Liquor in the Wine Cellar: Learning Words for Wine

In a semi-regular segment entitled Liquor In The ______ that can’t be too regular because I’m probably drinking right now, I’m going to write to you about all the different ways you can liquor. I recognize that it’s weird, especially for those of you who have actually had a drink with me, because I am what the frat boys would call a “two-beer queer” (what I would call a “no-beer queer,” as I’m gay all the live long day). But I get drunk very easily, is the point. Still, I really really like beer, wine and liquor and want to share that love for the artistry of alcohol with you all, my favorite queers. Let’s lift a pint to alcohol and our Autostraddle community– they go together like wine and soft cheese.

Header by Rosa Middleton


feature image via NY Daily News

Talking about wine can be a bit intimidating. I used to sweat when I walked into a wine shop and had to ask questions. That intimidation may have stemmed from me coming of age in France, where not only did I not know what I was talking about when it came to wine, but also because French was my second language and I didn’t always know how to verbalize what I meant. When I came back to the US, I found that asking about wine was a piece of cake! I got to do it in English! I’d get to pushed to the front of the line whenever my friends had wine questions. Getting good French wine that I could pay for in coins, however, was impossible.

The thing about wine is most of us know what we like when we taste it, we just can’t verbalize what we like about it in a way a wine enthusiast might comprehend us. But how do we try new wines that are similar? How do we discover the new possibilities? And how to we figure out what wine goes with what food? Well, for that, we probably have to ask that sexy queer lady behind the counter. You know. The one who works at the wine shop/liquor store/winery and knows a crap ton about wine. We’re collectively afraid she will judge us. She probably won’t, but it would help to be comfy with the lingo. Helps the confidence and all. I’m going to break some wine terminology down from the point of view of someone who knows what she likes and likes to ask questions, not from the point of view of an expert.

via Wine Folly

via Wine Folly



White wine is typically, but not always, lighter-bodied and less intense. It’s got more of a tang to it. It’s often considered refreshing.

White comes in three variations of color: nearly colorless, pale yellow and gold. These differences can result from the wine’s maturity level, but also a ton of other factors, like how cold it is in Germany where these particular grapes are grown. Or even in the winery’s particular winemaking process.


This is the least common of the colors and is most often called a Rosé. They’re usually light- to medium-bodied and don’t age well, so they’re usually young and unoaked.

Like white, there are three color depths: blush pink, bright pink and deep magenta.


Red wines are red because the grapes are red or purple. They usually have a high flavor intensity. They are also generally fuller-bodied and more astringent.

As with rosés and whites,  reds come in three varieties: pale red, deep red and dark red.

Normally with any of these, the deeper the color, the more intense the flavor.

Sweet v. Dry

Every wonder wtf dry wine means? I mean, wine is liquid. It’s wet. In wine speak, dry actually just means “not sweet.” Which means where a wine falls on the sweet v. dry spectrum is determined by how much residual sugar is left in the winemaking process. Remember that just because a wine is fruity doesn’t mean it’s sweet – all about the sugar. Most wines are actually dry. There’s also an in the middle category – off-dry. Off-dry just means that there’s a detectable sweetness, it’s just not overpowering. The category is of “sweet” is usually reserved for dessert wines and Moscatos.


Tannin is found in all plants and acts as a preservative. It’s astringent and found in many mildly bitter foods (tea and walnuts, for example). Tannins are only found in red wine due to the winemaking process – tannins are in the skins of grapes, which are included in red wines but not in whites. Many people confuse tannic wine for dry. Dry, as stated above, means not sweet. But when a wine is highly tannic, it makes your mouth feel literally dry. Soft wines don’t do this – they’re sometimes considered easier to drink (though that is certainly a matter of personal preference). Anything down the middle is called supple.


Ever sucked on a lemon? That’s the part of wine we’re talking about when we’re talking acidity. The taste that makes your mouth pucker up. Wines come in creamy, crisp and tart (low acidity, medium acidity and high acidity respectively). Creamy wines are usually full-bodied (I know, we’ll get to that in a bit). Most wines are going to be either crisp or tart, especially wines produced for pairing with food (they have to be able to stand up to strong food flavors). Grapes grown in cold climates often produce the most acidic wines.


This is actually referring to how the wine smells as well as tastes – when we’re talking fruit, we’re talking all the smells and flavors associated with the grapes or fermentation of the grapes. Every wine has a fruit component and they’re all super different. For the purposes of going out and buying what you want, though, just focus on how intense the grape flavors/smells are. Subtle is what one would call the lowest intensity. This includes the majority of sparkling wines and quite a bit of white wine. Flavorful is the middle ground and most wines are somewhere in this range. The last is category here is bold, the most intense fruit flavors/smells. This category houses mostly red wines, but something like Moscato would also be found here. Basically if you open it, smell it, and have the urge to shout “BAM,” it’s probably bold.


Oak  is the smell/flavor that comes from the barrel the wine ages in. Oak often has a woody/nutty/spicy/earthy flavor to it. Like just about everything else, there are three landmarks on the spectrum that can help you ask for what you want: unoaked, mild oak and oaky. Unoaked refers to wine whose flavor and scent comes only from the grapes because they haven’t been fermented and aged in oak barrels. This is the majority of white wine, sparkling wine and rosé. Mild oak is smack in the middle – this is where most reds live, as well as Chardonnays. Oaky means that the woody/nutty/spicy/earthy smell is one of the first things you smell when you open the bottle. Most wine drinkers associate oak with quality and amount of time the wine’s been sitting in the oak barrel, but that isn’t always the case.


Okay, so we’ve finally got here. This is the term I hear bandied about most. This has to do with how the wine feels on your tongue. It’s about thickness of the liquid. I can’t even with this, I write about sex normally and there’s about a million and half jokes in here about thickness, but I will press on without making them. Wine with higher alcohol content is usually fuller-bodied, so the more alcohol there is present in a bottle of wine, the heavier it’s going to feel on your tongue when you drink it. Sweet wines can also be full-bodied, which puts dessert wines on this list.

When you see people swirl their glass of wine, they’re checking for body. Because it’s about how thick the liquid is, you can tell if a wine is fuller bodied if it coats the glass and appears to stick there. Light-bodied wines, the alcohol on the glass falls down really fast because the liquid is thinner. If you want to see this in action, grab some wine glasses and pour heavy cream into one and skim milk into the other. Then swirl the glasses. You’ll see a huge difference.


Now when I first started drinking wine, I thought there were two kinds: sparkling and not sparkling. Turns out, there’s three – still, which means no bubbles have been left from the fermentation process. And then there’s sparkling, which we can all know and love as that New Year’s Eve drink of Champagne or Prosecco. Then there’s spritz, which means a very, very faint hint of bubbles. This usually dissipates fairly quickly.

Still Not Sure How To Describe What You’re Looking For?

via Wine Folly

via Wine Folly

Have you found the word to describe that taste you like in wine yet? No? You can always just march into a wine market and list the ingredients in your dinner. If I’m not terribly sure what I want, that’s what I always do. For instance, my girlfriend invented a soup during Hurricane Sandy that we call (drum roll please) hurricane soup! As this is a made up soup, we didn’t know what wine to pair with it just by googling. But when we listed the ingredients (tortellini, vegetable broth, leeks, onions, carrots, white beans and celery) for the people at Union Square Wine Market, they pointed us in the direction of Scuttlehole Chardonnay (unoaked, light-bodied, and perfect for our soup that doesn’t have really heavy ingredients in it).

The bottom line is you shouldn’t be intimidated by wine vocabulary. It’s just a common ground for us to discuss taste, which is highly subjective.

All The Sources

Much of what I’ve learned about wine, I’ve learned from chatting up employees in wine shops and wineries. The best thing to do is go to events and shops where you can taste a bunch and then talk to people about what it is that you’re tasting and what wines are similar. But here are some of the other places I’ve pulled information from. These are the places you should go if you’re looking to learn about wine from an expert.

Leggy and Luscious from Eatocracy, CNN


Wine Spectator

Wine Enthusiast

“Wine Simplified,” by Betterbook on Inkling

Astor Wines (the Vimeo channel)

Wine Terroirs (I just envy this guy’s life.)

Wine Julia

Wine Folly

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. Yay wine! This helps a lot in my quest to become more wine-knowledgeable, thanks!

    Also, fun fact: One time when I was working at a grocery store, some preppy dude came to my counter and thought my nametag was pronounced “Rosé.” Like he said, “Thanks, Rosé.” I was so stunned I didn’t bother to correct him!

  2. Dear AS, today is my day off and I *was* just gonna lounge around in my robe and smugly think about those poor saps trudging to and from work in the bitter New England cold. But now that I’ve read this article I myself must trudge out into that unforgiving harshness to buy wine…so that I can go home and sit in my robe and get mad drunk and still be smug about those poor saps. Thanks, AS.

  3. “I love the wines
    in my friend John’s cellar,
    the act of going down
    and bringing them up,
    and his vocabulary of taste
    and aftertaste—tannin,
    bouquet, tart—
    I love how true experts speak
    precisely, embody all the words.”

  4. “That intimidation may have stemmed from me coming of age in France, where not only did I not know what I was talking about when it came to wine, but also because French was my second language and I didn’t always know how to verbalize what I meant”

    Yup. I can relate to that exactly. And when I got back home from France I just didn’t want to drink because I felt like everything was overpriced.

  5. Thanks for this, now I feel slightly less clueless about wine! Unfortunately I still think I’ll never master the art of wine pairing, but maybe I’ll take your advice and chat up the employees at my local winery (by which I mean Trader Joe’s.)

    • I think that wine pairing is not as scary as it sounds! Honestly. Once you get to know wines, it’ll be easier to remember what about them makes them the perfect complement to a salad or a steak. Go to wine tastings if you can (and do lots of personal wine research if you can’t).

      There are some staple matches, too, that don’t change or change rarely (for example, lighter wines will almost always work fine with salads and lighter vegetable dishes). It’s also not a big deal unless you’re in a formal situation, if it’s just to have dinner with friends there’s a lot of leeway because of personal taste so if a pairing feels right you can just be all “you do you”.

    • I may be wrong about this, but my understanding of the very basics of wine pairing are as follows:
      -if you’re eating meat with your meal, pair your wine color with your meat color (red meat–> red wine, white meat or seafood–> white wine)
      -if you’re having pasta, you also generally match your wine color with the color of your sauce.

      Also, your comment makes me sad that NY has stupid liquor laws and my local Trader Joe’s isn’t allowed to sell wine. On the other hand, I’m grateful for the wine shop just around the corner from my apartment run by a particularly lovely and helpful older couple. It also doesn’t require an hour total of travel time to get to, between walking, a half-hour bus ride, and more walking, like the Trader Joe’s does.

  6. This is incredibly helpful! There’s only so many times you can say “this tastes like spare tire” before it loses all meaning.

  7. As usual, this is ABSURDLY relevant to my life. I am in a wine class in college, and I am going to be gone at an audition on the day we learn vocab. Love you AS.

  8. Wtf. This is a lesbian [and other identifying people] blog. This has been more helpful than any sommelier or vineyard employee I’ve ever talked to. You are amazing.

  9. I just happen to be visiting Leavenworth with friends for wine tasting this weekend, this is perfect timing :D

  10. Thank you so so much! I’ve waitressed part time for years and have no idea what to say when people ask me about our wine selections, wasnt too much of a problem in the last place I worked but the place I’m in now is fancy and has a huge wine list. Also any time my parents ask me to pick up wine for them at the supermarket I tend to stand around helplessly in that aisle wondering what on earth to get. Yesterday I nearly bought one purely because the name made me laugh- it was called Chat en Ouef (‘cat on egg’, and a play on Chateauneuf du Pap which is a type of wine in case anyone doesn’t know!)

  11. I am a self-proclaimed wino but didn’t realize all of the aspects to wine. One thing you forgot to mention–wine is the happiest drunk!

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