Wine Tasting Terms
has its own jargon. It seems that devotees of any field must set
themselves apart by establishing their own language. A less than
charitable explanation for this propensity is that the purpose is
merely to baffle and thus exclude everyone else from the field.
At the same time, it appears to outsiders that the devotees
really know what they are talking about. A more charitable
explanation (and one that I hope is more accurate) is that people
who deal on a daily basis with a subject learn a kind of
shorthand. The purpose is not to exclude others, but to more
precisely communicate with those in the field.
The truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes.
Regarding wine and wine tastings, many terms are used that
describe tastes, textures and quality. Some of these terms are
pretty self-explanatory, but many could use some elucidation.
Some of the terms duplicate others. Sometimes there are nuances
of differences between terms that seem similar.
The following alphabetical list of wine terms is adapted from
Robert Parkers treatment of the subject in Bordeaux, his
first book. There is clearly a slant toward red wines in the
original list. I have tried to include references to white wines
where appropriate, but the bias probably persists. I have also
interjected some of my own definitions and viewpoints. This list
is not exhaustive, but it does include the most commonly used
acetic - Wines, no matter how well made, contain
quantities of acetic acid. If there is an excessive amount, the
wine will have a vinegary smell. This is a bad sign.
acidic - Wines need natural acidity to taste
fresh and lively, but an excess of acidity results in an acidic
wine that is tart and sour.
acidity - The acidity level in a wine is
critical to its enjoyment and livelihood. The natural acids that
appear in wine are citric, tartaric, malic and lactic. Wines from
hot years tend to be lower in acidity, whereas wines from
cool, rainy years tend to be high in acidity. Acidity in a wine
preserves its freshness and is crucial for its longevity. The
acidity of a low acid wine can be boosted in the winery by the
addition of acid, usually citric acid, but if overdone gives the
wine a tell-tale citrusy taste.
aftertaste - The taste left in the mouth after
one swallows is the aftertaste. This word is a synonym for length
or finish. The longer the aftertaste lingers in the mouth
(assuming it is a pleasant taste), the finer the quality of the
aggressive - Aggressive is usually applied to a
wine that is either high in acidity or harsh tannins, or both.
The opposite of delicate, refined.
angular - lacking roundness, generosity and
depth of fruit. Wine from a poor vintage or wines that are too
acidic are often described as being angular. The extreme of
aroma - the smell of a young wine before it has
had sufficient time to develop nuances of smell that are then
called its bouquet. Commonly used to mean the smell of a
relatively young, unevolved wine.
astringent - harsh and coarse to taste. Wines
that are astringent are not necessarily good or bad wines. Often
they are young and tannic and need time to develop. Sometimes
excessive astringency is due to a wine not being well made. The
level of tannin contributes to the astringency of a wine.
austere - wines that are austere are generally
not terribly pleasing to drink. An austere wine is a hard, rather
dry wine that lacks richness of fruit and generosity. However,
young, promising reds such as Bordeaux can often express
themselves as austere. Aging such a wine will reveal a wine with
considerably more generosity than its youthful austerity
balance - One of the most desired traits in a
wine. A balanced wine is one where the concen-tration of fruit,
level of tannins and acidity are in total harmony. Well-balanced
wines are symmetrical and tend to age gracefully.
barnyard - an unclean, farmyard, fecal aroma
that can be imparted to a wine by unclean barrels or unsanitary
wine making facilities. However, some wines, such as red
Burgundies, may show some of these properties without it being
considered a defect.
berrylike - refers to young and not overly oaked
red wines, particularly Bordeaux, which have an intense berry
fruit character that can suggest blackberries, raspberries, black
cherries, mullberries or even strawberries and cranberries.
big - A big wine is a large-framed, full bodied
wine with an intense and concentrated feel on the palate. Rich,
concentrated and deep wines, such as Rhones, Bordeaux from top
vintages, Cabernets and full bodied Chardonnays tend to be big
blackcurrant - a pronounced smell of the
blackcurrant fruit is commonly associated with red Bordeaux
wines. It can vary in intensity from faint to very deep and rich.
body - the weight and fullness that can be
sensed as wine crosses the palate. Full-bodied wines have a lot
of alcohol, concentration and glycerine. Refers to the texture,
not the taste, of wine.
Botrytis cinera - the fungus which attacks the
grape skins under specific climatic conditions (usually
interchanging periods of moisture and sun late in the season). It
causes the grapes to become super concentrated because of natural
dehydration. Essential for the great sweet wines of Sauternes and
bouquet - As a wine's aroma becomes more
developed from bottle aging, the aroma is transformed into a
bouquet, which is hopefully more than just the smell of the
brawny - a hefty, muscular, full-bodied wine
with plenty of weight and flavor, although not always the most
elegant or refined sort of wine.
briary - aggressive and spicy with a brambly
character. Most common among California Zins.
brilliant - refers to the color of the wine. A
brilliant wine is one that is clear with no haze or cloudiness.
This is less important today than before, since many of the best
wines are being bottled unfined and/or unfiltered. The trade off
is that we get more flavor at the risk of some cloudiness and
more sediment, especially as the wine ages.
breed - a
somewhat stuffy term that denotes character and complexity,
usually in a wine of high quality, A wine of great breeding will
be like a prize winning race horse - sleek, strong, properly
reared and naturally graceful.
browning - As red wine ages, the color changes
from ruby/purple to dark ruby to ruby with an amber edge (brick)
to ruby with a brown edge. When a wine is browning, it is usually
fully mature and is not likely to get better. Older styled
Barolo, however, often show some browning even in its youth.
brut - dry, usually applied to Champagne and
other sparkling wines; indicates residual sugar of less than 1.5%
in Champagne and connotes greater dryness than extra
dry which paradoxically connotes a greater sugar content
under the regulations governing Champagne production in France.
buttery - having an aroma and flavor reminiscent
of butter. This is found in some wines, particularly Chardonnays,
that have undergone malolactic fermentation. Lactic acid (the
acid found in milk) is responsible for this flavor.
cedar - Bordeaux reds often have a bouquet that
suggests either faintly or overtly the smell of cedar wood. It is
a complex aspect of the bouquet.
character - Qualities such as balance,
assertiveness, finesse and most other good qualities combine to
create character. The term is used only in a favorable sense and
is often rather unspecific. At one time, it meant a wine that was
true to the best form of its type or variety. Opposite of bland
chewy - If a wine has a dense, viscous texture,
it is often referred to as chewy. High-extract wines from great
vintages can often be chewy.
chunky - similar to chewy, denoting a lot of
fruit and body.
closed - used to denote a wine that is not
showing its potential, that remains locked in because it is too
young. Young Bordeaux, for example, often close up about 12-18
months after bottling, and depending on the vintage and storage
conditions, remain in such a state for several years to more than
complex - one of the more subjective terms used,
a complex wine is a wine that the taster never gets bored with,
but finds interesting to drink. Complex wines tend to have a
variety of subtle scents and flavors: nuances that hold one's
interest in the wine.
concentrated - Fine wines, whether they are
light, medium or full-bodied, should have concentrated flavors.
Concentrated denotes that the wine has a depth and richness of
fruit that gives it appeal and interest. Deep is a synonym.
corked - refers to a flawed wine that has taken
on the smell of cork as a result of an unclean or faulty cork
infected with a strain of bacteria that, while not harmful,
gradually adds a musty off taste to the wine. The French term is bouchonné. TcA,
the chemical responsible is becoming such a problem that many producers
are switching to synthetic corks or screw caps.
deep - essentially the same as concentrated, the
word expresses the fact that the wine is rich, full of extract
and mouth filling.
- refers to light, subtle, understated wines that are prized for their
shyness rather than extroverted robust character. White wines are usually
more delicate than red wines.
demi-sec - literally half dry; used to indicate a sweet
champagne with at least 4% residual sugar by volume, but less than 8%.
depth - a wine of depth will have great texture, full
body and intense flavor.
diffuse - Wines that smell and taste unstructured and
unfocused are said to be diffuse. Red wines served at too warm a
temperature often become diffuse as well as alcoholic.
dumb - A dumb wine is also a closed wine, but the term is
sometimes used more pejoratively as if the taster questions whether the
wine will improve. A dumb stage is thought to be temporary, however.
earthy - This term may be used in both a positive and a
negative sense. The positive refers to aromas of fresh, rich, clean soil.
Earthy is a more intense smell than woodsy or truffle scents. The French
term is gout de terroir. The negative meaning refers to dirty flavors.
elegant - Lighter styled, graceful, well-balanced wines are
generally referred to as elegant.
exuberant - People can be extroverted and somewhat hyper.
Wines too can be gushing with fruit and seem nervous and intensely
extra dry - Indicates a Champagne that is sweeter than
brut, but not as sweet as demi-sec, that is a Champagne with residual
sugar between 1.5% and 4%.
fat - In warm years, grapes may achieve a super sort of
maturity and the wines are often quite rich and concentrated with low to
average acidity. Such wines are said to be fat, which is a prized
commodity, but a wine that is too fat is flawed and then called flabby.
flabby - A wine that is too fat, low in acid, and low in
structure. Such wines are heavy and dull.
fleshy - Fleshy is a synonym for chewy, meaty or beefy.
It denotes that the wine has a lot of body, alcohol and extract, and
usually a high glycerine content.
flinty - A slightly metallic taste that can be detected
in certain dry white wines, especially French Chablis; a good quality.
floral or flowery - Flowery bouquet or aroma. Typical of
wines like Riesling and Muscat.
focused - Both a wine’s bouquet and flavor should be focused, which
simply means that the scents and flavors are precise and clearly
delineated. If not, they are like an out-of-focus picture: diffuse and
forward - A wine is said to be forward when its charm and
character are fully revealed. While it might not be fully mature yet, a
forward wine is generally quite enjoyable and drinkable, despite its
youth. Forward really is the opposite of backward.
foxy - A soapy taste of wild and uncultured grapes,
applied especially to wines produced from native American grape varietals
in New York State, particularly from the Concord grape.
fresh - Freshness in both young and old wine is a welcome
and pleasing component. A wine is said to be fresh when it is lively and
cleanly made with fruit showing as opposed to stale and tired.
fruity - Different people mean different things by
fruity. Wine experts refer to a wine with lots of concentrated fruit
(particularly grape) flavors as fruity, but often the public incorrectly
associates the word fruity with sweet.
full-bodied - Wines rich in extract, alcohol and
glycerine are full-bodied because of their rich texture.
grapey - Similar to fruity, except more often used in
reference to very young or immature wines.
green - Green wines are made from under ripe grapes and
lack richness and generosity as well as having a vegetal character.
Characteristic of poor vintages due to excessive rain and lack of
hard - Wines with abrasive, astringent tannins or high
acidity are said to be hard. Young long lived wines are typically hard,
but they should not be harsh.
harsh - A wine that is excessively hard to the point
where it is so tannic that it may never come around.
heady -High in alcohol, as detected in the smell of a
herbaceous - Many wines have a distinctive herbal smell
that is generally said to be herbaceous. Specific herbal smells can be of
thyme, lavender, rosemary, oregano, fennel or basil.
hollow - A synonym for shallow. Hollow wines are diluted
and lack depth and concentration. Also refers to a wine that has a decent
entry and finish, but where the middle falls off, as in a hole in the
honeyed - A common personality trait of sweet Barsacs,
Sauternes, other dessert wines and even some very ripe Chardonnays. A
honeyed wine literally has the smell and taste of bees’ honey.
hot - Rather than the temperature, hot denotes a wine
that is too high in alcohol and therefore leaves a burning sensation in
the back of the throat when swallowed. Wines with alcohol levels in excess
of 14% are often hot, but it depends in part on how much fruit the wine
jammy - When a red wine has a great intensity of fruit
from excellent ripeness, they can be jammy, which is a very concentrated
flavorful wine with superb fruit extract.
leafy - A leafy character in a wine is similar to a
herbaceous character only in that it refers to the smell of leaves rather
than herbs. A wine that is too leafy is a vegetal or green wine.
lean - Lean wines are slim, rather streamlined wines that
lack generosity of fruit and fatness, but can still be enjoyable and
legs - The tiny rivulets of wine that run down the sides
of a glass after wine has been swirled around inside it; implies the
presence of good quantities of glycerin, a natural component of a balanced
wine, and alcohol; tends to be associated with full body.
light - Lacking in alcoholic strength; unassertive.
lively - A synonym for fresh or exuberant, a lively wine
is usually a young wine with good acidity.
long - A very desirable trait in a wine is that it be
long in the mouth. Long or length relates to a wine's finish,
meaning that after you swallow it, you sense its presence for a long time.
Opposite of "short." Generally, the better the wine, the longer
its finish will be.
lush - Lush wines are velvety, soft, richly fruity wines
that are both concentrated and fat. A lush wine can never be an astringent
or hard wine.
massive - In great vintages where there is a high degree
of ripeness and superb concentration, some wines can be so big,
full-bodied and rich that they are called massive.
meaty - A chewy, fleshy wine is also said to be meaty.
mellow - Soft, smooth, mature and pleasant, but perhaps
lacking somewhat in complexity and body.
mouth-filling - Big, rich, concentrated wines filled with
fruit extract and high in alcohol and glycerine (body) are wines that
texturally fill the mouth. A mouth-filling wine is also chewy, fleshy and
musty - An unpleasant, dank smell, possibly from an
unclean or rotten barrel
nose - The general smell and aroma of a wine as sensed
through one's nose and olfactory senses is often called the wine's nose.
nutty - Spicy taste often associated with Sherries from
Spain and sometimes from other wines.
oaky - Most top red wines are aged 12 - 30 months in
small oak barrels. Many (but not all) top white wines are aged in barrel
for 3 - 9 months. At the very best properties, a percentage of the oak
barrels are new, and these impart a toasty, vanillin flavor and smell to
the wine. If the wine is not rich and concentrated, the barrels can
overwhelm the wine, making it taste overly oaky. However, when the wine is
rich and concentrated and the wine maker has made a judicious use of new
oak barrels, the results are a wonderful marriage of fruit and oak.
off - If a wine is not showing its true character, or is
flawed or spoiled in some way, it is said to be “off.”
de perdrix - Literally, eye of the partridge, referring to the
slightly pink tinge visible at the surface of a mature white wine or
Champagne when viewed against a white background.
oily - so full in body (texture) that a wine has nearly the thickness of
oil. Generally only found when a wine is made from extremely low yield
vines. A very positive sign.
overripe - An undesirable characteristic. Grapes left too
long on the vine become too ripe, lose their acidity and produce wines
that are heavy and unbalanced. This happens more frequently in hot
oxidized - If a wine has been exposed to air during
either its making or aging, the wine loses freshness and takes on a stale,
old Sherry-like smell and taste. Often the flavor will be "dark"
and the color brown. Such a wine is said to be oxidized.
pelure d’oignon - Literally, onion skin, referring to the golden or
brownish color visible at the surface edges of a mature red wine.
peppery - A peppery quality to a wine is usually
noticeable in many Rhone wines which have an aroma of black pepper and a
pungent flavor. It occasionally appears in some Bordeaux wines and
perfumed - This term is usually applied to fragrant,
aromatic white wines, but extremely concentrated, fully extracted red
wines can have a heady or perfumed smell.
pétillant or pétillance - Lightly sparkling or
bubbling. Usually the bubbles are not visible, but they are evident on the
tongue in the form of a slight prickle. This quality is sought in some
wines that are meant to be drunk young, but it is not a good sign in a
more mature wine.
plummy - Rich, concentrated wines can often have the
smell and taste of ripe plums and are called “plummy.”
ponderous - Often used as a synonym for massive, but it
really connotes a wine that is too heavy and thus becomes tiring to drink.
pruny - Wines produced from overripe grapes take on the
character of prunes. A flaw.
raisiny - Late-harvest wines that
are meant to be drunk at the end of a meal can often be slightly raisiny,
which in some ports and sherries is desirable. Amarone sometimes has this
characteristic. However in most dry wines, this is a flaw.
rich - Wines high in extract, flavor and intensity of
fruit are described as being rich.
ripe - A wine is ripe when its grapes have reached the optimum level of
maturity. Less than fully mature grapes produce wines that are under ripe
and overly mature grapes produce grapes that are overripe.
robust - Assertive, full bodied, characteristic of good
red wines at a young age. Similar to big.
round - A very desirable character of wines, roundness
occurs in fully mature red wines that have lost their youthful tannins and
also in young red wines that are low in tannins and acidity and are meant
to be consumed young.
shallow - A weak, feeble, watery or diluted wine lacking
concentration is said to be shallow.
sharp - An undesirable trait. Sharp wines are bitter and
unpleasant with pointed edges.
short - refers to a wine whose flavors do not last on the
palate. Such a wine is said to have a short finish. Generally, the better
the wine, the longer its finish will last.
silky - A synonym for velvety or lush. Silky wines are soft,
sometimes fat, but never hard or angular.
smoky - Some wines, either because of the soil or the
barrels used, have a distinctive smoky character. Some Graves wines are
smoky and the term is sometimes applied to Sauvignon Blanc based whites.
Also, Champagnes should have a smokey/yeasty character.
soft - A soft wine is one that is round and fruity, low
in acid, and has an absence of aggressive, hard tannin.
spicy - Wines often smell quite spicy with aromas of pepper,
cinnamon and other well-known spices. These pungent aromas are often
lumped together and called spicy.
stale - Refers to dull, heavy wines that are oxidized or
lack balancing acidity for freshness.
stalky - A synonym for vegetal, but used frequently to denote that the
wine has had too much contact with the stems and the result is a green,
vegetal, or stalky character to the wine.
structure - this is
one of the most important elements of a high quality wine, yet it is very
difficult to define. Basically it is the skeleton or backbone of a wine
upon which the fruit hangs. Structure consists primarily of acidity and
tanin, but also includes body and (in some white wines) sugar.
sulphury - The burnt match, nose-tickling smell often
given by cheap white wines in which sulphur is used as a preservative.
This sensation will dissipate with ageing or airing the wine.
supple - A supple wine is one that is soft, lush, velvety and
very attractively round and tasty. It is a highly desirable characteristic
as it suggests that the wine is harmonious.
tannic - The tannins of a wine, which are extracted from
the grape skins and stems (and, to some extent, from oak barrels) are,
along with the wine's acidity and alcohol, its lifeline. Tannins give a
wine firmness and some roughness when young, but also have anti-oxidant
properties and protect wines from spoilage as they age. Tannins gradually
fall away and dissipate with age. A tannic wine is one that is young and
unready to drink.
tart - Sharp, acidic, lean, unripe wines are called tart.
Generally, this is not a pleasurable characteristic, but it is common in
some young wines such as Chablis and Sancerre.
thick - Rich, ripe, concentrated wines that are low in
acidity are often said to be thick.
thin - A synonym for shallow. Thin is an undesirable
characteristic meaning that the wine is watery, lacking in body and just
tightly knit - Young wines that have good acidity levels, good
tannin levels and are well made are called tightly knit, meaning that they
have yet to open up and develop.
toasty - A smell of grilled toast can often be found in
wines because the barrels the wines are aged in are charred or toasted on
tobacco - Many red wines such as Graves have the scent of
fresh burning tobacco. It is a distinctive and wonderful smell in wine.
tropical - Having notes of tropical fruit such as
pineapple. Common in oak aged Chardonnays.
unctuous - Rich, lush, intense wines with layers of
concentrated, soft, velvety fruit are said to be unctuous. In particular,
sweet dessert wines are unctuous.
vegetal - An undesirable characteristic. Wines that smell
and taste vegetal are usually made from unripe grapes. In some wines a
subtle vegetable garden smell is pleasant and adds complexity, but if it
is the predominant characteristic, it is a major flaw.
velvety - A textural description and synonym for lush or silky, a
velvety wine is a rich, soft, smooth wine to taste. A certain fullness and
elegance are also connoted. It is a very desirable characteristic. The
French term is "veloute."
viscous - A textural term. Viscous wines tend to be
concentrated, fat, almost thick wines with a great density of fruit
extract, plenty of glycerine and high alcohol content. If they have
balancing acidity, they can be tremendously flavorful and exciting. If
they lack acidity, they are often flabby and heavy.
volatility - A volatile wine is one that smells of
vinegar as a result of an excessive amount of acetic bacteria present. It
is a seriously flawed wine.
woody - When a wine is overly oaky it is said to be
woody. Oakiness in a wine's bouquet and taste is good up to a point. Once
past that point, the wine is woody and its fruity qualities are masked by
excessive oak aging.
yeasty - The smell of yeast can be attractive in young
wine, although it usually means it is unstable. Yeast is an essential
element in the scent of quality Champagne.
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