Words are funny things. I mean, why do we call liquid sand blown into shapes “glasses”? Or masses of technology designed to create millions of mini-explosions that take us places “cars”? The etymology, or word history, of the English language is an interesting study. Wine tasting terms elevate that study to a whole new level.
While wine professionals have a vast oenological vocabulary at the ready to describe their latest sips in detail, most of us just want to enjoy a fragrant, tasty wine that keeps good company with our noshes and nibbles. As far as the tasting terms and experts’ notes go, I’ve never tasted sweaty saddle, and actually haven’t sampled much dirt lately, but I know what I like. I imagine you do, too.
With that in mind, let’s get right to the heart of the matter by addressing a few wine tasting terms commonly in use today. Here are a few straightforward definitions, with commentary on each term by two tasters: the Sophisticated Wine Snob, or SWS, and the Average Wine Enthusiast, or AWE, to help everyone get a grip on the sip.
A quality used to describe wines giving a sharp, zesty taste, leaving your tongue feeling refreshed. Not to be confused with “dry” wines, which refer to the level of sweetness, or tannic wines, which make the sides of your cheeks implode. Antonym? Round, as used to describe a big red California Cabernet.
SWS: Crisp, lively, refreshing, I love a good Corton-Charlemagne. 2009, is it?
AWE: It tastes a bit just like lemon. In a good way.
A fault in wine that causes it to smell, and sometimes taste, of moldy newspaper, wet cardboard, or damp basement, sometimes also called “dirty,” is not a good thing. Usually blamed on the cork, it can on rare occasions be caused by other things. While it won’t hurt you to drink it, you probably won’t enjoy it.
SWS: “Oh, waiter … ,” as he spits into the tastevin.
AWE: Does this wine taste funny to you? And is that an ashtray?
This quality in wine that means there is little or no taste of sweetness. Dry wines have a low sugar content. Most AWEs will begin to taste the sweetness in wine at between 0.5 and 0.7 percent. Especially applicable to Champagne, Extra Brut means very dry, while doux means sweet.
SWS: Chaptalization? Tsk, tsk. The drier, the better. Extra Brut, please.
AWE: Which one of these goes best with cake?
A wine with notable fruit flavours and aromas, embracing sweet-tasting fruits like berries, pears, melons, stone fruit like apricots and peaches, although not necessarily indicating a sweet wine. Antonym is “savoury,” embracing terms like “earthy,” “mineral,” “flinty,” “chalky,” or “rustic.”
SWS: I prefer savoury wines to fruit forward, with flinty minerality and earthy structure.
AWE: Hmm, I’ve never tasted a rock, but I love apricots.
This term describes a fruit forward wine gone extreme, with cooked fruit or syrupy sweetness in the flavour. It would be a fault in some, but in others, like Zinfandel, Shiraz, or Grenache, it can be a plus.
SWS: It’s a bit jammy, which is permissible, but minimally. I’ll serve it to, ummm … friends.
AWE: Tastes like cherry pie. I think I’ll drink it.
If the wine gives your throat some heat on the way down, that’s alcohol. While a little is good, too much can be unpleasant, qualifying the wine as “hot,” “baked,” or “heady.” A table wine is usually around 13% alcohol. Boozy wines, if well balanced with acidity and sweetness, can handle 17% alcohol or more, and still be lovely sips.
SWS: 15.4% alcohol? Won’t even taste it. Too hot.
AWE: Whoa, wouldn’t take much of this hot wine to get ripped. May I have another?
This term describes a wine with tastes of caramel, vanilla, smoke, or nutmeg, often accompanied by a creamy mouth feel, imparted from the time spent aging in oak barrels.
SWS: The trend is really toward unoaked, but this will make a good comparison.
AWE: Tastes good. I think I’ll drink it.
The combined perception of a wine from its tannins, acids, alcohol level, and sugars, give it structure, or backbone. Low levels of all, or unbalanced levels where one stands out and another is absent, make a wine “flabby.” When tannins and acidity are balanced, with nothing grabbing the spotlight, and all components firing on the right cylinders at the right time, the wine is considered “firmly structured.”
SWS: A strong, well-built, balanced, perfectly structured wine that is intellectually satisfying. It is near perfect.
AWE: How much does this wine cost?
A wine with a heavy dose of tannins from grape skins, seeds, and stems is said to be “tannic.” Not to be confused with acidic, which is like a juicy burst of fresh lemons or limes in your mouth, tannins are mainly felt by a strong pull on the sides of the cheeks, similar to the experience of drinking a very strong tea. When tannins are balanced, round, and smooth, they can make drinking a wine feel like silk, with a lush, velvety mouth feel.
SWS: Ahhh, strong tannins give this wine great structure. A bit chewy, though, don’t you think?
AWE, spoken to self: Wow, my mouth is so dry I can’t pry it open with a butter knife.
A wine that has been barrel-aged sometimes has an aroma and flavour of burnt toast, with just a slight hint of bread or yeast imparted from time spent in the barrel, which is charred prior to being filled. Sometimes accompanied by aromas and/or flavors of “butter,” or “vanilla.”
SWS: It’s Champagne, so it’s OK.
AWE: Tastes good. I think I’ll drink it. Cheers!