I’m not a wine expert. I may not know all the wine terms, I just know what I like and don’t like. Remember this, regardless of whether you’re a wine expert or not, wine taste is individual. It’s all about personal preference. So how can you tell what wine to buy that you will enjoy?
There are million ways to describe wine. All the wine terms you hear are about what you’re observing, smelling and tasting the wine.
Some terms have come from the age-old practice of producing wines, and it has developed into a language all of its own. It is their alphabet soup of terms, so to speak. Some terms are pretty straight forward where others take a bit of explaining. In the end, it all boils down to what you like and don’t like about a wine.
Nevertheless, it does help to know why wine tastes the way it does. When you have some understanding as to what you like, and the characteristic that wine displays, you are then better able to find a wine to your liking. These things will allow you to use some terms to describe your wine taste to a vintner or wine buyer. That vintner or wine buyer can then direct you to wines that fit your taste.
For me, it saves time finding something I like, preventing me from selecting a wine I dislike. It also prevents me from falling into the trap of selecting a bottle of wine because it has a pretty label, only to end up not being something I would drink. So I thought it might be good to give you a list of terms that can help guide you on your journey to finding to a wine of your choosing without all the guess work.
So here are the steps.
- Find the wine that you love.
- Then read what it says about it.
- In that description, you will find the terms that will help guide you to your next new bottle of wine that has similar characteristics.
It’s that simple.
The list of terms below will help you make sense as to what these terms mean. With this list, create your own wine terms list that best describes your taste for the red, white, sparkling and dessert wines that you enjoy. By doing this, you will build your own personal communication tool when looking for and selecting a bottle of wine.
First of all, I don’t expect you go through each and every term. These terms are a reference for you. So, here you go.
Wine Terms From A to Z
- Aroma: This refers to the smell of wine. Note: there are an unlimited number of aromas in wine, and just as many descriptive adjectives for these aromas.
- Acidic: Describes a wine with a noticeable taste and smell of acidity.
- Aggressive: A wine with harsh and pronounced flavors. The opposite of a wine described as “smooth” or “soft”
- Astringent: An overly tannic white wine.
- AVA: Means and refers to American Viticultural Area
- Balanced: Wine that incorporates all its main components: tannins, acid, sweetness, and alcohol in a way where no one single characteristic stands out. You look for the texture, weight, and the balance of acid, alcohol, fruit and tannins in the wine.
- Big: Wine that has an intense flavor, or is high in alcohol.
- Bite: Describes a firm and distinctive presences of tannins or acidity. This can be a positive or negative depending on whether the overall perception of the wine is balanced.
- Bitter: An unpleasant presence of tannins.
- Body: This describes the sensation of alcohol in the wine and the how it feels in the mouth. Particularly how the fullness or density of a wine feels in your mouth: whether it feels light or heavy.
- Bouquet: This refers to all the aromas in a wine collectively making up a bouquet of flavors.
- Bright: This is used to describe the visual appearance of the wine; it refers to high clarity and very low levels of suspended solids. When describing fruit flavors, it refers to noticeable acidity and a vivid intensity.
- Buttery: Describes a wine that has a rich, creamy mouth feel with flavors reminiscent of butter.
- Chocolaty: A term most often used to describe the richness of red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, especially referring the flavors and mouthfeel associated with dark chocolate.
- Citrus: Wine with the aromas and flavors of citrus fruits.
- Classic: A subjective term used to denote a wine of exceptional quality that displays what is typical of its grape varietal with all the layers of complexity as well as being very well balanced.
- Clean: Wine that is not demonstrating any obvious faults or unwanted aromas and flavors.
- Clear: Wine with no visible signs of particulate matter.
- Closed: Wine that is not particularly aromatic
- Cloying: Wine with a very sweet and is not balanced and lacking acidity.
- Coarse: A term for a wine that has a rough texture or mouthfeel. This usually applies to the presence of tannins.
- Complete: Similar to the description of a “Balanced” but more encompassing. This is a wine that has all the main components: acidity, alcohol, fruit and tannins along with a pleasing mouthfeel and a long finish. In other words, it has it all.
- Complex: A wine that gives the perception of being multi-layered in its flavors and aromas.
- Concentrated: Describes a wine that has intense flavors.
- Corked: A tasting term for a wine that has a cork taste.
- Creamy: A term used to describe a warm, creamy mouthfeel. This is the presence of creaminess that is generally picked up at the back of the throat and through the finish.
- Crisp: Describes a pleasing sense of acidity in the wine.
- Crust: This refers to sediment that is generally potassium bitartrate that will adhere to the inside of a wine bottle
- Delicate: A term that relates to the more subtle notes of a wine.
- Depth: A term used to denote a wine with several layers of flavor, an aspect of complexity.
- Dirty: Wine with off flavors and aromas that most is likely the result of poor handling of wine during the fermentation or bottling process
- Dry: This is one of the most common wine definitions. It means it has little to no sugar left in the wine after fermentation.
- Earthy: This can mean a wine with aromas and flavor reminiscent of the earth, such as mushrooms. It can also refer to the drying impression felt on the palate caused by high levels of geosmin that naturally occur in grapes.
- Easy: A term commonly referring to a wine that is simple and straightforward without much complexity but is still enjoyable to drink.
- Edgy: Describes a wine that has a noticeable level of acidity that heightens the flavors on the palate.
- Expressive: Describes a wine with strong aromas and flavors.
- Fat: Describes a wine that is full in body and has a sense of viscosity. A wine with too much fat that is not balanced by acidity is sometimes referred to as “flabby” or “blowzy”
- Feminine: Describes a wine that spotlights delicate flavors, silky textures and subtle aromas rather than strength of flavor, weight and an intensity of fruit.
- Finish – This is the impression of textures and flavors that linger in the mouth after a wine has been swallowed.
- Firm: Describes a stronger sense of tannins.
- Flat: In sparkling wines, flat refers to a wine that has lost its effervescence. In all other wines, the term is used interchangeably with “flabby” to denote a wine that is lacking acidity particularly on the finish.
- Fresh: Describes a positive presence of acidity.
- Fruit: The presence of the grape varietal characteristics and sense of body that is unique to that variety.
- Fruity – This a tasting term signifying wines that exhibit strong smells and flavors of fresh fruit. This can also describe aromas of cooked fruit, as in “jammy”.
- Full: A term that is usually used in context with the wine with the weight or body due to its alcohol content. It can also refer to a wine that is full in flavor.
- Grapey: A wine with the aromas and flavors reminiscent of grape flavoring, such as those associated with grape jelly. The Muscat families of grapes often produce wines that are described as “grapey”.
- Green: Usually is a negative term that can apply to a white wine with vegetable notes, or a red wine with bell pepper or herbal notes. This is typically used to describe a wine made from unripe fruit.
- Gutsy: Describes a wine with noticeable body and fruit.
- Hard: An overly tannic tasting wine.
- Harsh: Similar to “coarse” but usually used in a more derogatory fashion to denote a wine that is unbalanced with too much acid or tannins. It can also be described as a rough and biting wine. These wines generally lack fruit.
- Heavy: A wine that is very alcoholic with too much sense of body.
- Herbaceous: Describes the herbal, vegetable aromas and flavors, derived from a grape varietal characteristics or from decisions made in the winemaking process such as harvesting under-ripened grapes or using aggressive extraction techniques for a red wine fermented in stainless steel.
- Hollow: Describes a wine lacking the sense of fruit.
- Inky: A term that refers to a wine’s dark coloring and clearness.
- Jammy: Describes a wine that is rich in fruit but is lacking in tannins.
- Lean: Means that the sense of acidity in the wine lacks a presence of fruit.
- Leathery: Describes a red wine that is high in tannins, with a thick and soft taste.
- Legs: Describes the tracks of liquid that clings and runs down the side of to the sides of a glass after the wine has been swirled. Often said to be related to alcohol or glycerol content of a wine. It may also be referred to as “tears”.
- Lemony: A term referring to the tangy acidity of a wine with flavors reminiscent of lemons.
- Liquorice: A term used to describe the concentrated of flavors from rich sweet wines such as those of a dessert wine which are produced by gray mold grapes.
- Liveliness: A term used to describe a wine with a slight carbonation and fresh, bright acidity.
- Luscious: Similar to “voluptuous” but more commonly associated with sweet wines that have a rich, concentrated mouthfeel.
- Mature: A wine that has aged to its peak point of quality.
- Meaty: A wine with a rich, full body (and often pronounce tannins) that gives the drinker the impression of being able to “chew” it.
- Mellow: A wine with a soft texture that is nearing the peak of its maturity.
- Midpalate: A tasting term for the feel and taste of a wine when held in the mouth.
- Minerality: Describes an essence of minerals in the wine such as the flavors of slate, schist, silex, etc.
- Mouthfeel – This refers to how a wine feels in one’s mouth. For example, it may refer to the feeling in the mouth of rough, smooth, velvety or furry.
- Musky: This can have both a positive and negative meaning relating to the earthy musk aroma of a wine. This is typically positive when referring to wines from the Muscat grape family.
- Nervy: A wine with a noticeable amount of acidity but is still balanced with the rest of the wine
- Nose – This refers to how a wine smells. A tasting term describing the aromas and bouquets of a wine.
- Oak or Oaky: A wine with a noticeable perception of the effects of oak barrel aging. This can include the essence of vanilla, sweet spices like nutmeg, a creamy body and a smoky or toasted flavor.
- Old: Refers to a wine, which has aged too long. Often, the fruit vanishes, leaving behind overly thin, earthy and oxidized wine.
- Oxidized: Generally a negative term describing a wine that has experienced too much exposure to oxidation. When a wine has been oxidized it is considered faulty and may exude sherry-like odors.
- Palate: A tasting term for the feel and taste of a wine in the mouth.
- Peak: The point where a wine is at its most ideal drinking conditions. This is a very subjective determination. For some tasters, a wine will be at its peak when the fruit is still fresh and young, while others believe the peak is when a wine has matured in flavor.
- Peppery: A wine with the aromas and flavors reminiscent of pepper, such as black peppercorn associated with Syrah and Grenache based wine or the aroma of crushed white pepper associated with Gruner Veltliner.
- Perfume: This is generally a positive term used to describe an aspect of a wine’s aroma or bouquet.
- Plummy: A wine with the taste and smell of juicy, fresh fruit flavors of plums
- Polished: A wine that is very smooth to drink, with no roughness in texture and mouthfeel. It is also well balanced.
- Powerful: A wine with a high level of alcohol that is not excessively alcoholic.
- Rich: An essence of sweetness in the wine that is not excessively sweet.
- Robust: A term more commonly applied to older, mature wines, where aggressive tends to describe younger wines.
- Round: A wine that has a good sense of body that is not overly tannic.
- Sassy: Describes a wine with bold, brash and audacious flavors.
- Sharp: A term normally used to describe the acidity of a wine although it can refer to the degree of bitterness derived from a wine’s tannin.
- Sherrylike: A term used to describe a non-Sherry wine that exhibits oxidized aromas that may have been caused by excessive amounts of oxidation.
- Short: A wine with well developed aromas and mouthfeel but has a finish that is little to non-existent due to the fruit quickly disappearing after swallowing.
- Smokey: A wine exhibiting the aromas and flavors of various types of smoke, such as tobacco, roasting fire and toasting that is derived from oak barrel aging influences.
- Smooth: A wine with a pleasing texture. This typically refers to a wine with soft tannins.
- Soft: A wine that is not overly tannic.
- Sour: A wine with unbalanced, puckery acidity. Often applies to mistreated wines with excessive acetic acid, giving them a vinegary bite.
- Spicy: A wine with aromas and flavors reminiscent of various spices such as black pepper and cinnamon. While this can be a characteristic of the grape varietal, many spicy notes are imparted from the oak barrel aging influences.
- Structure: A term used to describe the solid components of a wines acidity, sugar, density of fruit flavors and mildly acid compounds such as tannins in relation to the overall balance and body of the wine.
- Supple: A wine that is not overly tannic.
- Sweet: A wine with a noticeable sense of sugar levels.
- Tannic: Describes a wine with aggressive tannins.
- Tannin – This refers to the phenolic compounds from the grapes’ skins, seed, and from the vine stems and wooden barrels that give the wine a bitter, dry or puckering feeling when you drink it. This is generally found in red wine.
- Tart: A wine with high levels of acidity.
- Texture: A tasting term referring to the mouthfeel of wine on the palate.
- Thin: A wine that is lacking body or fruit
- Tight: A wine with a significant presence of tannins that doesn’t allow the other qualities of the wine, such as fruit and extract, to shine through. A “tight wine” is expected to age well as the tannins soften with time, to reveal the other wine qualities.
- Toasty: A sense of the charred or smoky taste from an oak barrel aging of the wine.
- Transparency: The wine’s ability to clearly display all its unique aspects of flavors, such as fruit, floral, and mineral notes. The opposite would be wines where flavors are diffused and consolidated.
- Undertone: This refers to the more subtle nuances, aromas and flavors of a wine.
- Un-oaked: Also known as unwooded refers to wines that have been matured without contact with wood/oak such as in aging barrels but in steel.
- Upfront: A wine with very straightforward characteristics and qualities that do not require much thought or effort to discover.
- Vanilla: An oak barrel-aging aroma induced characteristic reminiscent of vanilla.
- Vivid: A wine that has very expressive ripe, fruit flavors.
- Voluptuous: A wine with is full bodied and rich in texture.
- Warm: A wine that has noticeable but balanced alcohol as opposed to a wine with excessive alcohol that maybe described as “hot”. It can also refer to a creamy texture derived from oak barrel aging.
- Watery: A wine that is excessively “thin” in body and fruit.
- Yeasty: Often uses in conjunction with “biscuity” and can describe a wine with aromas and flavor reminiscent of bread dough or biscuits.
- Young: Wine that is not matured and usually bottled and sold within a year of its vintage.
- Zesty: A wine with noticeable acidity, usually with citrus notes.
You’re probably thinking, how can I do this? Well, let me help you. Write down all the terms that best describe the wine you like by category or wine varietal. Hold on to it for future reference. As you try different wines, cross check that list to see if you need to add or subtract a term. Over time, you’ll be able to narrow down what really resonates with you and you’ll be able to describe your likes and dislikes very quickly.
I hope you found this helpful and will feel more confident in deciphering the language of wine. My hope is that you will be able to find your wine taste more easily and feel more assured when trying to select your next bottle of wine. Enjoy.