When connoisseurs talk about wine, it often sounds like they are referring to moody relatives with a lot of personality whom they just ran into at a family reunion.
It’s always so wonderful to see my noble, brilliant and mature grandmother. But wait… oh great. Here comes the buzz kill: my uncle who can be so austere, bitter and aggressive.
Where should I sit? Maybe at the table with my bright, focused and elegant cousin? But I’d probably have more fun with my other cousin and her friend who’s racy, foxy, hedonistic and complex.
Wine terminology has always gone along with swishing the glass, sniffing the wine and mentioning the bouquet (which is a desirable combination of several aromas)
Ultimately, these adjectives can overwhelm many people. Truly you can describe a wine in whatever way you wish that is meaningful to you. However, the jargon exists and if you’re going to a wine tasting, it may be helpful to know what some of these terms mean. Even if the only wine terms you know are red, white, pink it’s not hard to learn some of the other more specific labels.
First of all, wines are named after the grape from which they are made (e.g. Shiraz, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Noir to name a few.)
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Riesling are known as noble grapes, which are widely planted. Consequently, the wine made from these grades is Noble and generally quite popular and well liked with consumers.
Once you have the wines down, you can then talk about them with particular terms. Perhaps an easy way to describe wine is in categories of taste, texture, weight (body) aroma and appearance.
- Acid — linked to the acidity of the wine; this is a taste that is tart, sharp or sour.
- Big — a very rich and full-flavored wine.
- Crisp — usually a term for white wines that have a slightly tart and acid flavor but in a good way.
- Dry — very little to no sugar is present.
- Fruity — sweet fruit flavors like apple and berry.
- Sweet — a sugary flavor coming from the glycerin level in the wine.
- Woody or Oaky — this flavor comes from the barrels in which the wine is stored.
- Brawny — a strong red wine with lots of alcohol and tannins.
- Creamy/Buttery — a very smooth wine.
- Soft — is not very distinctive because of the low levels of acid, tannin and alcohol.
- Tanninis — full of tannins, which are the remnants of the grape like bits of its skin, seeds, and stems. This leads to a heavier body.
- Body — the feeling of fullness or weight of the wine while you taste it. Typically light, medium and full are used to distinguish which type of body
- Meaty — a very full-bodied wine.
- Thin — a very light-bodied wine.
- Brilliant — clear
- Cloudy — not transparent and blurry
- Aged — a wine turns color as it ages. An aged red usually looks deep red rather than purple, whereas, an aged white looks yellowish or gold instead of the greenish color that it starts out as.
- Citrusy — fruity, often grapefruit is the most common smell.
- Earthy — this scent and often taste comes from the soil of vine grown grapes that was originally used for vegetables.
- Peppery — smells like various spices, in particular cinnamon or anise.
- Woody — a wood like scent that comes from the barrel in which the wine is stored.
- Cedary — smelling like cedar, sometimes even like tobacco.
- Grapey (or the more fun term to use “Foxy”) — seems like a no-brainer, but often the particular smell is connected to eastern American grapes.
This is just a small portion of the adjectives used to describe wine. In fact, wine tasters often label and characterize wines with personality terms. With these labels, it is easy to use common sense to figure out the descriptions.
In fact, most adjectives that sound negative generally are. For example, connotations like flabby (too syrupy), harsh (really acidic, rough) dull (blurry and not distinct) awkward (out of balance) sound bad, and basically, they are.
However, some deceptive adjectives like “attractive” and “charming” are not necessarily compliments— especially for pricey wines. According to wine expert Anthony Hawkins, who compiled a wine tasting terminology glossary,
Attractive means “the wine taster liked it anyway [although he/she shouldn’t have in the eyes of a wine connoisseur]; a slight put down for expensive wines.”
Hawkins defines charming as “a patronizing comment applied to wines that don’t quite fulfill the first expectations.”
Ultimately, if you attend a wine tasting and use these terms, you may feel like a psychologist who cultivates an orchard yet cuts wood and studies chemistry on the side. Some critics even say that all these details and terms are unnecessary.
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, in his article “Wine in Two Words,” maintains:
“A brief depiction of the salient overall features of a wine, like its weight, texture and the broad nature of its aromas and flavors, can be far more helpful in determining whether you will like that bottle than a thousand points of detail.
In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory.”