Often at wine events, or in general conversation, I am asked to explain the characteristics of wines. I find this a little maddening at times, as there are so many terms to choose from and I will be the first to admit I do not know a third of them.
For example, last week I hosted a small wine dinner for a client. There were eight people including myself. We served two red wines before dinner and a different wine with each course for a total of seven different wines. As the fellow who selected all the wine pairings, I was asked to explain each of the wines to the guests, especially the dinner wines. To me it is great fun to talk about wine.
There are a couple of items you should pay close attention to when hosting a wine dinner. First, you want to make sure your wines pair well with the food you are serving. Second, please pay close attention to the sequence in which the evening’s wines are served. The classic guidelines are as follows:
- White wine before red wine
- Light wine before heavy wine
- Dry wine before sweet
- Simple wine before complex, richly flavored wine
Top 16 Wine Terms you need to know
I believe these are the 16 terms everyone needs to know to understand and explain wine.
- Acidity: Wines with high acidity are tart and zesty. Red wines with high acidity generally have a lighter color and more tart characteristics. White wines with high acidity are often described with characteristics similar to lemon or lime juice.
- Aroma: The term is about the smell of a wine. The word “bouquet” applies particularly to the aroma of older wines. Some aromas associated with wines include the smell of fruits, herbs, flowers, earth, grass, tobacco, butterscotch, toast, vanilla, mocha and chocolate.
- Balance: This is a wine tasting term referring to the harmony among the components of a wine: the alcohol, fruit, acidity and tannins. The idea is for these components to be in perfect proportion to one another, making for a well-balanced wine.
- Body: This tasting term refers to the “mouthfeel” of the wine – how weighty a wine feels in the mouth. A light-bodied wine would feel less heavy and have flavors that are less concentrated while a full-bodied wine would feel heavier and definitely be more concentrated. If a wine feels similar to the way water feels in your mouth, it is light-bodied. If it feels similar to whole milk, it is full-bodied.
Crisp: This tasting term is usually used to describe white wines that are fresh, brisk and pleasantly tart – normally with high acidity.
- Dry: This term describes a wine without residual sugar – the opposite of a sweet wine. The majority of wines are dry and those that are sweeter are typically white wines.
- Finish: The impression a wine leaves in the back of your mouth and in your throat as you swallow it (an aftertaste) is what the term Finish means. In a good wine, you can still perceive the wine’s flavors – such as fruitiness and spiciness – at that point.
- Fruity: A wine with aromas and flavors that suggest fruit, does not mean the wine is sweet. You smell the fruitiness with your nose and in your mouth you “smell” it through your retro nasal passage.
- Midpalate: This term is used when tasting wine to describe how a wine develops within the mouth. The wine’s entry is the description of its first impression, while the wine’s length and finish can be described after swallowing.
- Nose: How do wines smell? The term nose is also used in place of terms for bouquet or aroma. Some use nose in an attractive way to describe a very powerful and robust bouquet, while others may use the term “off nose” to describe unpleasant odors in a wine. Its connotation can be either positive or negative.
Oaked: This is the ultimate non-grape influence on the flavors in wine. In white wine it adds butter, vanilla and sometimes coconut. In red wine it adds flavors often referred to as baking spices, vanilla and sometimes dill. There are many different countries that make oak wine barrels and wine geeks freak out over who makes the best (American vs. France).
- Robust: This term describes a full-bodied wine (typically red). Similar in definition to the term big, it also implies the wine is round, full of flavor and has good mouthfeel.
- Silky: This wine term is used when you get a particular mouthfeel when tasting wine. Silky wine will have a texture and a finish that is very smooth. Silky relates to the wine’s balance and is usually a characteristic of fine red wines that have aged sufficiently for the tannins to soften.
Smooth: This term is used in wine tasting to refer to the way the wine feels in the mouth. This tactile impression is related to the wine’s overall acidity – not just its tannins – which contribute to the sensation of a wine being “soft” or “hard.” Smoothness is considered the opposite of sharpness.
- Tannin: Known collectively as “phenolic compounds,” tannins are natural components of grapes that are critical to the wine making process. They are found in the skins, seeds (pips), stalks and stems of grapes. Most prominent in red wine, tannins are also introduced to wine via the oak barrels used for aging. Tannins are bitter, harsh and astringent chemicals. In excess, they cause a puckering feeling in the mouth similar to what happens when drinking a very strong tea, which also contains a lot of tannins. Tannins are necessary to age red wine, and in proper amounts, the chemicals supply a framework on which wine develops into the wonderful, complex beverage so many of us love. White wines have little tannin because they have little or no contact with the skins and stems of grapes.
- Texture: The tactile sensation of a wine on one’s palate, the “texture,” is more specific than “body,” which is a more general term for a wine’s impression. Wines with pleasing textures are often described as velvety, silky or smooth.
Additional Wine Terms To Know
- Closed: This tasting lingo describes an undeveloped wine – usually a wine with little flavor or aroma or a wine without character. The term is often applied to young Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon that has “closed down” but are destined to become “big” reds with maturity.
- Full-Bodied: This term refers to how a wine feels in the mouth, e.g. mouthfeel. A full-bodied wine is weighty on the tongue – big and fat. The term is used to describe both red and white wines, but red wines are more apt to be full-bodied. The other extreme is thin-bodied.
- Legs: When a wine is swirled, it leaves behind drops that slide down the inside of a wine glass due to the evaporation process. Those droplets can be referred to as: the legs, the tears or the curtains. The higher the alcohol content in a wine the thicker the droplets form on the inside of your glass.
- Palate: This simple term describes the flavors and complexities of a wine on your tongue and within your mouth.
Spice/Spicy: This descriptor is for wines with an energetic spiciness to their aromas and flavors. It is a catch-all term which could refer to any one of the many spices – cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, mace, allspice, and even white and black pepper. A spicy characteristic can sometimes come from the wine contacting newer oak barrels during aging, but it is more likely to be attributed to the varietal. Gewürztraminer is a grape with a prominent spicy quality, for example.
- Structure: This wine term describes the framework formed by all of a wine’s components (alcohol, acid, fruit, tannin and glycerin) and their proportion to each other.
- Vanilla: This descriptor for a sweet, vanilla-like aroma often presents itself in wines that have undergone aging within barrels made of new oak. This vanilla flavor comes from vanillin, an organic compound found in oak as well as in the vanilla bean. Vanillin extracted from wood is often used in place of vanilla (from the bean) in cooking and baking.
Why Wine Descriptions?
There many wine terms. So many, in fact, that it would be impossible to remember them all. But the terms I have listed here should give us a good understanding of wine. Learning these terms will also help us understand how to select better bottles of wine to purchase. Finally, knowing these terms should ultimately help us enjoy drinking whatever wines we enjoy.
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Look Forward To These Happy Things:
Upcoming LEX 530 Events!
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, June 26, 2020 – make your reservations NOW
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, July 17, 2020 – NEW DATE!
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, August 21, 2020
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, September 25, 2020
Oktoberfest Dinner – Tuesday, October 27, 2020 — with Elkhart’s Iechyd Da Brewing Company
LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club Dinner – Friday, November 20, 2020
Important Wine Holidays
June 26 – International Rosé Day
June 21 – Lambrusco Day
August 1-5 – International Albariño Days
August 4 – National White Wine Day
August 18 – International Pinot Noir Day
September 3 – International Cabernet Day