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Wine Tasting Terms

Every discipline 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 Parker’s 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 terms.

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 wine.
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 “lean.”
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 suggested.

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 wines.
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 Barsac.
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 grape.
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 or neutral.
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 a decade.
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.

delicate - 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.

- 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 vigorous.
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 hazy.
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 sunshine.

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 wine.
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 middle.
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 has.
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 pleasant.
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 fat.

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.”

oeil 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 climates.
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 Zinfandel.

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.
- 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.

- 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.

- 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 diluted.

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 the inside.
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.

- 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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