Acidity – All wines have acid, and this is the perception of tartness or sharpness in the wine. It’s critical to the wine’s structure and balance as well as plays an important role in determining a wine’s ability to pair with food and to age.
Animal – This catchall term refers to a range of flavors associated with red wines that range from raw meat, blood (think iron) and bacon (think smoky/cured/peppery) to cured meats (e.g. prosciutto, pastrami or salami) or leather (as in saddles or jackets) and even iodine.
Appellation – The geographical area/regions from which a wine may come from. In Europe, these appellations often regulate grape and production constraints. In order to carry a varietal designation or appellation, certain countries impose minimal limits of specific grapes or ageing requirements. For example, in order to carry a Cabernet Sauvignon label in the United States, the wine must contain at least 75% Cabernet Sauvignon if produced domestically, 85% if imported.
Aroma – The aroma of the wine is what we perceive by smell. It can be confusing as much of what we think we taste is indeed what we smell. There are no such things as strawberry taste buds, but we can get strawberry aromas in a wine that will reflect themselves additionally as a strawberry taste. Aroma, as opposed to bouquet, is generally associated with younger wine and is most often used to describe fruit.
Astringency – The drying pucker that one senses in the mouth associated with the tannins in red wines. It is often referred to as the more general term – bitterness – that suggests the same flavor sensation but without the mouth-drying effects.
Austerity – This is a term often used to describe wines which are lean and sharp in nature.
Balance – What all wines strive to have!! This is the sense that all the components are in place and equal: the acidity to tannin to flavor to sweetness. If one element seems to dominate over another, the wine may be described as being out of balance.
Barrel Fermentation – The act of carrying out the alcoholic fermentation process inside an oak barrel. The process of fermentation transforms the grape’s juice into wine while performing this within a barrel adds different flavors and textures than allowing fermenting in a stainless steel tank, cement-lined vat or concrete egg. Typically, a toast, butterscotch or toffee flavor will result in the wine. Wines that are barrel fermented have the added benefit of being smoother in texture. Although most often associated with white wines, many reds also are put through barrel fermentation.
Body – This is the weight and texture of the wine as it appears in the glass (viscosity as you swirl it) and in your mouth. It is directly related to the amount of alcohol in the wine and ranges from light to full. Alcohol’s role in wine body can be most easily compared to the role of fat in dairy products where reduced fat content (nonfat or skim milk) is lighter on the palate than richer fat content (whole milk or whipping cream).
Botrytis – Also known as noble rot, it is the result of a fungal reaction occurring on the skins of grapes when encountering a series of weather events that involve moisture followed by warmth followed again by moisture. This environment is the perfect one for this noble ‘rot’ to occur. Botrytis effected wines can be identified by the flavors of honey/honeysuckle and saffron and are often found in many of the world’s sweet wines such as Sauternes, Tokaji, and German BA (beerensauslese) and TBA (trokenbeerenauslese) wines.
Bouquet – This is the spectrum of smells associated with a wine as it ages and develops. Younger fruity types of smells are oft described as aroma while the bottle “bouquet” of a wines is perceived when the wine’s flavors/smells mature.
Brettanomyces – Brettanomyces (brett) is a wild yeast that produces aromas that range from clove and spice to the pungent smells of horse barn, Band-Aid, and sweaty leather saddles. As an attribute, they add notes of bacon, game, and smoke while in excess it shows as excessive funk, extreme farmyard, dirty socks and moldy cheese. It’s associated with the red wines of several wine regions including France’s Côtes du Rhône and Italy’s Piedmont.
Brightness – Used most often to describe the way a wine reflects and refracts light off of its surface and predicated on clean winemaking and the amount of solids suspended in the wine. The clearer a wine is, the brighter it is while wines that have been made without filtration (or fining) will absorb light resulting in a less bright appearance. At times, some people use the term to speak of a wine’s acidity level being higher/sharper.
Brix – This is one measurement of the percentage of sugar in the unfermented wine. One refers to a wine as being “X” brix before fermentation. In the case of a dry wine, no tangible sugar is left upon the completion of fermentation, whereas there may be a few percent brix left (residual) in an off dry or late harvest/dessert wine. In general, for each two degrees of brix, one retains a degree of alcohol in the wine. Example: 24% brix is approximately 12% alcohol.
Bubbles – Quite literally the appearance of bubbles in a wine. Expected for sparkling wines where the quality of the bubble (size and consistency of) is described, bubbles can be found in young white wines as well as wines that have been recently bottled (trapped carbon dioxide) and will sometime contribute a spritz in the mouth. Being trapped in solution, they may disappear when you swirl the glass simply and have no tactile presence.
Bubble Gum – No, not actual Bazooka Joe, but the taste of bubble gum or chewing gum is frequently associated with wines made using the process of carbonic maceration as in Beaujolais nouveau.
Candied/Confited – Two descriptive terms often used to describe the quality of hard candy (think Jolly Rancher), candied flowers or vegetable (rose petals or ginger root), or slow cooked fruit (as in marmalade, slow cooked orange or lemon peel, etc).
Carbonic Maceration – A winemaking method where uncrushed grapes are placed in a sealed tank or vat and topped with carbon dioxide. The grapes ferment from the inside out, as they are unbroken whole berries, and the resulting wines have very low tannin, vibrant color with juicy fruit flavor. Beaujolais nouveau is a classic example.
Clarity – Wines should be clear and free from any debris. A clear wine is the sign of a well-made wine although the flavor may or may not be to your liking. In this day of the fashionable unfined and unfiltered wines, it’s not as obvious.
Color – The hue of the wine as determined first by the grapes (red wine grapes as opposed to white wine grapes) and then by how you describe it. One person’s ruby is another’s purple so there is a certain degree of subjectivity to the choice of descriptors. There is not a perfect lexicon for color so don’t freak. Finally, as a rule red wines lighten as they mature while white, rose and sparkling wines gain color.
Complexity – This subjective character in wine is said to exist when a wine appears to have several layers of flavor and aroma. The more ‘going on’ in the wine, the more ‘complex’ it is said to be.
Corn (White/Yellow) – An encompassing term for the way corn flavors can display themselves in wine. From fresh ears to canned niblets, to tortillas, chips, grits or snack food (hello corn nuts!).
Cuvee – This is the blend (or in French, assemblage) of many wines. It is most associated with Champagne and sparkling wines, which are almost always “blends” but can also refer to a chardonnay “cuvee” (blended from several vineyards or a red Bordeaux cuvee which may be comprised from several different grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot etc).
Dry – This is a physical measurement of perception of sweetness in a wine. Most wines are dry, which is to say that you don’t “taste” any sweetness. Other wines are off-dry with a suggestion of sweetness. Examples would be off-dry Riesling or Chenin Blanc. A sweet wine is, of course, the opposite and is NOT dry. Many people confuse dryness, a measurement of the level of sweetness, with the level of fruit presence in a wine. While ripe fruit may suggest sweetness, the wine will still be physically dry to the taste.
Earthy – Many wines, especially those for western Europe, exhibit flavors that suggest the earth: dust, earth, minerals, slate, gravel, forest floor, humus and yes, even barnyard. In balance, these earthy attributes are said to provide complexity to a wine. It is further dissected into organic (think potting soil, fresh turned dirt and barnyard) and inorganic (rocks, slate, and minerals).
Ethyl Acetate – Also known as acetone, excessive EA smells like nail polish. Ethyl acetate is the major aromatic ester produced by yeast during fermentation and, at low levels, can contribute ‘fruity’ aromas and add complexity to wine.
Finish – Also referred to as persistence; this quality measures how long one can still taste the wine after you have swallowed it. The longer the finish or persistence, the better the wine – presuming you like the flavor of the finish!! It is considered a sign of breed in a fine wine to have a long finish.
Flabby – A term used to describe wine that is clunky in the mouth. A wine which has ample weight and not enough acidity/tartness to carry it comes of as flabby. A dessert wine that doesn’t contain adequate sharpness to foil the sugar will be at once flabby and cloying. Another term like this is “clunky.”
Fortified (Fortification) – Fortified wines are not the result of added folic acid and D vitamins! Rather, the addition of a brandy or neutral spirit is added to the fermenting wine which arrests the fermentation process (leaving residual sugar in the wine) while boosting the actual alcoholic content. Examples of fortified wines include Port and Madeira and are also known as VDNs (Vin Doux Naturales). Sherry and dry Madeira are in fact made by fortifying the wine after they complete the alcoholic fermentation.
Fruity – Fruity does not mean sweet, and rather is how we describe a wine that is abundant in its suggestion of “other fruit flavors.” While wines are made from grapes, Chardonnay may suggest citrus or tropical fruit flavors in their aroma. A Zinfandel may exhibit a strong fruit presence that comes off as blackberries or black raspberries. The younger the wine, the more fruitiness it’s likely to display.
Grapefruit (White/Yellow) – One of many citrus fruits used to describe a wine’s flavor, white (pomelo) or yellow grapefruit are not as sweet as pink grapefruit when used as a wine descriptor.
Grassy – An all-encompassing term for many of the “green” flavors associated with wine. Grassy may be that of the varietal character of Sauvignon Blanc or can refer to the underipe nature of a Chardonnay or even Merlot.
Herbs/Mixed Dried Herbs – Herbs can be fresh and singular (thyme, rosemary or dill) but can often appear in wine as dry herb blends such as Herbs de Provence (thyme, basil, marjoram, lavender, parsley, oregano, tarragon, bay leaf, rosemary and fennel) or Italian herb seasoning (thyme, basil, marjoram, lavender, parsley, oregano, tarragon, and bay powder with the rosemary and fennel).
Highlights – Highlights are referred to as a white wine’s secondary color. They range from green (as in chlorophyll) signifying cool climate or less ripe fruit to silver (associated with many light whites like Italian Pinot Grigio or Australian Semillon).
Late Harvested – When wines state that they are late harvested, it refers to the fact the gapes were picked late in the vintage year and at higher brix. Generally, the sugars are such that the yeast involved in the alcoholic fermentation can’t possibly convert the total sugar and the resulting wines are left with some level of sweetness.
Lees – These are the spent (dead) yeast residues that fall to the bottom of the fermentation vessel once an alcoholic fermentation has been competed and the sugar metabolized. In white wines, these lees are often stirred or agitated back up into the wine to add additional nutty/brioche flavor and creamy texture to the wine. It’s most often associated with Chardonnay and Chardonnay based wines and is referred to as lees contact.
Legs – Legs, or tears, are how we describe the rivulets of wine that tumble downs the sides of the glass after you swirl the wine. In general, the slower the tearing, the higher the alcohol (or sugar, which is generally fermented out as alcohol). The faster the tearing or sheeting, the lighter the wine. While not critical to the wines perceived quality, it provides an impression of the wine’s personality and may suggest the style of wine it is and where it may come from (cooler or warmer climate).
Length – Also referred to as persistence or finish. The “three second delay” that one measures after you have swallowed the wine. The complexity of flavor of this aftertaste is a sign of breed in the wine: the longer the persistence, the better the wine.
Maderization – This is what happens to wine through oxidation either naturally over time or by poor storage. Wines that are maderized show developed and aged colors and lower or dried out fruit, similar to what is found in the fortified wines of Madeira from which the quality takes its name.
Malolactic Fermentation – Often referred to by the buzzword term, ML, this process of wine production transforms the harder, sharp malic acid (such as what you’d find in green apples) to a softer lactic acid (such as in yogurt or sour cream). Additionally, a byproduct called diacetyl is released which provides a strong buttery or buttered popcorn flavor. It also decreases the perception or tartness in a wine and can make it more stable. It can be prevented or blended back as such to increase of decrease to the total percentage of ML in a total blend.
Mercaptans – Mercaptan is a general term applied to the aroma of a range of compounds and described organoleptically as cabbage, garlic, onion and rubber. Their excessive presence in wine is generally regarded as a defect.
New World – When used in wine speak, the New World refers to winemaking countries outside western Europe – mostly the Americas (North and South), Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. While grapes vary in these parts, the wines made share a range of hemispheric latitudes that equate to riper fruit presence (due to generally warmer climates) accompanied by balanced acidity levels in all wines and usually riper, smoother tannins in reds.
Nuttiness – Most often used to describe oxidized wines, its meaning refers to the detectable flavor of nuts and can range from the subtle (macadamia, pinenut and cashew) to the pungent (walnut, hazelnut and pecan). Though it can be associated with oak/wood ageing, more often than not the core flavors of the wine are also oxidative.
Oak – The wood of choice to produce wine barrels. While some barrels are made of chestnut or other woods, it is universally agreed that oak provides more complexity and nuance to the wines that are aged within it. The age and size of the oak barrels will affect the wine as younger oak expresses itself much more than older, previously used, oak. The wine to wood ratio in a larger oak barrel is less impactful on the wine than one which is small.
Old World – When used in wine speak, the Old World refers to the countries of western Europe – most notably France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Austria. While grapes vary in these parts, they share a range of northern hemispheric latitude that equate to less ripe fruit presence (due to cooler climates) accompanied by higher acidity levels in all wines and gritter tannins in reds.
Oxidation – When wine is exposed to oxygen, chemical reactions occur that alter the compounds. One obvious change is an increased level of acetaldehyde, which smells like bruised apples in white wine and nail polish remover in red wines, and a diminishing of the wine’s fruit. Oxidation is the opposite of reduction (see sulfur).
Peppers (Red/Yellow) – All peppers (green, red and yellow) contain some level of pyrazines, the compounds which themselves taste like bell pepper, grass, green peppercorn, and asparagus. More pungent in green peppers, yellow and red peppers (the two ageing stages of bell peppers after they are green) tend to be sweeter and less ‘green.’ Note that sweeter and smokier roasted peppers are part of this descriptor.
Phenols – Phenolics are the important compounds produced, post-fermentation, from the pulp, skins, seeds and stems of grapes and come off in taste as bitterness. One uses this term more with white wines than reds as a descriptor since most of the bitterness we find in reds is tannin based.
Popcorn/Butter – The flavor or aroma of butter or buttered popcorn is strongly associated with white wines and is primarily the result of malolactic fermentation and specifically the byproduct of diacetyl, a chemical compound released in the process. Occasionally, small oak barrel ageing can give toasted wood-based aromas that are in the butter/butterscotch vein.
Poivre Vert – The French term for green peppercorn. When peppercorns are harvested, they are green. By infusing them in a solution of water and salt they soften and are then canned and sold to consumers for cooking and culinary use.
Reserve – The most overused and abused term in wine label speak! In the best sense, reserve refers to the best grapes, lots and barrels of a specific wine and ergo justify a higher price for what should be a better wine. Unfortunately, outside of European areas, where the terms is almost always legally binding, the term Reserve, which is not regulated, is often abused and shouldn’t be considered a guarantee of a finer wine. In Italian wines, Risevra and in Spanish, Reserva are meaningful, while Reserve in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa is not so much.
Residual Sugar – The measurement of sugar that is left over, or residual, post the alcoholic fermentation.
Rim Variation – When speaking of rim variation, we discuss the difference in color from a wine at its core out to its rim. Generally, rim variation is referred to for red wines, not white. As a rule, the more shades of color that exist between the central core of the glass and its outer rim, the older the wine. It has nothing to do with wine quality.
Root Beer/Sarsaparilla – A flavor descriptor associated with red wines that encompasses literally the flavor of root beer or its related cousin, sarsaparilla. Root beer is evolved from a mixture of birch oil and the dried root or bark of the sassafras tree. Sarsaparilla is a carbonated soft drink primarily made with flavoring from the sarsaparilla root.
Rose – True rose wines are made by color bleeding from red wine. Red wines pull their color from the skins during alcoholic fermentation and there is a moment that the wine goes from white to blush to pink to red. If the wine is removed from the skins during the rose state and allowed to complete fermentation, the resulting wine will be rose in color rather than red or white. Too, one can add a small amount of red wines into a white wine base to make a wine’s color blush.
Salad Greens – This catchall descriptor for the range of fresh leafy greens that make up salads— like you would find in spring mix blends of red leaf, butter, green leaf and other lettuces.
Skin Contact – Grapes, generally red, may be fermented in the presence of their skins. In red wines, this is critical as all the flavor, color and tannins are contained within the skins themselves. Leaving the wine or grape juice in contact with the skins either post or pre alcoholic fermentation may provide additional extract. In white wines, skin contact is usually implemented to boost fruit perception and extract while in making rose, the amount of skin contact determines color in many of these styles of wine.
Soft – The suggestion of an approachable style of wine. In the positive, soft wines suggest a gentle elegance to them. As a negative, soft can imply the wine is lacking in something.
Spicy – This is the suggestion of items from your spice rack as you smell a wine. They can be inherent to the grape type (such as pepper to Syrah or cardamom to Gewürztraminer) or often come from extended oak aging. Sweet spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice and such) are easily detected in many oak-aged wines.
Stem Inclusion – Quite literally the inclusion of grape cluster stems in the fermentation vats during the process of alcoholic fermentation. Associated with red wines, making wine with the stems, which is usually referred to as whole-bunch or whole-cluster fermentation, is mostly linked with Pinot Noir, though it can be used with other red grapes, most notably Syrah. It is perceived in Pinot as bringing out tannins along with, occasionally, green stemmy flavors, predicated on the ripeness of the stems (aka lignification).
Structure – The overall sense of physical weight and tactile sensation and is predicated on the level of alcohol, tannin, acidity and other wine “building blocks.” Referred to by some as the architecture of a wine.
Sulfur/Matchstick – The wine state of reduction (via sulfur compounds) occurs naturally in wine as a result of fermentation. It is caused by a lack of oxygen at certain times during the fermentation. At low levels, reduction results in matchstick-like smells and is accepted as a positive trait and perceived complexity in the wine. At higher levels, reduction is a fault, giving wines a pungent smell of rotten egg, onion, garlic, cooked cabbage, canned corn, or even burnt rubber.
Tannin – Tannins are naturally occurring compounds in wine which are extracted from the skins, stems and seeds of the grapes. While they are most often associated with red wines, which ferment on their skins and extract tannins as well as color and flavor, white wines can be tannic too. Those whites that practice skin contact during fermentation will pull tannins. Additionally, there are tannic compounds in wood, so wines that spend time in oak may pick up tannins from the barrels. Tannins are a key element in enabling a red wine to age.
Taste – How your mouth perceives the basic components of a food or wine. One can physically measure basic taste components of salt, sweet, tart, bitter as well as temperature and texture. One “tastes” the aromas and bouquet suggested from your olfactory perception but can only quantify the aforementioned attributes.
Thin – A thin wine is one that has a donut hole in the middle of the palate. There may be pleasant flavors, but something seems to be missing in the center of the wine. It may appear dilute or simply vapid.
Varietal – Also referred to by some as the cultivar, this is a fancy same for saying the type of the grape. Zinfandel or Chardonnay are varietals. And if wines are labeled varietally, there are likely laws that mandate the minimum proportions of the stated varietal. Finally, varietals may be blended in wines (Cabernet- Syrah) and as such must be labeled in the order of the largest proportion. One need not place the grape on the label if you are familiar with European wines; you’ll note most are labeled geographically. When a wine tastes very much of the grape it is made from, it is said to exhibit strong varietal character.
Vintage – On a label this refers to the year that the grapes were harvested, and the resultant wine made. Vintage can also be used to describe the act of harvest itself. Vintages vary around the globe, as a “good vintage” in California may not equate to an equal quality year in Bordeaux, so it pays to “study up” or follow the advice of friends and critics that do! In wines that are labeled by vintage, they must contain at least 95% wine from the stated year of harvest.
Volatile Acidity – Volatile acidity (VA) is referencing an instability in wine, which causes it to go bad. Acetic acid builds up in wine when there’s too much exposure to oxygen during winemaking and is usually caused by acetobacter (the vinegar-making bacteria). Volatile wines taste overtly sharp and more like vinegar than wine.
Watercress – An aquatic plant found near springs and slow-moving streams, watercress is an often-overlooked, leafy green food source that is a close cousin to mustard greens, cabbage, and arugula. Tasting fresh and green, it’s flavor is often associated with white wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Vermentino and Gruner Veltliner.
Wet Wool (Lanolin) – Wet wool describes the aroma of damp and earthy smelling fleece, close to that of lanolin – the fatty substance secreted by sheep’s skin – which we can find in lanolin cream, which is used for cosmetic purposes to moisturize skin. Or when wearing a wool sweater in the rain, note the resulting smell. It’s typically encountered in old world Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc/blends.
Whole Cluster/Partial Whole Cluster – Also referenced as the use of stem inclusion, whole cluster is often used with Pinot Noir, a variety that lacks deep pigment (acylated anthocyanins). Further, anthocyanins react in important ways with tannins in wine, and form compounds that are important in wine structure and color. While practiced most often with Pinot Noir, whole cluster has also been used by traditionalists in the Northern Rhône with Syrah for adding complexity.
Yeasty/Leesy – Wines referred to as yeasty or leesy are so called because the wines have spent extended time on the spent yeast (lees) after the fermentation completed and the yeasts decease. At its best, it is subtle and noticed for the creamy texture that accompanies it. At its extreme, and most often associated with white wines, the linked characteristic flavors include cheese rind, spent beer, raw bread dough and baker’s yeast.
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