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A Wine Taster's Glossary

by Barbara Ensrud

Wine tasters love to talk about wine, and they often use terms and descriptions that can be a bit confusing or intimidating to beginners. "Winespeak," as wine writer Hugh Johnson refers to it, is not really all that esoteric once you know some of the descriptive terms, what they mean and how they are used in talking or writing about wine. Is the wine sharp, or round? Is it earthy or buttery? Does it have finesse? Becoming familiar with some of these and other terms helps in understanding what a wine is like, makes it easier and more fun. Listed below are some of the words frequently encountered at wine tastings or in publications that cover the subject.

Click on a letter to jump to that section
A B C D E F G H I J K L M
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y

A

Acetic
Vinegary taste or smell that develops when a wine is overexposed to air.

Acidity
All wines naturally contain acids, which should be in proper balance with fruit and other components. Sufficient acidity gives liveliness and crispness and is critical for wines to age.

Aftertaste
The flavor impression the wine leaves after it is swallowed. Also referred to as the "finish" of a wine. Fine wines have a lingering finish, or aftertaste.

Aroma
The smell of a wine, especially young wines.

Aromatic
A term for wines with pronounced aroma, particularly those redolent of herbs or spices.

Astringent
The "puckerish" quality of high tannin content, which has the effect of drying out the mouth. Many young red wines are astringent because of tannin.

Austere
Somewhat hard, with restrained fruit and character.

B

Balance
Harmony among the wine's components -- fruit, acidity, tannins, alcohol; a well-balanced wine possesses the various elements in proper proportion to one another.

Big
Powerful in aroma and flavor; full-bodied.

Bitter
Usually considered a fault in but characteristic of such wines as Amarone and certain other Italian reds.

Body
The weight and texture of a wine; it may be light-bodied or full-bodied. Often refers to alcohol content.

Botrytis cinerea
A mold that attacks certain grapes, producing honeyed sweet wines like Sauternes and late-harvest Rieslings.

Bouquet
The complex of aromas that develops with age in fine wines; young wines have aroma, not bouquet.

Breed
Similar to good bloodlines and handling, as in racehorses; the result of soil, grapes and vinification techniques that combine to produce depth and distinctive character in a wine.

Brix
Term used to measure the sugar content of grapes, grape juice (must) or wine. Grapes are generally harvested at 20 to 25 Brix, resulting in alcohol after fermentation of 11.5 to 14 percent.

Brut
Term for dry Champagne or sparkling wine.

Buttery
Descriptor for rich flavor and smoothness of texture, somewhat akin to the oiliness and flavor of butter. More often refers to oak-aged white wines than reds; many Chardonnays and white Burgundies are said to have buttery aromas and flavors.

C

Chewy
Wines with unusual thickness of texture or tannins that one almost "chews" before swallowing.

Clean
Fresh, with no discernible defects; refers to aroma, appearance and flavor.

Closed
Young, undeveloped wines that do not readily reveal their character are said to be closed. Typical of young Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as other big red wines.

Coarse
Rude or harsh in flavor; clumsy or crude.

Complete
Mature, with good follow-through on the palate, satisfying mouth-feel and firm aftertaste.

Complex
Multifaceted aroma and/or flavor. Most wines considered great exhibit a combination of flavor and aroma elements.

Cooked
Heavy, pruney flavor; also said of wines from very hot growing regions or wines that are overripe.

Corked, corky
Smelling of cork rather than wine; due to a faulty cork.

Crisp
Fresh, brisk character, usually with high acidity.

D

Deep
Having layers of persistent flavor that gradually unfold with aeration.

Delicate
Light fragrance, flavor, and body.

Developed
Mature. A well-developed wine is more drinkable than an undeveloped one.

Distinctive
Elegant, refined character that sets the wine apart on its own.

Dry
Opposite of sweet; somewhat subjective in that tasters may perceive sweetness to varying degree.

Dull
Lacking liveliness and proper acidity; uninteresting.

Dumb
Not revealing flavor or aroma; closed; typical of wines that are too young or too cold.

E

Earthy
Smell or flavor reminiscent of earth. A certain earthiness can be appealing; too much makes the wine coarse.

Elegant
Refined character, distinguished quality, stylish, not heavy.

Extra Dry
A term used on Champagne labels to indicate not-quite-dry; not as dry as Brut.

F

Fat
Full of body and flavor; fleshy.

Fine
Distinguished.

Finesse
Distinctive balance; fineness; elegance and flair.

Finish
Aftertaste, or final impression the wine leaves; it can have a long finish or a short one (not desirable).

Firm
Taut balance of elements; tightly knit structure; also distinct flavor.

Flat
Dull, lacking in liveliness; wine without sufficient acid.

Flavor
How the wine tastes.

Fleshy
Fatness of fruit; big, ripe.

Flinty
Dry, mineral character that comes from certain soils, mostly limestone, in which the wine was grown; typical of French Chablis and Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs (Sancerre).

Flowery
Aroma suggestive of flowers.

Forward
Developed ahead of its peers; also, when the fruit is prominent, it is said to be forward.

Foxy
The "grapey" flavors of wines made from native American grapes, Vitis labrusca.

Fruity
Aroma and/or flavor of grapes; most common to young, light wines but refers also to such fruit flavors in wine as apple, black currant, cherry, citrus, pear, peach, raspberry, or strawberry; descriptive of wines in which the fruit is dominant.

Full-bodied
Full proportion of flavor and alcohol; big, fat.

G

Green
A wine made from unripe grapes that is tart and lacking fruit flavor.

Grip
Firmness of flavor and structure.

H

Hard
Stiff, with pronounced tannins; undeveloped.

Harmonious
All elements -- fruit, acid, tannin -- in perfect balance

Harsh
Rough, biting character from excessive tannin or acid.

Heady
High in alcohol, very full-bodied

Herbaceous
Aromas reminiscent of fresh grass or hay; grassy, as in certain Sauvignon Blancs; also the green pepper character of some Cabernets.

Herby
Reminiscent of herbs, such as mint, sage, thyme, or of eucalyptus.

Honest
Without flaws, typical and straightforward, simple but not great.

Honeyed
Smell or taste reminiscent of honey, characteristic of late-harvest wines affected by "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea).

I

Intricate
Interweaving of subtle complexities of aroma and flavor.


L

Legs
The viscous rivulets that run down the side of the glass after swirling or sipping, a mingling of glycerin and alcohol.

Length
Lingering aftertaste.

Light
Refers to wines light in alcohol but also to texture and weight, how the wine feels in the mouth. Lightness is appropriate in some wines, a defect in others.

Lively
Crisp, fresh, having vitality.

Long
Fine wines should have a long finish, or aftertaste; see Length.

Luscious
Rich, opulent, and smooth; most often said of sweet wines but also intensely fruity ones.

M

Maderized
Wine that has oxidized; has brown or amber color and stale odor.

Mature
Fully developed, ready to drink.

Meaty
A wine with chewy, fleshy fruit; sturdy and firm in structure.

Mellow
Smooth and soft, with no harshness.

Moldy
Wines with the smell of mold or rot, usually from grapes affected by rot or from old moldy casks used for aging.

Muscular
Vigorous fruit, powerful body and flavor; robust.

Musty
Stale, dusty or rank aromas.

N

Noble
Great; of perfect balance and harmonious expression. The so-called "noble" grapes are those that produce the world's finest wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Riesling (some would also include Syrah, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese).

Nose
The smell of the wine; it may have a "good nose" or an "off-nose," meaning defective odors.

Nutty
Nutlike aromas that develop in certain wines, such as sherries or old white wines.

O

Oak, oaky
Aroma and flavor that derive from aging in oak casks or barrels. Characterized by smokiness, vanilla, clove or other spices. Should not be overly pronounced.

Off-dry
Not quite dry, a perception of sweetness too faint to call the wine sweet.

Off-flavors (also off-aromas or off-nose)
Not quite right; flavors or odors that are not correct for a particular type of wine; opposite of clean; defective.

Open
Revealing full character.

Oxidized
Flat, stale or sherrylike aroma and flavor; spoiled as the result of overexposure to air.

P

Petillant
A light sparkle.

R

Rich
Full, opulent flavor, body and aroma.

Ripe
Mature, fully ripe fruit.

Robust
Full-bodied, powerful, heady

Rough
Harsh edges, biting, unpleasant.

Round
Smooth and well-developed flavor, without angularity or rough edges.

S

Sharp
Biting acid or tannin.

Short
Refers to finish, or aftertaste, when it ends abruptly.

Silky
Smooth, sinuous texture and finish.

Simple
Opposite of complex; straightforward.

Smoky
Aroma and flavor sometimes associated with oak aging.

Soft
May refer to soft, gentle fruit in delicate wines, or to lack of acidity in wines without proper structure; used on a label occasionally to indicate low alcohol.

Solid
Sound, well structured, firm.

Sour
Sharply acidic or vinegary

Sparkling
Wines with bubbles created by trapped carbon dioxide gas, either natural or injected.

Spicy
Having the character or aroma of spices such as clove, mint, cinnamon, or pepper.

Spritzy
Slight prickle of carbon dioxide, common to some very young wines; frizzante in Italy.

Steely
Firmly structured; taut balance tending toward high acidity.

Stiff
Unyielding, closed; dumb.

Strong
Robust, powerful, big.

Structure
The way a wine is built; its composition and proportions.

Stuffing
Big, flavorful, full-bodied wines are said to have "stuffing."

Sturdy
Bold, vigorous flavor; full-bodied; robust.

Sulphur, SO2
An anti-oxidant used in making most wines; the fermentation process creates minute natural amounts.

Supple
Yielding in flavor; a wine that is readily accessible for current drinking.

Sweet
Usually indicates the presence of residual sugar, retained when grape sugar is not completely converted to alcohol. Even dry wines, however, may have an aroma of sweetness, the combination of intense fruit or ripeness. Considered a flaw if not properly balanced with acidity.

T

Tannin
A natural component found to varying degrees in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes; most prominent in red wines, where it creates a dry, puckering sensation in young reds of concentrated extract; mellows with aging and drops out of the wine to form sediment; a major component in the structure of red wines.

Tart
sharp; acceptable if not too acidic.

Thick
Dense and heavy in texture.

Thin
Lacking body and flavor.

Tired
Past its peak of flavor development; old.

Tough
Astringent or hard; wiry; tannic.

V

Vanilla
A scent imparted by aging in oak.

Velvety
Smooth and rich in texture.

Vigorous
Firm, lively fruit, strong body; assertive flavor.

Vinegary
Having the smell of vinegar; see also Acetic.

Volatile, Volatile Acidity (VA)
Smells of acetic acid and/or ethyl acetate, quite disagreeable when excessive though a tiny amount may enhance aromas.

W

Watery
Thin, lacking in flavor.

Weak
Lacking grip typical for the wine; without character

Weedy
Aromas or flavors reminiscent of hay or grasses; not necessarily unpleasant unless exaggerated.

Weighty
Strong, powerful, full-bodied, forceful.

Woody
Excessive aromas of wood, common to wines aged overlong in cask or barrel.

Y

Yeasty
A bready smell, sometimes detected in wines that have undergone secondary fermentation, such as Champagne; very appealing if not excessive.

Young
In simple wines signifies youthful freshness; in finer wines, refers to immaturity, wines as yet undeveloped



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