!

AOP, DOC, DAC, DOP, AVA, DOCG, VDF, DO, etc.: Various nationally determined designations of “quality” based on standards of varietals, appellation, viticulture and vinification methods, aging and more. The acronyms usually stand for some version of “controlled/protected region and origination name.” In Italy, for instance, the three most commonly used acronyms, in order of supposedly increasing quality, are IGT (indicazione geographica tipica), DOC (denominazione di origine controllata) and DOCG (denominazione originata controlata e garantita).

But pay attention to my use of the word “supposedly.” Many great winemakers refuse – sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for ill – to play by the rules of their particular region, and so might produce a spectacular wine that is designated IGT even though it knocks the pants off her neighbor who’s putting out a DOCG.

Vigneron (veen-yer-OWN): Vine grower. This refers to someone who makes wine from grapes that she grows. Other languages have other terms for this. The Germans use a word that translates instead as “winegrower,” which I prefer because it expresses the entire, seamless process from growing vines to making wine. In Europe, a vigneron almost always lives on his estate (or domaine), while in the New World, especially the United States where land is quite expensive, there are those who embody the vigneron spirit but do not own vineyards. A vigneron is different from someone who makes wine from grapes (or the juice of crushed grapes) that he buys from someone else.

Negoçiant (neh-GO-shee-ahn): Someone who owns and controls a facility for making wine, but purchases grapes (or the juice of crushed grapes) from numerous growers rather than growing the raw material himself. The common narrative is that negoçiant or “negoç” (“neh-GOSH”) wine is inherently inferior to “estate-bottled” wine. But, as with anything else, beware generalizations. There are exceptional negoçiants who develop long-term relationships with a number of conscientious growers and are able to develop great wines, reflecting a greater variety of terroirs than is possible from a single vigneron, at relatively low cost.

Terroir (tear-WAHR): Oh, I knew you were going to ask that one. It’s complicated. Many people have spilled a lot of ink trying to get at it. Many others have tried to show that it doesn’t exist. Matt Kramer of the Wine Spectator famously called terroir “somewhereness,” and that’s about as good as it gets. It’s an ineffable combination of the climate, soil, vine, grape and cultural provenance of a wine, as well as the geological, chemical and biological history of it. It’s the imprint of place and time on a wine. Not all wines show terroir, but I would argue that all significant wines do.

The list above includes terms related to grapes, place and people. There are huge gaps and hundreds of worthwhile words left out. Still on my short list are many terms related to winemaking – fining, filtering, racking, lees, malolactic fermentation, chaptalization – as well some related to tasting: vertical, horizontal, texture and more. Please do offer up your own suggestions, and we’ll continue exploring together.

Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]