Wine Words

“This wine has a lovely nose.”

“I can smell vegetal aromas in this Sauvignon Blanc.”

“The Cabernet was too tannic for my palette.”

Have you ever heard any of these phrases and felt utterly lost and confused? Do your friends use words like tannic, mouthfeel, or viscous, and you have no clue what they mean? If so, you are not alone. It takes time to learn the vernacular of the wine industry, and even polished professionals might occasionally come across a term they’ve never heard before. This is one of the joys of the wonderful world of wine; since everyone tastes wine differently, everyone talks about wine differently. What I call tannic, some may call dry. While some may describe a certain Chardonnay as smooth or creamy, I am more likely to say it is buttery.

Today, my best friend Elinor and I were driving from Indiana to Asheville, NC, our favorite city in the country. On the way, we stopped at Stonehaus Winery in Crossville, TN, for a tasting. While we were trying their Cumberland County Playhouse 50th Anniversary Sparkling Serval Blanc (believe me – this wine is worth using the whole name), she was searching for the right word to describe its particular qualities. I offered the term crisp, which is how I would describe this specific bottle of bubbly. She thought a minute and decidedly said, “No. That’s not quite what I’m thinking. More refreshing than crisp.” To me, these are both words I frequently find myself using with soft, yet dry whites, often in conjunction. In this case, neither of us were wrong; we were just tasting and describing different qualities of the same wine.

I could recount numerous anecdotes about various wine words, but I feel it would be more helpful to point out some key phrases you are likely to hear at any quality tasting bar.

astringent – dry. This is a fancy word for a wine that leaves you parched or feeling dehydrated. The more astringent a wine, the drier it is.

balanced – a balanced wine is one that is not overwhelmingly anything. It is not so dry that it leaves you craving water, nor is it so sweet that it makes you feel like you need to eat a salad. For the more complex wines, such as Chateau Thomas’ Jug Series (a dry base fermented with sugar and fruit juice to make a sweet wine), I use the term balanced to describe a wine whose components complement instead of contradict one another. (This is one of my go-to terms when I can’t find much else to say about a wine. “Oh, this is a balanced Chardonnay” generally means “Your Chardonnay tastes like piss, but it isn’t overwhelmingly oaky or dry.”)

bite –  this is a unique word that I don’t use very often. I say that a wine has a bite or is biting  if it has a sharp finish or shocks the palette.

crisp – I use this word for any wine that intrigues my palette with a slightly sharp taste. This is not a bad word to use to describe a wine. I often think of a crisp white as a summer wine.
*See also refreshing.

fruity – you may be thinking to yourself, Of course this wine is fruity. It’s made from grapes! Of course, you are not wrong. However, we frequently use the term fruity to describe a young red  with rich aromas of berries, cherries, currants, or other succulent, ripe fruits.

nose – this word is often used to describe the culmination of aromas in a glass of wine. You might hear accompanying words like vegetal, fruity, earthy, oak when describing the nose of a wine.

oaky – this is a tad more self-explanatory than the other terms on the list. A wine might be described as oaky if it has an aroma or a taste that reminds a drinker of wood or tobacco (although tobacco could be used independently to describe the palette of a wine).  Often, aged wines will be oaky as many wines are aged in oak barrels.

refreshing – this term is one that I use for a wine that refreshes my palette. I often find semi-dry whites (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Vidal Blanc) to be refreshing.
*See also crisp.

soft – this word is used when you want to describe a wine that is not dry but is not sweet. Smooth is also used to describe a less-tannic dry wine.

tannic – we often describe a dry, red wine by using the word tannic. This word derives from the substance (tannins) found in the skins and seeds of grapes. It is this substance that gives a wine its dry quality, which often results in a tannic finish.

vegetal – this is a term frequently used when discussing the nose of a wine. It does not mean that you smell carrots in your glass (raise your hand if you are thankful wines do not smell like carrots). I use the term vegetal to describe a wine when its aromas reminds of a garden; Sauvignon Blancs are often vegetal, in my opinion.

viscous – alcoholic. Viscosity refers to the level of alcohol in a wine. We relate the left of a wine in a glass with its viscosity; thus, a wine with strong legs is said to be viscous. You might relate a “heavier” wine with a greater viscosity.

With a mere 12 words here, I hope it is apparent that I have only scratched the surface of wine vocabulary. Click here to find more wine terms that you can use to impress your friends, or comment wine terms that you would like to see included in a future blog post.


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