A wine may have strong earthy or musty notes depending on when and where it was grown. We have the middle part of our extensive list of terms commonly used to describe wine below. If you want to expand your wine knowledge, have a quick read and find out how words you already knew have a familiar nature to them when identifying the characteristics of a glass of wine. Having a sommelier step people through some of those terms helps, and we have a class for that!
Wine Terminology Part 2 (‘Earthy’ to ‘Musty’)
EARTHY Covers situations where a “mother-earth” component is present. Earth is soil-dirt, but an earthy wine is not dirty as in “DIRTY” above. The term appears to be applicable to wine thought, by some, to be made from certain young varietal grapes obtained from vines planted on land previously used for growing vegetables containing components which “marked” the soil in some way. European tasters use the term in a broader sense to describe “terroir” characteristics.
EASY Undemanding but pleasant, does not require good taste, just tastes good.
ELEGANT What to say when there is great balance and grace in the wine, but you cannot quite find apt words of description. Almost a synonym for “breed”.
ESSENCE Two meanings: The first refers to “odor kits” containing vials of representative flavour essence and the second is used occasionally by wineries to describe a late harvest, sweet red wine. Most frequently appears on bottle labels for Zinfandel red wine made from grapes picked at 35 deg. Brix or higher sugar content.
EXTRACTED Refers to the colouring imparted to wines during the fermentation process by the skins of the grapes used. Can also occur in the further step known as “maceration” where new wine is allowed to steep with the skins again. This second step usually results in a “highly extracted” style of wine, deeply coloured with strong flavours and tannin. Rose”s, (aka “blush” wines), are normally made by limiting contact with the skins, the opposite of “extraction”.
FAT Fills the mouth in a positive manner. The wine “feels” and tastes a little obvious and often lacks elegance but is prized by connoisseurs of sweet dessert wines. Not quite desirable in a late harvest Moselle Riesling, but appropriate in a classic Sauternes. Fatness/oiliness is determined by the naturally occurring glycerol – (a.k.a glycerin) – content in the wine.
FILTERED Wines that have had suspended particulates resulting from the fermentation process removed. Important for future clarity and stability of a wine.
FINED Use of various materials for clarifying wines. These materials precipitate to the bottom of the fermentation process vessel carrying any suspended particulate matter with them.
FINISH As in “this wine has a (whatever) finish” or aftertaste
FIRM Attacks the palate with acid or tannic astringency. Suggests that the wine is young and will age. Nearly always a positive comment and very desirable with highly flavoured foods.
FLAT Opposite of “firm”. Usually indicates very low acidity, so tasting insipid and lacking flavour.
FLESHY Refers to both body and texture. A fleshy wine tastes fatter than a meaty wine, exhibiting some excess oiliness if too pronounced. Often suggests great smoothness and richness.
FLINT/FLINTY Synonym for “stoney”. Derived from French phrase “gout de pierre a fusil”, literally a smoky, whiff of gunflint, almost acrid taste. These terms are presumably metaphorical approximations based on the flavour sensations allegedly present in wines made from grapes grown on a limestone/silica rich terroir. “Flinty” describes an initial evaluation indicating a young white wine made from cool region grapes under cold fermentation conditions. Characterized by high acidity, a tactile “mouthfeel” that is filling and yet has a flavour sensation that is cleanly “earthy”.
FLORAL/FLOWERY Suggests the aroma or taste, of flowers in wine. “Floral” usually employed as an adjective without modifier to describe attributes of white wine aromas. Few red wines have floral aromas.
FORWARD Opposite of “closed-in” or, as used by some, backward. Means presence of “fruitiness” is immediately apparent. Usually employed as a term denoting that the wine is in peak condition and on its plateau of maturity.
FOXY Common descriptive word used to note the presence of the unique musky and grapey character attached to native american Vitis. labrusca grapes such as the Concord or Catawba varieties. The term “fox” has traditionally been a pejorative name given by grapegrowers to the fruit of a feral, ie. reverted to the wild species, cultivar grapevine.
The earliest known reference to a “fox” grape occurs in the first part of the 17th century, specifically applied to cultivated North American grapes, and seems to refer to the unexpected results obtained from planted seeds, a notoriously unpredictable method of reproduction. The word itself may be an early corruption of the french word “faux”, (ie. false). Some also claim the word is derived from the french “gout de renard” meaning, in all senses of the phrase, “taste of fox”. The aroma and flavours defy verbal description. The best way to imprint “foxiness” in the memory is to mentally compare the flavour of fresh Concord grapes and any fresh California table grape. Most people find the juice or jelly from the Concord grape quite sprightly and delicious. In dry table wines the fermented flavour result is considered by many to be obtrusive and even quite disagreeable.
FRAPPE With foam on top
FRESH The wine has a lively fruity acidity, maybe a little bite of acid, as found in youthful light reds, rose”s and most whites. All young whites should be fresh. The opposite is flatness, staleness.
FRUITY A fruity wine has an “apple-like”, “berry-like” or herbaceous character. “Fruitiness” usually incorporates the detection of a little extra sweetness as is found in really fresh grapes or berries.
FULL-BODIED As opposed to “thin” or “thin-bodied”. Fills the mouth, has a winey taste, alcohol is present, the wine has “weight on the tongue”.
FUNKY Defies precise definition. Appears to be a 1970s cannabis culture derived word sometimes used by N. American west coast wine tasting reviewers when describing vegetal/ yeasty/yeastlike aromas so complex that individual identification is difficult. Can have positive or negative connotations depending on context.
GAMEY/GAMELIKE Descriptive term for one of the flavours/aromas considered particular to Burgundian style Pinot Noir red wines. Reminiscent of taste and flavour associated with cooked wild duck and other “gamey” meats. Thought to be caused by contamination with “brett” – (brettanomyces strain of yeast). Sometimes referred to as “animale” by french winemakers or “sweaty saddle” by Australians. Considered a major flaw when flavour is overly-pronounced.
GLYCERIN/GLYCEROL Gives a sweet taste on the tongue tip. Higher concentrations are found in high-alcohol and late-harvest wines, leading to sensations of smooth slipperiness giving a sense of fullness to the wine body. Is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process.
GRAPEFRUITY Grapefruit flavours are characteristic of cool-climate Chardonnays. See citrusy above.
GRAPEY Content has simple flavours and aromas reminiscent of a certain type of fresh wine or table grape. Used by some as adjective alternate for “foxy”.
GRASSY Slightly vegetal-tasting undertone often part of the overall character of Sauvignon Blanc and certain other grape varietals. European tasters sometimes use the word “gooseberry” to describe this flavour. In minute presence it can enhance flavours. As it becomes more dominant the more it loses appeal leading to unattractiveness.
GREEN Strictly applied refers to the taste of wines made with unripe fruit. More loosely used it refers to some white wines, especially Riesling, possessing the greenish color tint indicating youth; does not necessarily mean the sour and/or grassy taste of unripe fruit content as well.
HARD High acidity and/or tannin content leading to a sensation of dryness in the mouth, a degree of puckery-ness. Useful for detecting young red wines suitable for aging. Characteristic preferred in dry white wines that will accompany shellfish.
HARSH Very astringent wines, usually with high alcohol component, often have this rough, rustic taste characteristic. May become more tolerable with aging but also may not be worth the wait.
HAZY Refers to wines with slight particulate content when viewed against the light. Occurs most often in unfiltered or unfined wines where there is no need to worry. If the haziness is intense enough to cause loss of clarity however it may indicate a flawed wine.
HEARTY Most often applied in description of full, warm qualities found in red wines with high alcohol component. Examples are found in the sturdier so-called “jug wines”, some California Zinfandels, lesser French Rhone or Algerian red wines and in the occasional lesser Australian Shiraz.
HERBACEOUS Adjective used in description of wine with taste and aroma of herbs, (usually undefined). Considered to be a varietal characteristic of Cabernet Sauvignon, and to less extent, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
HOLLOW Missing middle between “attack” and “finish”. Caused by too many grapes on insufficiently pruned vines. If very noticeable, called “empty”.
HONEYED Applies to ripe wines, which, sweet or dry, have a taste or aroma of honey.
HOT Defines a wine high in alcohol and giving a prickly or burning sensation on the palate. Accepted in fortified wines, but not considered as a particularly desirable attribute in Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. Positively undesirable in light, fruity wines, (eg: Moselle Rieslings).
JAMMY Word most often encountered in descriptions of California Zinfandel wines made with Amador County grapes. Refers to the natural berry-like taste of this grape.
LATE HARVEST Indicates grapes that are picked as late as possible in the season for maximum sugar content.
LEAFY Somewhat analogous to “vegetal”. Desirable in minute detectable amounts, if adding to notes of complexity in the wine.
LEAN More body would be good, thin in the mouth, often too much astringency, sometimes a compliment for certain styles.
LEES Refers to residual yeast and other particles that precipitate, or are carried by the action of “fining”, to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. US winemakers use the term “mud”. Imparts distinctive flavours to the wine depending on type. Derived from French term “lies” as in “sur lies”.
LEGS Term used when referring to the liquid rivulets that form on the inside of a wine glass bowl after the wine is swirled in order to evaluate the alcohol concentration present. Usually the higher the alcohol content, the more impressive the rivulets appear because of reduced surface tension effects. (Some still cling to the erroneous belief that glycerin content causes these rivulets). Valuable technique when used in “blind” tasting competitions.
LEMONY Descriptive of a somewhat acidic white wine. These wines contain flavours reminiscent of that fruit. Apart from that, may be well balanced in all other respects, sometimes with a touch of extra sweetness.
LENGTH How long the total flavour lasts in the back of the throat after swallowing. Counted in time-seconds, known as “caudilie”. Ten seconds (caudilie) is good, fifteen is great, twenty is excellent and fifty is superb. Almost a synonym for “finish”, as in “this is a wine with an long, extraordinary finish”.
LIGHT Low alcohol and/or sugar. Since about 1981 a wine containing fewer calories per comparable serving than a regular glass of wine has been legally designated as such. Used as a tasting term, “light” is usually a polite expression meaning “watery”.
LIVELY Almost a synonym for fresh. Implies detection of barely discernible spritzyness. Applies most often to white wines, but some reds also qualify.
LUSH Describes impression of wines with high amounts of residual sugar. Adjective almost entirely reserved for sweet dessert wines.
MADERIZED Distinctive brown color in wine due usually to period of air exposure. Regarded as synonym for “oxidized”. Originates from the taste/appearance of fortified Madeira wines.
MALOLACTIC Secondary fermentation occasionally detected in bottled wines. Its action converts the naturally occurring Malic acid into Lactic acid plus Carbon Dioxide gas. Reduces total acidity by this action. Since the gas is contaminated with undesirable odors, if it remains trapped in the bottle it becomes a minor fault unless allowed to dissipate. Malolactic fermentation is a commonly used technique for reducing the sharpness of cool climate Chardonnays and the Lactic acid component gives an admired “creamy” or “buttery” texture.
MATCHSTICK Describes the odor of Sulphur Dioxide gas, described by some as similar to the smell of “burnt matches”, found in minute amounts very occasionally trapped in bottled white wines. Dissipates with airing or decanting.
MEAGER Lacks “body” and “depth”. Has definite feeling of flavour dilution. Seems to occur in some select varietal wines vinified from grapes subjected to late season rain, although there are other explanations as well.
MEATY With much body as though you could chew it. The reference is to lean meat, so indicates less body present than “fleshy”.
MOUTH-FILLING Wines possessing intense flavours which seem to affect every sensory nerve in the mouth. Usually slightly high glycerin component, slightly low acid.
MUSTY A wine that displays unpleasant “mildew” or “moldy” aromas. Results from improperly cleaned storage vessels, moldy grapes or cork.