What’s in a Word? The ABCs of Wine Speak

Ever been at a wine tasting or a dinner party and the guy next to you is waxing poetic about the wine selections? Using words like bouquet, cassis or ethereal to describe the qualities of the wine. Did you think he was just blowing smoke and trying to impress, or have you been around enough to recognize there is a unique language in the wine world used to describe the wide and complex range of wine characteristics? Either way it can be mystifying if you are unfamiliar with many of the terms.

When you have words to describe the characteristics of the wine you can begin to distinguish and recognize the rich, various and sometimes subtle qualities. Also, having a basic understanding of wine terminology helps you interpret wine reviews and tasting notes so you can begin to define your preferences for different types of wine. So, not only will having familiarity with wine descriptions open a whole new world of wine appreciation, you can also impress your friends and colleagues with your knowledge.

As you discover new wines, having a vocabulary to describe the myriad qualities will make it all the more fun in sharing the wines. And that’s what we are all about here at Cellars Wine Club, finding and sharing great wines with friends. So, to help you get started on your wine adventure, or just as a refresher, here are some wine descriptions and wine tasting terms. Try these out next time you uncork a few bottles and see if it doesn’t add a whole new dimension to your wine experience.

WINE TASTING TERMINOLOGY

Acidity – Acidity is a term that refers to the amount of acid in a wine. Acid is the chemical compound that makes things taste tart, like vinegar or citrus foods. Acidity is part of the structure of wine, giving it lift and intensity. Without acidity wines taste flat or flabby while with too much acidity they can be seem shrill, tart and excessively lean.

Aroma – The aroma, also known as the “nose” of a wine, is what the wine smells like. It includes all the various smells you get when sniffing the wine.

Backward – This is a wine tasting term used to describe a wine which is young and not showing well. It is backward because the structure (acid and tannin) are in the forefront while everything else (fruit flavors, etc.) are hiding behind the structure. Sometimes a backward wine will open up with additional aeration in a decanter, but it often means the wine is young and needs more time.

Balance – The best wines have perfect balance, meaning that all the components of the wine (the structure, fruit, alcohol, secondary flavors, etc.) are all in equilibrium, none sticking out in the forefront too much. When all the parts harmonize like this, the wine has a sense of elegance and completeness which is the hallmark of a great wine.

Barnyard – You will often hear people describe a wine as having barnyard aromas or related terms like “horsey, manure, animal, etc.” This literally means there are aromas that smell a bit stinky. However, this isn’t always a bad thing! You’d be surprised but many people like a little stink in their wines, adding to the complexity. Too much may be off-putting, but a bit can be nice. This is sometimes just a product of the wine and where it came from, but in some cases can be related to a bacteria called Brettanomyces, or Brett for short, which can have these characteristics. Don’t worry, it is harmless! Some people like a bit of Brett in wine and others don’t.

Berry – Berry aromas and flavors are very common in wine. When someone describes a wine as smelling like berries, it doesn’t mean that there were berries used to make the wine. All traditional wines are just made from grapes. But those grapes, depending on the type and where they were grown, can develop complex aromas, often imitating various other fruits. Common berries and related fruits to find in wine include cherries, strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries and currants. You can use any of these and more as wine tasting terms or descriptors.

Body – The body of a wine is the size or heft of it in your mouth. While a light bodied wine glides over your palate softly and without weight, a full-bodied wine feels heavy and big in your mouth.
Bouquet – The bouquet is another term for the aroma of a wine. It is usually used to describe the smell of a wine which is complex, offering many different types of aromas.

Creamy – This is a descriptor of the feel of the wine in your mouth, the mouthfeel. A creamy wine literally feels creamy in your mouth, having a richness similar to heavy cream. This is common in rich wines with low acid such as is common with California Chardonnays. It is usually a result of both malolactic fermentation and oak aging which adds a rounded texture to wine.

Chewy – Another wine tasting term describing the mouthfeel of the wine. A chewy wine is big and burly, feeling almost like a solid in your mouth rather than an ethereal light liquid. This is a common descriptor for full-bodied wines that are a bit rustic like some Syrahs, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and others.

Closed – Another one of the wine tasting terms that is often used to describe a wine which is too young or going through a phase that it is not showing that much. Similar to backward, a closed wine may hint at greatness but isn’t giving up the goods. Many wines that require aging go through closed phase where you don’t get much aroma or flavor out of it only to later blossom and show its depth and complexity. Again, aerating a closed or backward wine may help bring out some of its personality, but in some cases this won’t work.

Complex – This describes a wine which has a myriad of aromas and flavors. The opposite of a “simple” wine, a complex wine has various aromas and flavors that compliment each other.

Corked – This is one of the confusing wine tasting terms for beginners. It does not mean that the cork has been pulled out. It also does not mean that the wine smells like cork (good cork doesn’t really smell like anything). What it means is that the wine is flawed because it has been exposed to a compound called TCA (2,4,6-traichloroanisole). TCA generally comes from mold which has infected the cork. This compound has a distinctive musty aroma that some people describe as moldy, wet newspaper or cardboard, wet dog or a damp basement. Even a small amount of this can obscure the normal aromas and flavors of a wine and thus this is a faulty wine. Some people are more sensitive to TCA then others.

Dry – Another of the more confusing wine tasting terms, dry can be used a couple different ways. Most accurately, dry describes a wine which has no residual sugar, the opposite of sweet. However, most newbies use dry to describe the mouthfeel of a tannic wine. Tannins have a mouth drying feeling. When many people say that a wine is very dry, they mean it has lots of tannin, they are not commenting on the level of sugar in the wine. So try to avoid using dry to describe tannins, be as specific as possible so that people know what you mean. Just as an example of how this can be confusing, young Vintage Port, a dessert wine from Portugal, is very sweet with residual sugar, but at the same time has large amounts of tannin. Therefore, someone could potentially say these are sweet AND dry! Quite confusing indeed!

Earthy – Grape wines grow in dirt (and stones and rocks, etc.). Therefore, it is not surprising that some wines have aromas or flavors resembling earth and are described as earthy. This is not a bad thing. This can often be a very nice complexity that compliments the fruit aromas and flavors in a wine.

Finish – The finish is the aftertaste of a wine. A great wine has a long finish which lingers pleasingly on your palate. It should be long and have good flavors and sensations in your mouth, tempting you to take another sip. A bad finish is one which is very short or has off flavors (bitter, astringent, etc.) which are not appealing.

Flabby – A wine without enough structure, particularly acid and tannin, to stand up to its other components can be described as flabby. It feels flat and without intensity and can even seem syrupy.

Floral – One of the wine tasting terms describing a wine with flower-like aromas or flavors. This can be a very pretty complexity in some wines.

Herbal – A wine that has aromas or flavors of herbs. Again, this can be a nice complexity as long as it is not overpowering.

Intense – This describes a wine which packs a punch flavor-wise. An intense wine explodes in your mouth with flavor, making a big impact on your palate. This doesn’t mean that wine is necessarily full-bodied or heavy. Instead it means that it has powerful flavors and often has acidity that helps make those flavors stick out powerfully. So you can have a light-bodied wine, like a German Kabinett Riesling, which has intense flavors.

Jammy – One of the wine tasting terms that describes a very ripe wine, often fairly low in acid, so that its fruit flavors and feel resemble jam.

Musty – A damp, moldy aroma, often associated with TCA (a corked wine) but can also be present in some wines which are not corked.

Oaky – One of the most widely used wine tasting terms, oaky describes a wine with noticeable oak aromas and flavors. While subtle oakiness that integrates well with the other aromas and flavors in wine is often desireable, excessive oakiness can be a flaw. Different people have different tolerance for oak, some loving heavily oaked wines and some prefering little or no oak influence. Generally, oak imparts a woody aroma and flavor but can also add others as well. Depending on how charred the oak barrels were, you can get mild contributions of vanilla and toast all the way up to heavily charred and roasted coffee, chocolate and even burnt toast.

Oxidized – Most wines should not be oxidized, which is caused by excessive exposure to oxygen. Sherry, most notably, is made in a way that encourages oxidation, and thus oxidized wines are also described as “Sherried” as well. If you don’t know what Sherry smells like, it tends to have a nutty aroma. Oxidized wine can also generally be somewhat flat tasting and darkens in color, turning brown.

Silky – This describes the mouthfeel of the wine as being silky in texture. Silky is considered to be the most soft and caressing of wine textures, often reserved to describe light- to medium-bodied wines with a soft grained texture like silk. Great wines have great mouthfeel, feeling complete and balanced but also having a texture that is very pleasing to your palate.

Simple – This is the opposite of complex, meaning that a wine has straightforward, one-dimentional aromas and flavors. It lacks depth and complexity.

Smoky – Wines can have smoky aromas either from their own characteristics (for example, Cote-Rotie typically has a smoky bacon-like aroma) or from oak aging. Oak, particularly if it is heavily charred, can impart a profound smoky, roasted aroma.

Spicy – While spicy generally describes something which is hot, like hot peppers or salsa, in food, spicy, in wine tasting terms, describes a wine with aromas or flavors of spices such as cinnamon, clove, pepper, or nutmeg.

Structure – The structure of a wine is those components which tend to support the body of the wine, holding it together, giving it lift and intensity. Acid, tannin and alcohol can all be said to be parts of a wine’s structure. A very structured wine is one in which one or more components of the structure are quite predominant. While a wine needs structure to be balanced and avoid feeling flabby and flat, too much structure can feel harsh if out of balance with the other components of the wine. In general, wines that age well have considerable structure when young.

Sweet – Another wine tasting term that is often misunderstood or misused because of its various uses. Sweet can mean that there is residual sugar in the wine which gives a sweet flavor like sugar. This is true mostly of dessert wines like Port, Sauternes, sweet Muscat, and others. Most table wines do not have significant residual sugar, with the exception of some Pradikat level German wines like Kabinett, Spatlesen and Auslesen. Most “table wines” have no residual sugar and therefore are not sweet by that definition. However, sweet is also used to describe a characteristic of the fruit in a wine. If a wine has ripe, fruity flavors, it can often be described as sweet. In this context it does not mean that it is literally sweet with sugar in it, but rather that it simply gives the impression of sweetness due to the ripe fruit flavors. This can be true of many table wines, white and red.

Tannic – Describing a wine with a lot of tannin, the compound found in grape skins and stems. This creates the drying, slightly astringent sensation in your mouth. Red wines generally have much more tannin than white wines. Full-bodied red wines are often described as tannic in their youth. Tannins can be ripe and fairly soft and velvety in texture, or if they are green, they can be quite harsh and astringent. Tannins tend to fade away slowly with age.

Vegetal – Describes a wine with significant vegetable-like aromas or flavors. While a bit of this is often nice, too much can be off-putting and considered a flaw, often resulting from under-ripe grapes.

Velvety – Another wine tasting term describing the texture or mouthfeel of a wine. A velvety wine is one that is caressing and smooth like velvet. This is usually used to describe a wine that is slightly less soft and fine-grained than a “silky” wine, often for slightly fuller-bodied wines. The best wines will have a great mouthfeel, being either silky or velvety in texture.

 

WINE DESCRIPTIONS

Austere – Austere means “severe or strict in manner, attitude or appearance”. For a wine this is used to describe a wine which is quite wound up and tight or not showing lush, ripe fruit. This is not necessarily a bad thing as many young wines that are meant to age will be quite austere in their youth, showing abundant acid and/or tannin structure, but will open up nicely with age. This is approximately the opposite of “fruit forward”, fruity, lush and/or opulent.

Bouquet – The perfume of a wine. A wine’s bouquet is generally only described as such if the aromas are particularly complex, with many aromas in harmony, and/or floral. The aroma of a wine which is simple or not particularly pretty would not typically called its bouquet or perfume.

Cassis – One of the most common wine descriptions in tasting notes, cassis is a syrupy liqueur made with black currants. Often used to describe wines with a sweet aroma of ripe currants, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and other rich, dark grapes. Not to be confused with Cassis, the village in Provence on the French Mediterranean coast which produces a crisp, dry white wine.

Complex – A complex wine is one which has a plethora of aromas and flavors, generally harmonizing in a way that makes for a beautiful sensory experience. The best wines in the world are very complex when mature with many different facets of flavor and aromas. The opposite wine descriptions would be “simple” or one dimensional.

Concentrated – A concentrated wine is one which is richly flavored with a high concentration of flavor. This is the opposite of “thin”, “watery”, or “bland”.

Corpulent – Corpulent literally means fat. While this is generally not used as a compliment when referring to a person, it is usually a compliment to a wine which is big and rich and has a round, full feel in the mouth. Usually used to describe very full-bodied wines.

Creosote – Creosote is a dark brown oil distilled from coal tar. It is also used to describe the build up of crusted, oily black material that forms in chimneys. It is used to describe a wine which has a tarry, smokey aroma resembling these things, usually rich red wines. This aroma can come from oak barrels used to age the wine if the oak was heavily charred prior to use.

Density – The density of a wine is how concentrated its flavors are. So a wine with a lot of density can also be said to be concentrated.

Depth – While depth can be used to refer to the density, size and concentration of a wine, it is more appropriately used to describe a sense of many layers of flavors and “stuffing” in the wine. The opposite of a thin or superficial wine, it is a wine which has layers of flavors to explore and a sense that it has a lot “hidden under its hood”.

Elegant – One of the hallmarks of a great wine is its mouthfeel, or its texture in your mouth. Great wines generally have a well put together feel that has no hard edges. Elegant is one of the wine descriptions often used to describe a wine with a great mouthfeel, a wine that is pretty, complete and has no hard edges.

Ethereal – The definition of ethereal is “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world”. This description is used to describe wines that glide over the palate with a silky, soft texture that almost feels like it is not a liquid, more like a spirit of a wine gliding over your palate. This is usually used to describe wines that have that unique and hard to find characteristic of being both intense in flavor and complex, yet at the same time paradoxically light on its feet.

Forward – A wine which is easy to understand and appreciate. As opposed to an austere or tight wine, this is a wine whose flavors are right out front for you to appreciate. Not hesitant or shy. In your face.

Grip – Great wines have grip on the palate, a sense of texture and traction that grabs your palate and gives the other flavors in the wine balance. This usually results from the wine’s structure of acid and/or tannin. Without grip, a wine will feel flabby, simple or juicy.

Jammy – Like jam, a wine with big, very ripe fruit. Usually reserved for wines with an almost sweet, sticky texture of ripe fruit flavors. Sometimes used to describe a wine which does not have adequate structure to stand up to that sweet, ripe fruit.

Laser-like – This is one of the wine descriptions used to describe a wine with a vibrant, shimmering, “linear” feel to it. As opposed to an opulent or jammy wine, a laser-like wine has bright acidity and focused flavors that cut a sharp swath across your palate. Very commonly used to describe wines with pristine, intense acidic structure such as Savenniè:res, German, Austrian and Alsatian Rieslings, among others.

Layered – This is one of the subjective wine descriptions of a wine which feels like it has layers of flavor, as opposed to a simple wine which is one dimensional. A complex with with “layers” of flavor, density and extract that coat your palate.

Lush – Similar to opulent, a luxuriant wine that coats the palate with forward, pretty flavors. Not austere or closed up.

Intense – This is one of the wine descriptions used to describe a wine with flavors that stand up and make themselves known. Bold and bright flavors that hit your palate with a strong impact. This does not necessarily mean a full-bodied wine, an intense wine, whether big or lighter, is bright and powerful in the way it hits your palate.

Minerally – Minerality is the characteristic of having mineral-like flavors in the wine. Wine, after all, is grown in vines that sit in earth and can absorb things in that vineyard, such as components of rocks and minerals, which can influence the flavors of the wine. Many people would argue that for many types of wine, minerals in the aromas and or flavors is a necessity for greatness. These minerally aromas and flavors can present in many different ways, from chalk, to pencil lead, to stones, to granite, to slate, to gunflint, to petrol, to oyster shell, to salt, to gravel. All of these are somewhat related and often described as mineral flavors.

Mocha – Mocha is coffee flavored with chocolate. Many rich red wines, particularly those with a significant amount of oak aging, can get these wine descriptions. These flavors can be partially from the grapes themselves and partially from the oak aging. Very common in Bordeaux wines, particularly those from the Right Bank with a significant proportion of Merlot.

Monolithic – A big wine, but lacking flavor complexity. Usually a big, slightly clumsy, inelegant wine which is full-bodied, with big flavor, but not much complexity.

Opulent – “Ostentatiously rich and luxuriant or lavish”, opulent is often used similarly to lush and unctuous. It is used to describe very rich, lush, fat and round wines that coat the palate with layers of flavor.

Pain grille – Literally “grilled bread” or “toast”, this aroma can be found in many wines. It is one of the wine descriptions used to describe a wine with a smokey, toasted bread aroma or flavor. Again, this can sometimes come from the wine itself or can be imparted to the wine by the oak aging as the insides of oak barrels are variably toasted prior to use.

Quince – Quince is a fruit, related to apples and pears, that is often used to make jam, jelly and pudding.

Refined – Refined wine is pure, elegant and without blemish. A regal wine which does not have rough edges or imperfections.

Reglisse – The French term for licorice root (black licorice), the aroma and flavors of which can often be found in red wines.

Rich – Concentrated and dense with flavor, as opposed to thin, watery or bland.

Silky – A wine description of the wine’s texture, being fine and like silk. The opposite of rough or rustic.

Smoke – All sorts of smoke-like aromas can be found in wines. Some of this can be caused by the oak aging the wine receives but some wines have it on its own. For example, some wines made of Syrah are described as having a smokey bacon aroma.

Stone – Smelling or tasting stones in a wine is not uncommon. This is one of the common wine descriptions for a wine with stone-like mineral flavors. Some tasters will go as far as to describe the type of stone, such as granite, slate, chalk, or flint.

Torrefaction – Torrefaction is the process of roasting as is used in roasting coffee beans. The process produces typical aromas that we associate with roasted coffee and chocolate-like aromas. Wines with significant roasted qualities are sometimes described as exhibiting torrefaction.

Unctuous – “Having a greasy or soapy feel” literally, this is used to describe wines that have a very rich, creamy texture in the mouth that coats the palate.

Vanillin – Vanillin is the name for a fragrant compound that is the principle component of vanilla. So why don’t we just say a wine smells of vanilla? Well, you can, but people tend to say vanillin to indicate that the aroma or flavor came from another source. French oak barrels are a common source of a bit of a vanillin aroma and flavor.

Velvety – Like silky, these are wine descriptions for the texture or mouthfeel of a wine. Although they are often used interchangeably, some would argue that a velvety wine is a bit more coarse than a silky wine, silky being the epitome of the most elegant, fine and refined wines.

Terms courtesy of Wine Tastings Guide