Last week I promised to make a start on a glossary of wine terms for you. I wrote down a quick list and came up with over 50 terms! So, as predicted this will be a series of several parts.
Welcome to Part One! This week I tackle some of the words you might come across at a cellar door tasting. If you’ve visited a few wineries in your time or even asked for a wine recommendation at a fancy restaurant then you’re probably pretty familiar with some of these words. But what do they actually mean?
Dimensions of a wine
Acidity: In wine tasting, the term “acidity” refers to the fresh, tart and sour attributes of the wine. Three primary acids are found in wine grapes: tartaric, malic and citric acids.
Acid tasting terms (from high to low): flabby, well-balanced,fresh, crisp, taut, austere, sour, acetic
Sweetness: Most sweetness in wine comes from natural grape sugars leftover after the fermentation has stopped. Wine people refer to it as “residual sugar”. Wine without sweetness are called “dry wines”.
Sweet tasting terms (from low to high): bone dry, dry, medium dry, medium sweet, sweet, tooth-rotting, cloying, sickly sweet
Tannin: Tannin is a natural preservative extracted mainly from grape skins. Tannin adds balance, complexity, structure, and makes a wine last longer. It’s also one most important “good for you” traits in red wines.
Tannic tasting terms (from low to high): soft, round, firm, grippy, astringent, tannic, tough, hard
Alcohol: leaves a hot sensation at the back of the mouth
Alcoholic tasting terms (from low to high): light, medium-bodied, full-bodied, big, hot
Smell and taste
Palate: A fancy way of referring to the taste of a wine. Also referred to as different sections of taste in the mouth. As the wine travels through the mouth, it first contacts the front palate, then the mid-palate and finally the back palate, all which can process different tastes, such as sweet, sour and bitter.
Nose: A fancy way of referring to the smell or aroma of the wine.
And while we’re on the topic, let’s have a quick look at the different types of aromas…
- Primary aromas: such as fruit and floral smells, come from the grape variety itself.
- Secondary aromas: broadly derived from the winemaking process.
- Tertiary aromas: develop as wine ages.
Balance: In a well-balanced wine, all of these elements are at ratios that work well together (not against each other). For a wine to be balanced one element should not stand out more than another. They should complement one another.
Complexity: A wine is normally referred to as complex when it has lots of different things going on in the glass. The more positive things you have to say about a wine, the more complex it is! In general, you are less likely to find complexity in a cheap, high volume, mass-produced wine than in a small-volume, hand-crafted, artisan wine.
Depth: A wine with depth has several layers of flavour. It is a term used when describing complexity.
Finish: When people talk about a wine’s “finish,” they’re referring to the impression that a wine leaves after it has been tasted. A long finish is often taken as a sign of quality. Finish can also refer to the aftertaste. How long the flavors last until they fade and also the feeling in your mouth once you swallow the wine (like drying tannins or a crisp finish).
Intensity: Intensity relates to appearance and aroma. When evaluating appearance, intensity describes the concentration of color. The more concentrated and opaque a wine’s color, the higher its intensity. Common descriptors for color intensity are pale, medium or dark. When evaluating aroma and flavor, the more pronounced or evident the characteristic, the more intense the wine.
Length: The term length is used somewhat interchangeably with the term finish. Length though specifically refers to how long a wine’s flavours linger.
Weight: weight relates to the presence of alcohol. Words used to describe a wine’s weight include light-bodied, medium-bodied, full-bodied, weighty, and so on.
Mouthfeel: Describes the sensation of wine in the mouth. Most descriptors are related to texture, for example: silky, smooth, velvety and rough. Mouthfeel is influenced by wine components, as acidity can be sharp, alcohol can be hot, tannins can be rough and sugar can be thick or cloying.
Legs: Wine legs, also referred to by the French as the “tears of a wine,” are the droplets or streaks of water that form on the inside of a wine glass as you move the wine around. While some people think these legs relate to the quality, sweetness or viscosity of the wine, they don’t. In fact, wine legs are just a representation of how much alcohol/glycerol is in a wine.
Fruit-driven (or fruit-forward): used to describe a wine that has a dominance of grape-derived fruit flavour. The dominance of fruit in these wines overrides flavours that originate from other processes or treatments which the wine has undergone (barrel aging, secondary fermentation, etc.)
And, last but not least, one of Rob’s favourites…
Estery: It’s a difficult term to describe and even Rob struggles to define it. Basically it is a compound called ethyl acetate which is produced from a reaction between ethanol and acetic acid. Wines with too much acetic acid are described as having Volatile Acidity (or VA) which, at high levels, is a fault in the wine. However, Penfolds are known for having a small amount of VA in their reds and for Rob this characteristic is very desirable AT LOW LEVELS… just enough so it combines with the other characters of the wine to sort of lift it and add complexity. (there’s that word again!)
That’s probably enough for one day! I could go on and on about words used to describe wines, but (thankfully) I won’t.
If there are any you’d specifically like help with though, then feel free to ask in the comments or send me an email!