This glossary is a work in progress, and is dedicated to every wine lover who has ever attended a tasting… and had no idea what to say in regard to the wines which they sipped.
Glossary of Wine Descriptors
Acetic acid is vinegar, and all wine contains a small amount of it. When subtle, this acetic acid can actually balance the wine and allow it to pair better with dishes. But add anything more than around 0.10% of this component and the acid presence becomes very apparent, and the wine has an overpowering vinegar-like, acidic taste.
Used to describe the tart taste in the mouth when a wine’s acidity is too high (see “acidity” below).
The term which refers to the total content of acid in the wine. Acids in a wine include citric, lactic, malic and tartaric.
Although this word often brings about negative connotations, the term acidity is not necessarily detrimental to a wine’s quality. In fact, acidity is a very good thing if it is balanced with other characters in the wine, like fruit.
The word aftertaste describes the taste of the wine remains in the mouth after it has been swallowed.
When speaking of aftertaste, wine drinkers are referring to both the actual taste of the aftertaste AND the length.
Aftertastes are often described as lingering, soft, smooth, short, long, harsh, chemical, tannic or simply lacking/nonexistent.
Wines are aged in the barrels before they are bottled and they continue to age once they have been bottled.
A white wine will generally start with a slightly green tint when they are young; as they age, the wine will take on a more yellow color and eventually a more golden hue. Young red wines typically possess more of a purple; the color either evolves into a very dark red or a more brick red, depending on if the wines are a Bordeaux or a Burgundy blend.
A rose should continue to become pink and should not exhibit an orange tinge.
It is very normal for an older wine which was properly aged to express a slightly orange color around the edge of a glass that is held against a white backdrop. Wines which show a more brown hue have been aged too long and should have been drunk sooner.
Grapes contain large amounts of sugar. During fermentation, yeasts convert this sugar into alcohol, thus making the drink that we have loved for thousands of years.
Alcohol may be what makes us so silly when we’ve had too many glasses, but it is also what gives the wine a lot of its flavor. Along with the wine’s acid, the tannin (usually from the skins of the grapes) and the residual sugar (the sugar that the yeasts did not convert), alcohol is what makes wine “wine”.
Alcohol levels must be showcased on the bottle. Most wines have alcohol levels which are anywhere from 11% to 14%, although there are many, many exceptions to this rule (think of the packs-a-punch Zinfandels of California).
As a rule of thumb, wineries can “fudge” their number by 1% in the United States, so a wine that is 15% alcohol could potentially be as high as 16%. Wineries in Argentina area allowed a 0.5% window in which their wine’s alcohol content must fall into.
Desert wines (which are typically made from dried grapes with an obviously much higher sugar content) and ports (which have alcohol added to them) have much higher levels of alcohol. They typically range from 17% to 21%.
The best way to describe this term is to provide the definition of its opposite descriptors, like “round” or “soft”. An angular wine does not possess this complexity or elegance. Often this is found in young wines.
The aromas of a wine are often referred to as “appley”. Chardonnays, Rieslings and sparkling wines often possess this characteristic.
The smell of the wine.
Wines that are very high in tannins (or wines which have young tannins which have not matured) are often astringent. If the wine makes your mouth pucker to an almost uncomfortable level, then it is almost certainly astringent.
Wines which possess this descriptor often just need more time to age in the bottle, where their tannins can mellow and mature into a softer version of their offensive youth.
My least favorite descriptor of all time… solely because it sounds so pompous. Austere is used to describe wines that seem a little flat. They are often acidic and seem to have no backbone, no depth, and are not well-rounded.
Tannins serve as the “backbone” to big, full-bodied red wines. In a well made wine, the backbone is found in conjunction with a lot of fruit and other complex characteristics.
A really good wine will have many things happening inside the glass. When all of these things work together harmoniously, then the wine has balance. Some of the characteristics which should be found alongside one another are acid and sweetness, fruit and oak or tannin, and alcohol with acidity and/or fruit.
If a wine is not balanced and there is too much of one of these characteristics, then a wine can be called “off-balance”.
“Berrylike” is quite possibly the easiest descriptor to thrown around in the wine world since many red wines have some berry characteristics: blackberries, cherries, raspberries, cranberries, fresh or dried cherries, or strawberries. What I have found quite difficult is distinguishing which of these berries are truly present in the wine. Is it a blackberry… or a raspberry? Or a cherry? A trip to your local farmer’s market and a little berry smelling/tasting homework will ensure that you keep your olfactory sense up to par and able to distinguish each of these fruits in a wine.
The next time you have an opportunity, sip a light, delicate pinot gris… and then taste an over-the-top oaky California Chardonnay. The term “big” will most certainly apply to the latter. “Big” is used to describe the overall feel of the wine: although it can be used for white or red wines, it is often used with oaked white wines (such as the Chardonnay which I mentioned) or red wines that posses a lot of tannins, like Cabernet Sauvignon.
Is “big” good or bad? Not necessarily either. Some wines should be big, like a Napa Cabernet. A Spanish Garnacha shouldn’t be. The term should be applied to each varietal and then it can be decided whether or not it is a positive characteristic or a negeative one.
Bitterness come from the tannin of the wine, and the tannin comes from the grape skins and the stems and seeds.
Is bitter a good thing, or a bad thing? Like with the term “big”, it depends on the varietal. A Gewurztraminer or a Muscat is supposed to be slightly bitter, and a wine professional would expect this. But bitterness which overtakes the wine—regardless of the varietal—is a negative trait.
The feel of a wine in your mouth is its body. A wine with a lot of body is “full-bodied”, while a wine which lacks body is referred to as “thin”.
Body comes from the harmony of alcohol and sugar. Wines with more sugar will often have more body.
My favorite Latin word. “Botrytis Cinerea”, sometimes called the “Noble Rot”, is a mold or fungus that attacks grapes which grow in humid areas. Botrytis results in shriveled, molded grapes, and wines made from these grapes are exquisite. To the best of the my knowledge, Botrytis cannot be initiated by man: it is a completely natural occurring phenomenon. Therefore, winemakers looking to make a Botrytis-attacked wine take a gamble with each vintage: if the grapes are left of the vine and are not attacked by the fungus, the vintner is left with a bunch of moldy raisins, and no late harvest wine.
We often use the word “bouquet” synonymously with “aroma” or “smell”, but true wine snobs will reserve the term for wine which has been aged in a cellar. (I say, “Use it whenever your heart desires.”)
Wines that are usually young and have high levels of tannin and of alcohol. As the term suggests, these wines are quite strong.
Allowing oxygen to incorporate into the wine; this brings out aromas and flavors which were not otherwise present. Wines tend to “open up” as they sit in a glass or in a decanter.
Quite possibly the worst misnomer of all wine descriptors, this denotes a wine which is clear and without any particles. Often, this indicates that a wine has been filtered, sometimes to a point where it lacks flavor. And I thought it meant that drinking it made you smart. Sigh.
Brix is a system of measuring the sugar in grapes before they are harvested. As we discussed, the amount of sugar present in the grapes will relate to how high the alcohol content of the grapes is, so this measurement is an important one to take before harvesting to ensure that the grapes are picked at the correct time and with the correct level of sugars. Brix are measured in degrees, and a measure of anywhere from 20 to 25 is the standard for harvesting most wines.
A red wine can turn into a brown color if it is past its peak. (It is important to note that even if a wine is past its peak, it can still be drunk. It just past its full potential before it had been opened.) To determine the color of the wine, hold the wine glass above a white surface: the brown notes will be on the edge of the surface of the wine.
Most often found in Chardonnays, butter is a flavor which mostly occurs when the wine has undergone malolactic fermentation, which is where the lactic acid is converted to malic acid. The buttery flavor is a byproduct of this process and produces a creamier wine which many enjoy, and a lot of wine critics love to hate.
An admirable quality in younger white wines, “candylike” is used when there are very fresh fruit aromas and/or flavors. Typically, these characteristics are found in wines that are young, and this is not an attractive quality in older wines. I have found that many Spanish Garnachas exhibit this quality.
Aromas of cedar are present in some higher-end wines: it is an almost sweet smell with hints of this elegant smelling wood.
A wine with a lot of tannins will be incredibly full-bodied, almost to the point where one feels that they must “chew” the wine when drinking it.
Often found alongside “cedar”, this descriptor is for an aroma of rich red wines.
Many white wines will exhibit citrus aromas and flavors, especially grapefruit and less occasionally lemon and lime.
There are times when a wine has everything it should: tannins, acidity, fruit, sugar levels… and it still just doesn’t seem to work. These wines might need a little more time in the bottle to allow all of the wine’s components to come together, as it happens often with wines which were produced with the intention of sotring the wine for a significant time before it was ready to drink.
Cloudy is a negative descriptor for wines which are not clear and which have too many particles, and an indicator of errors with winemaking. Opposite of clear. The one exception is older wines which have been cellared and then were not decanted properly, spo that the sediment, which should have settled to the bottle and then been decanted off, mixes with the wine.
Too much sugar in a wine can result in an unbalanced wine with an unattractive flavor and/or aftertaste. Cloying denotes a wine with too much sugar.
A top-notch wine has many things occurring at once. Flavor combinations work well with acidity and tannin levels to make a phenomenal wine which, sip and sip, leaves you with more to say.
“Creamy” refers to the mouth-feel of a wine. Often this is in conjunction with “buttery”. Acid levels in these wines tend to be low.
A white wine with exceptional tartness and acidity is crisp. Wines such as Sauvignon Blanc are quite crisp, and these wines pair well with many dishes as their crisp quality cuts the pronounced richer flavors of seafood dishes or dishes with cream sauces. Most crisp wines are produced to be drunk young and not to age.
A cellared bottle of wine (especially one which has not been filtered prior to bottling) will have particles in it which have settled to the bottom of the bottle after years of cellaring. To finally enjoy this bottle after years of aging, the wine must be poured into another container (usually, a decanter) in order to separate the wine and the sedimentary particles. Traditionally, a candle was lit behind the bottle so that the sommelier could see the sediment as he poured the wine into the decanter, thus knowing when to stop pouring.
A wine with a lot of depth is a wine with a lot to offer. There are many “layers” of flavor in the wine as you continue to taste it.
Dessert wines are fortified (have alcohol like Brandy or a neutral spirit added to them), like Sherry and Ports. OR, dessert wines are simply wines which accompany dessert or are slightly sweeter and can be drunk and dessert.
A very simply wine in which all the flavors and components are incredibly straightforward and/or simple.
A poorly made wine may smell dirty; typically this is indicative of barrels which were improperly cleaned or another error in the vinification process.
A wine with very little to no residual (leftover) sugar is dry. This is often intended and is a quality found in many varietals. These wines generally contain less than about 0.5% residual sugar.
A wine with weak aromas and flavors that are very difficult to detect is referred to as “dumb”. The term indicates that the wine cannot “speak” or express itself. I think we should call them shy instead.
There are many times which you can smell a very-present earth/dirt aroma in wines. In most cases, it is actually quite pleasant. Some believe that wines which are from vines grown in soil previously used for vegetation may take on this characteristic, as the previous vegetal matter left some aromas in the soil.
Simple, straightforward, and generally enjoyable wine.
A wine with a beautiful mouth-feel, complexity, and an overall well-made and graceful wine.
A kit of tins with different odors used to help train the nose to detect aromas in wines.
Used occasionally by wineries to describe a late harvest, sweet red wine. Most frequently appears on bottle labels for Zinfandel red wine made from grapes picked at 35 deg. Brix or higher sugar content.
Through the fermentation process, small particles are formed. In order to ensure clarity in the wine, these particles often need to be removed through filtration. The end result is a filtered wine.
The aftertaste of a wine in your mouth after it has been swallowed.
An aggressive wine with strong acid or tannins; surprisingly, this is a positive descriptor as it suggests the wine will pair well with foods that also have strong flavors which would overpower other wines.
A wine that is weak and without aroma and/or flavor.
A mineral-like taste that is exactly what the name suggests: a taste of stone, as if you were to lick a river rock. Young white wines can have this characteristic due to their fermentation in steel tanks. These wines also tend to have a high level of acidity, and the mineral and the acidic qualities complement each other quite well.
Viognier and Cabernet Franc are two wines which often emit this aroma of flowers.
Often used with “fruit” to suggest that one characteristic is very apparent in the wine. Also used is “fruit-driven”.
Apple, raspberry, blackberry, currant, blueberry… each of these fruits are found in wines, and they usually suggest that there is a ripeness to the wine, and sometimes a sweet character as well.
A wine with presence that has a distinct weight in your mouth.
This word is tossed around often, but it truly is not exhibited in many wines other than Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, France. The aromas and flavors are that of gamey meats and duck. In small amounts it is an attractive quality; however, in large doses it is very overpowering and is considered to ruin the wine.
This gamey quality is believed to be caused by brettanomyces, a type of yeast known affectionately as “brett”. (Also, my little brother’s name). J
Glycerin is naturally produced during fermentation, and (giant surprise, since it is a sugar) it results in a sweet taste. It is often found in wines with high alcohol and in late harvest wines.
This descriptor is often found in Sauvignon Blanc and in cool-climate grown Chardonnays.
A seemingly strange descriptor, it is actually quite common in Sauvignon Blanc. In small doses it adds a nice earthy quality to these light, acidic wines.
Wines made from grapes which were picked too early are considered green. The under ripe fruit fails to transcend into a wine with attractive fruit qualities.
High alcohol content and astringency give these unrefined, rustic tasting wines a harsh feel. Completely acceptable for the everyday drinking wines from which we expect little; a negative component in a wine from which we expect more.
Unfiltered wines are often a bit hazy; this is generally not a negative trait, provided that it does not create a wine which is cloudy and thus flawed
A general descriptor used when different herbs (often not named specifically) are present in the aroma and taste of a wine. Often used with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes; in white wines, it is often associated with Sauvignon Blanc.
A wine which lacks an impressive finish. It seems to be missing something.
Denotes a high alcohol content in the wine which will actually cause a burning in the back of the nose when smelled. Often found in ports and other fortified wines as well as high-alcohol wines like Zinfandel. Also found (but less present) in Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
An intense berry flavor reminiscent of sugary jams instead of the fresh flavors of the fruit. Found most often in California Zinfandels.
A wine which has a thin mouth feel.
Dead yeasts and other particles which are leftover after the fermentation process and are found at the bottom of the fermentation tank. If not filtered out, these lees add distinct flavor to the wine (different flavors depending on the varietals(s) being used). The term comes from the French translation, which is “sur lies”, but in the United States it is often referred to as “mud”.
The streams of liquid which remain on the inside of a wineglass after its wine has been swirled. Wine drinkers often use the size of these streams as an indicator of the quality of the wine inside; in reality, these streams are indicative of the alcohol content in the wine: the higher the alcohol content, the thicker these streams are.
An acidic and citrusy white wine with lemon flavors.
Denotes how long the flavor of the wine remains in the mouth after it has been swallowed. Ten seconds is considered a good length; fifteen is impressive and twenty is outstanding.
A wine with low alcohol will often taste light, as opposed to the heavier wines with more of a full-body and a more intense mouth-feel.
An adjective to describe the aftertaste or finish.
Usually used intermittently with the descriptor “fresh”, this is used to descrivbe a vivacious wine which seems to be almost energetic. Generally used with white wines but can be applied to red as well.
A term for wines which have a lot of leftover (residual) sugar.
A wine’s initial fermentation occurs when it is put into tanks and then (depending on the wine) into barrels. But sometimes, a secondary fermentation occurs after a wine has been bottled. In this second fermentation process, the malic acid is converted into lactic acid. The result is a wine which has less acidity. This process is very common in Chardonnay, where the conversion leads to a texture that some describe as “creamy” or “buttery”.
A descriptor used when a small amount of sulphur dioxide is present, often in whit wines. Generally this smell is released when the wine aerates.
Just like a meager person is described as “thin” or “lean”, a meager wine has these qualities. Flavors seems to be lacking or diluted.
A full-bodied wine which has such an intense mouth feel that it seems as if the wine should be chewed.
Wine which has an odor of mold or, as I like to say, smells like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.
The smell of the wine. “This wine has a nice nose” or “I get a lot of raspberry on the nose”.
The sense organs of the human nose can be educated by the use of purchased odour comparison kits known by such names as “Le Nez du Vin”, “Component Collection” or “Winealyser”. These can sometimes be obtained at the various Home Wine Makers mail suppliers (etc.) around the country.
The French word for “new”. It is used for wines which should be drunk immediately after bottling; for example, the “nouveau Beaujolais”.
The term is generally used to indicate a flaw in red wines, yet it is a desirable flavor in white wines, particularly Chardonnay. In the case of Chardonnay, the flavor is often a result of the “lees” which the wine is exposed to during fermentation.
The term can apply to the taste or the nose of a wine, and it indicates the presence of oak wood. At times, the oak presence can be favorable, and produce a slight vanilla smell. At other times, the oak is overpowering, and the wine is considered “overoaked”.
Oak flavor is imparted into the wine from the barrels—made from oak—which are used to house the wine. Phrases such as “new” oak, “old” oak, “”American” oak or “French” oak are often used. New oak barrels impart a stronger oak flavor into the wine, which old oak provides a milder taste and aroma. In general, French oak also imparts a milder taste and aroma, while American oak barrels give wine a more aggressive oak character along with aromas such as vanilla and cedar.
Just like the shy kid who needs some time to adjust to his new classmates before showing his true personality, a wine might need time after it is corked to “open up” and express its true flavors. A few minutes in a glass will allow the wine to exhibit its hidden flavors and aromas.
Grapes are picked when they are ripe and have the perfect level of sugar in them, which is incredibly important because these sugars will eventually become the alcohol in a wine. A less traditional style of grape harvesting and wine making involves leaving the grapes on the vine for longer, so that they shrivel up and have a higher level of sugars and a lower level of water in the clusters. This imparts a raisin flavor into the wine which is much desired in the California Zinfandel market.
A term for both white and red wines: typically for the German Gewurztraminer, the Syrahs from France (found in the Rhone wines) or the Syrahs from California and the Shiraz wine from Australia. At times it is present in Zinfandels as well.
A term which suggests that the wine has floral notes.
A full-bodied wine. .
Grapes which were dried in the sun and picked when they were too ripe produce this characteristic.
A very tannic or heavily astringent wine which makes the mouth pucker to an uncomfortable degree.
Mildly rich flavour due to excessive heat in the growing area which dries out grapes still on the vine. Considered a fault in most dry table wines.