Below is a section of wine specific descriptors that we have kept in the back of our textbook for years now. Wine terminology can be very specific, and at times non-sensical or comical. Students that come through our bartending course spend a day going over some wine service basics and get a crash course in varietals. To become an expert in wine takes a lifetime, with a real focus on knowledge. We do run a Wine Tasting Seminar where we have a sommelier come in for a few hours and discuss the preliminary skills needed to appreciate wine. In advance of that seminar, we have outlined in a few posts some of the fundamental terms used to describe wine.
Glossary of Terms used with Wine
Wine Terminology – Terms starting with “A”
ACID/ACIDITY Acid … term used to describe a tart or sour taste in the mouth when total acidity of the wine is high. Acidity … term used on labels to express the total acid content of the wine. The acids referred to are citric, lactic, malic and tartaric. Desirable acid content on dry wines falls between 0.6% and 0.75% of the wines volume. For sweet wines it should not be less than 0.70% of the volume.
ACETIC All wines contain acetic acid – (ie: vinegar). Normally the amount is insignificant and may even enhance flavour. At a little less than 0.10% content, the flavour becomes noticeable and the wine is termed acetic. Above 0.10% content is considered a strong fault. A related substance, ethyl acetate, contributes the smell associated with acetic acid content.
AFTERTASTE Term used to describe the taste left in the mouth after swallowing the wine. Both character and length of the aftertaste are part of the total evaluation. May be harsh, hot, soft and lingering, short, smooth, tannic, or nonexistent.
AGE/AGED White wines tend to turn from a greenish hue in young wines to a yellowish caste/tone to a gold/amber color as they age. Reds usually possess a purple tone when young, turning to a deep red – (Bordeaux wines) – or a brick red color – (Burgundy wines) – detectable at the surface edge in a wineglass as they age. Rose”s should be pink with no tinge of yellow or orange. Cellar aged red wines at their peak will show a deep golden-orange color as it thins at the surface edge. If the wine color has deepened into a distinctly brown- orange tint at the edge it usually indicates a wine past its peak and declining.
ANGULAR The total effect of dominant, tart-edged flavours and taste impressions in many young dry wines. Has opposite meaning to round, soft or supple.
APPELLATION The specific area a wine comes from. It can refer to a region, such as Bordeaux or Burgundy in France, for example. It can refer to an even more tightly defined sub-region within, say, Bordeaux, such as The Médoc.
APPLEY Refers to smell or aroma of a wine, usually carrying additional modifiers. “Ripe apples” describes a full, fruity, clean smell associated with some styles of Chardonnay wine. “Fresh apples” does the same for some types of Riesling. “Green apple”, however, is almost always reserved for wines made from barely ripe or unripe grapes. “Stale apples” applies almost exclusively to flawed wine exhibiting first stage oxidation.
APPROACHABLE Drinkable, easy to enjoy.
AROMA The intensity and character of the aroma can be assessed with nearly any descriptive adjective. (eg: from “appley” to “raisiny”, “fresh” to “tired”, etc.). Usually refers to the particular smell of the grape variety. The word “bouquet” is usually restricted to describing the aroma of a cellar-aged bottled wine.
AROMATIC Descriptive term for wines of markedly flowery, spicy or grape-like character
ACESCENCE “Acescence” is the term used to mark the presence of acetic acid and ethyl acetate. Detected by sweet and sour, sometimes vinegary smell and taste along with a sharp feeling in the mouth.
ASTRINGENT Descriptive of wines that have a rough, puckery taste. Usually can be attributed to high tannin content. Tannic astringency will normally decrease with age. However, sometimes the wine fails to outlive the tannin.
ATTACK The initial impact of a wine. If not strong or flavourful, the wine is considered “feeble”. “Feeble” wines are sometimes encountered among those vinified in a year where late rain just before harvest diluted desirable grape content.
ATTRACTIVE The wine taster liked it anyway. A veiled criticism of expensive wines, a compliment for others.
AUSTERE Usually used in description of dry, relatively hard and acidic wines that seem to lack depth and roundness. Such wines may soften a bit with age. Term often applied to wines made from noble grape varieties grown in cool climates or harvested too early in the season.
Wine Terms – Terms starting with “B”
BACKWARD Describes a wine that retains youthful characteristics despite considerable aging. This usually indicates that it will take longer to reach maturity and requires even more aging in the bottle or barrel. Opposite of forward.
BALANCE Denotes harmonious balance of wine elements – (ie: no individual part is dominant). Acid balances the sweetness; fruit balances against oak and tannin content; alcohol is balanced against acidity and flavour. Wine not in balance may be acidic, cloying, flat or harsh etc.
BEEFY Term for reds meaning solid or chunky.
BERRYLIKE Equates with the ripe, sweet, fruity quality of blackberries, raspberries, cranberries and cherries. The aroma and taste of red wines, particularly Zinfandel, are often partly described with this adjective.
BIG The overall flavour of a wine, white or red, that has full, rich flavours. These “Big” red wines are often tannic. Those “Big” white wines are generally high in alcohol and glycerin. Sometimes implies clumsiness, the opposite of elegance. Generally positive, but context is essential – (eg: A Bordeaux red wine should not be as “big” as a California Cabernet Sauvignon).
BITTER One of the four basic tastes. A major source of bitterness is the tannin content of a wine. Some grapes – (Gewurztraminer, Muscat) – have a distinct bitter edge to their flavour. If the bitter component dominates in the aroma or taste of a wine it is considered a fault. Sweet dessert wines may have an enhanced bitter component that complements the other flavours making for a successful overall taste balance.
BODY The effect on the taster’s palate usually experienced from a combination of alcohol, glycerin and sugar content. Often described as “full”, “meaty” or “weighty”.
BORDEAUX The most important wine region in France. Wines from this area are called “Bordeaux”. Red wines from Bordeaux are primarily blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. White wines from the region are usually blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
BOTRYTIS “Botrytis Cinerea”, a mold or fungus that attacks grapes in humid climate conditions, causing the concentration of sugar and acid content by making grapes at a certain level of maturity shrivel. On the Riesling grape it allows a uniquely aromatic and flavourful wine to be made, resulting in the extraordinary “Beerenauslese” style of wine.
BOUQUET Near synonym for “aroma”. Term generally restricted to description of odors from poured bottled wines.
BRAWNY This is a term used mainly to describe young red wines with high alcohol and tannin levels. Certain red wines from Amador County, California, can be examples. The mild epithet “tooth-stainers” is sometimes applied to this style of wine, denoting respect for strength.
BREATHE/BREATHING Denotes the act of allowing the wine to “breathe”; ie: when wine is poured into another container, such as a wineglass, the admixture of air seems to release pent-up aromas which then become more pronounced, in many cases, as minutes/hours pass.
BREED Term reserved for wines from the best grape varieties, the so-called “noble grapes”. Denotes wines judged to have reached classical expectations of aroma, balance, structure and varietal character.
BRIARY Denotes a wine having an aggressive, prickly taste best described as “peppery”. Sometimes combined with the adjective “brawny” to characterize a young red wine with high alcohol and tannin content.
BRILLIANT Very clear (and transparent in white wines) appearance with no visible particulates or suspensions. May be sign of flavour deficiency in heavily filtered wines.
BRIX Measurement system used for sugar content of grapes, wine and related products. A reading of 20 to 25 deg. Brix is the optimum degree of grape ripeness at harvest for the majority of table wines. A quick conversion method for users requiring Specific Gravity units of measurement is to take the Brix reading, deg. Brix (as Sucrose, for which most refractometers are calibrated), and multiply by 0.00425 and then add 0.9988 to the resulting number. This will give a close approximation to the equivalent figure for the S.G of Sucrose at 20 deg. C. Ex: A Brix reading of 18 equals S.G. 1.074. Using the conversion technique above gives a figure of 1.075 which is close enough for most users.
BROWNING Denotes aging in a wine. Young wine color tints show no sign of such “browning”. If possessed of good character and depth, a wine can still be very enjoyable even with a pronounced “brown” tint. In average wines this tint, seen along the wine surface edge in a tilted glass goblet, normally signals a wine is “past its peak”, although still very drinkable.
BRUT Refers to dry Champagne or Sparkling Wine. The authorities in the Champagne region of France use this term to denote added sugar.
BUTTERY Describes taste sensation found in better white wines, particularly Chardonnay.
Wine Terminology – Terms starting with “C”
CAVA The name for Sparkling Wine (similar to Champagne) from Spain.
CEDAR/CEDARWOOD Aroma component often found in fine red wines.
CHABLIS White wine from the Chablis area of France. Made from Chardonnay grapes.
CHAMPAGNE An important region of France. Known for its production of the only sparkling wine that can truly be called Champagne. The méthode champenoise was invented there.
CHARMING A comment applied to wines that don’t quite fulfil the first expectations. Means detecting a slight flavour lightness. Sometimes used to describe wines made from the Chenin Blanc grape styled after a type of wine originating from the Loire region of France.
CHEWY Refers to a high total tannic component of a wine. Figuratively, one cannot swallow this wine without chewing first.
CIGAR BOX Near synonym for “tobacco” aroma detected in the nose, especially if a “cedarwood” component is present. Spanish cedarwood is the traditional material for making cigar boxes.
CITRUSY Describes aroma and flavour reminiscent of citrus fruits. Most common is a perception of “grapefruit” content. Most often detected in white wines made from grapes grown in cooler regions of California or other countries.
CLARET/CLAIRET In England, “Claret” refers to English-style Bordeaux or wines from Bordeaux. In France “Clairet” is a particular Bordeaux that is produced like red wine but the must stays in contact with the skins for the first 24 hours during its making.
CLOUDY Opposite of clear. Noticeable cloudiness is undesirable except in cellar aged wines that have not been decanted properly. A characteristic of some unfiltered wines showing the result of winemaking mistakes and often possessing an unpleasant taste.
COMPLEX Almost a synonym for “breed”. Possesses that elusive quality where many layers of flavour separate a great wine from a very good one. Balance combines all flavour and taste components in almost miraculous harmony.
CORKED Wine has unpleasant “wet cardboard” taste/smell. Inadequately sterilized cork stopper inserted at bottling source causes chemical changes in the wine.
CREAMY Refers to “silk-like” taste component of wines subjected to malolactic fermentation as opposed to the “tart/crisp” taste component of the same wine lacking the treatment. Almost a synonym for “buttery”. Opposite of “crisp”.
CRISP Wine has definite but pleasing tartness, acidity. Generally used to describe white wines only, especially those of Muscadet de Sevres et Maine from the Loire region of France.
Wine Terms – Terms starting with “D”
DECANTING A method by which cellar-aged bottled wine is poured slowly and carefully into a second vessel, usually a glass decanter, in order to leave any sediment in the original bottle before serving. Almost always a treatment confined to red wines. The traditional method uses a candle flame as the light for illuminating the neck of the bottle while the wine is passing by. The low intensity of the light is ideal for viewing since it does not strain the eyes. Care must be taken NOT to allow the flame to heat the wine while performing this ritual.
DELICATE Any wine demonstrating somewhat mild, but attractive characteristics. Occasionally used to describe well- made wines from the so-called “lesser grape” varieties.
DEPTH, DEEP Refers to a premium wine that demands more attention, it fills the mouth with a developing flavour, there are subtle layers of flavour that go “deep.”
DESSERT WINE: This has two meanings: Fortified wine – eg: Sherry – where alcohol is added in the form of Brandy or neutral spirits. Sweet or very sweet wines of any alcohol level customarily drunk with dessert or by themselves and usually in small amounts.
DIRECT Everything present in this wine is immediately obvious.
DIRTY Describes any of the undesirable odours that can be present in a wine that that was poorly vinified. A characteristic imparted by improperly cleaned barrels or various other processes performed incorrectly. Usually detected first in a wine by the smell of the cork stopper or from a barrel sample. Not to be confused with corked wines where the stopper is thought to be responsible.
DRY Dry/Off Dry: Little or no sugar = “dry”, slightly sweeter = “off dry”.