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Tasting Terminology -- Sound like a Pro!

May 11, 2012

Ever want to sound like a pro, when you taste a wine?  Well it's dangerous if you don't know what you are talking about, however, the vocabulary is hardly as complex as the Physician Desk Reference.  In this first of three articles, we review some of the more common wine tasting Terminology A-H; explain what it means, and give examples of how the same term is frequently used in both a positive and negative light.  The best way to get comfortable with the terminology is to drink some wine, record your taste perceptions and match them to common descriptors.  In no time you'll be sounding like a pro!

Acidity – Acids, which are present in all wine, are not at all a bad characteristic, only so when they are overpowering or out of balance.  Acidity is felt as a tingling sensation on the sides of the tongue, and tends to make your mouth salivate.  Descriptions such as “this wine is overly acidic” are unfavorable; however “very nice acidity” can refer to the presence of acids in balance with other components of the wine.




Aftertaste – The flavors remaining in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed.  Aftertaste in itself is neither favorable nor unfavorable as most wine experts will expect a wine's taste to linger, but the aftertaste must still be an enjoyable one!

Balanced – A complimentary term that indicates that all components of the wine; acidity, alcohol, flavors, aromas, and tannins are in harmony or “balance”.  This term is a winemaker's favorite and you will see it on many wine labels.

Big – Big is used to describe a wine that has a lot of power – strong flavors, strong acidity, strong aromas, strong tannins, whatever the characteristics of the wine- they are strong and powerful.  Think of this as akin to concentration.  Coffee is coffee but we regularly describe coffee as strong or weak.  Big is generally a positive term however if the grape variety is known for its delicate flavors, low acidity, and absence of tannins, calling it big is anything but a compliment.  Big is used more commonly to describe a red wine – “this is a big, bold red”.

Body – Body refers to the elements of mouth feel, and is usually a proxy for alcohol content.   A wine with a lot of body is considered a favorable term.

Buttery – The taste of butter commonly produced as the result of malolactic fermentation, the conversion of malic acid (think apple) to lactic acid (think milk / butter).  Buttery is a term that is neither good nor bad but rather depends on the style enjoyed by the wine consumer.  Buttery is probably most commonly used to describe a Chardonnay that has undergone complete malolactic fermentation.

Chewy – Chewy refers to a wine with a lot of tannins.  The astringent tannins pucker the mouth, making it necessary to “chew” before swallowing.  Chewy is generally not considered a favorable term.

Citrusy – Used to describe wine with aromas and flavor reminiscent of citrus fruits. Most common is a perception of grapefruit or orange or lemon.  Citrusy is commonly used to describe white wines made from grapes grown in cooler regions.

Complex – As the term implies, a complex wine is one that has several layers of tastes, feels, and aromas.  The flavor of the wine in the mouth may be different than after swallowed.  Aromas and flavors may come and go during the tasting process.  A favorite (and somewhat overused) expression to describe a complex wine is “this wine has a lot going on”.  Complex is a favorable description.

Crisp – Crisp is synonymous with acidity, also sometimes referred to as lively.  “This Riesling is crisp with a nice aroma of peach and lime”.  The term is generally used to describe white wines from cooler regions.

Dry – A wine with no perceptible taste of sugar, dry is generally used as an attribute of a wine rather than as a descriptor.

Elegant - A wine that is generally medium bodied and well balanced.  Elegant is a very favorable term.

Fat – Describing most anything as fat is generally not a compliment.  As a wine descriptor however, the term fat can have several shades of meaning.  A fat wine is generally one that fills the mouth (think of a rich creamy liquid) but may be out of balance or lacking in structure.  Most commonly the wine lacks acidity and is overly fruity with high alcohol.  When it comes to sweet dessert wines, fat may be a compliment, however with most other still wines, fat is an undesirable quality.

Finish – Not surprisingly - the end – more specifically the presence of taste, aromas or mouth feel that lingers after swallowing.  A wine where these elements linger is said to have a long finish.  Descriptions such as “short on the finish” would be unfavorable, while “a very nice finish” is a compliment.

Flabby – Flabby is a term that describes a wine that is weak in many departments and lacking acidity.  Flabby is used to describe a wine that doesn't have any pronounced flavors, acidity, or tannins.  Needless to say describing a wine as “a bit flabby” is anything but a compliment.

Fruit – A general term used to describe the collection of fruit flavors in a wine.  Aromatic wines may frequently have elements of several fruits – apple, peach and pear for example.  When combined with forward, the phrase “fruit forward”, means that the flavors of the fruit (as opposed to sweetness, alcohol, acidity, tannins or elements introduced in the winemaking process such as oak and vanilla) dominate the tasting sensation.  “This wine has a lot of fruit” is a favorable description, and many a winemaker will describe their wines as “fruit forward”, indicating the emphasis placed on retaining the flavors of the grapes in the finished product.

Full Bodied – A wine that is full bodied fills the mouth with a feel of a denser liquid.  Think of the difference between drinking regular milk versus skim milk.  The feeling of full bodied is usually indicative of higher alcohol content, and is generally a compliment provided that it is consistent with the style of the grape.  “This is a delightful full bodied chardonnay”.

Hot – A hot wine is a wine with high alcohol levels that produces a burning sensation or the tongue and in the mouth.  Many fortified wines (higher in alcohol content) can be described as hot, and that is acceptable.  Using hot to describe a Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc -  not a compliment.

The best way to explore these terms and put them into practice is to taste several wines.  Read the description on the label, and see if you can match any of the characteristics.  Keep in mind, no winemaker is going to describe their wine as “hot” or “fat” or “chewy”.  You'll be surprised at how quickly you can recognize these terms.

Here's an example describing a California Cabernet Sauvignon – see if you can dissect the meaning.

"It's a big wine, loyal to its heritage,
fruit forward, a bit chewy but not so
much as to upset the balance, with a long finish.

See, it's not really that hard! 

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