SOMETIMES, it seems, language becomes the foil of communication. That certainly is the case with wine, where a litany of technical terms, foreign words and place names, plus the fanciful descriptive inventions of tasters often create a barrier to understanding and enjoyment.
Many the novice cocks an ear and refuses to play, choosing to bypass wine as well as the jargon served with it. Others are intimidated and their uncertainty provides a breeding ground for the wine snob, a creature that needs an audience to thrive.
The great problem with jargon in wine or any other field is that it is so convenient. It passes for shortland, even when the words or phrases are pompous, silly or meaningless. But why continue? In this, the home town of governmentese, the problem is all too familiar. And it can happen even here at The Washington Post at 15th and L Streets.
I quote from a letter Mrs. H. Grant Price of Columbus, Ohio, sent after reading a summary of tasters' comments at a Washington Post wine tasting:
"Obviously that 'blind' taste test didn't have to be by blindfolded judges, but were they really concentrating on the wine? If so, how did 'good legs' get in there? I'm hoping you'll tell me about wines with 'good legs.' Never mind about [a wine] 'falling apart in the mouth.' You can only take me so far."
In an attempt to take all of us to first base, I'll try to explain about "legs" and a number of other terms that aren't what they seem in plain English, or are more readily understood in plain French.
Obviously this glossary is too short to be complete, but I'm only promising you first base. I'm leaving out towns and villages where wine is produced and specific grape types. They will be dealt with in future columns, as will the language of grape-growing and wine-making.
For centuries men have made wine and made up wine terms; therefore many of them could relate to women. Like a woman, a wine may be round, soft, smooth, etc. I offer this not as a bow to sexism, but as an aide to understanding. Other words, among them big, delicate, dull, fragrant (or perfumed), light, nutty, robust, spicy, sturdy and thin, need no special explanation. They may be translated literally.
The words that follow are related to wine-tasting. Tasting Terms
Acidity: The amount of fruit acid in a wine. A positive quality in white wines to balance sweetness. In reds it is necessary for proper aging. Most noticeable when it is too intense, making the wine seem sour.
Aroma: Relates to a smell of fresh fruit. Often hard to detect in very dry wines. It may be a part of the wine's bouquest (see below).
Astringency: The quality in red wines that makes the mouth pucker, usually because there is too much tannic acid. Astringency may fade as a wine ages.
Blind tasting: A comparative sampling of wines conducted such a way that the tasters are unaware of the identities of the wines.
Body: An indication of how substantial, or weighty, a wine is. Great red wines and a few whites should have body. It is not a mark of quality in wines intended to be youthful and fruity, a German moselle or beaujolais for instance.
Bottle sickness: A condition of instablility in a wine caused by bottling or by rough handling. It should be temporary.
Bouquet: This is the sum of the odors that come from a wine. The source is esters caused by oxidation. A slang term is nose , because the reaction takes place in the nose, not on the taste buds. This can be one of the greatest charms of a fine wine.
Breathing: Allowing a wine to be exposed to the air with its cork removed, supposedly to allow off odors escape and to resuscitate it. The proper timing of this act - how long before serving to uncork a bottle - has kept wine snobs arguing for centuries. Recently a strong argument has been made for simply opening the wine and pouring it. If more exposure to the air is needed, that will happen more rapidly during pouring and in the glass.
Brilliant: A wine that is so clear it appears to sparkle.
Character: Can be equated to personality. A wine without character is dull, unstimulating.
Clean: A wine with an appealing smell and taste - and without pronounced defects - at any price or quality level.
Clear: A wine that has lively color and is not clouded with impurities. With modern production techniques, almost all wine that reaches retail stores is clear.
Coarse: A heavy wine in which body and/or alcohol overwhelms fruit.
Color: An important factor in assessing a wine's identity and quality: White wines may have gold, straw or greenish hues: red wines run from nearly purple to crimson. Don't try to judge color by looking into the bottom of the glass. Instead, tilt the glass away from you and look at the edge, where the wine's surface meets the glass, against a white background. Dullness and brownish tints indicate age.
Corky: A distinct, very unpleasant odor from a wine spoiled due to a defective cork. Usually the cork smells bad, too, which is why wine waiters in restaurants often present a cork for sniffing. Make your judgment from the wine, not the cork, however.
Decanting: Pouring wine from its bottle into another container with the purpose of separating it from sediment in the bottle or to speed up the breathing process. This is one of wine's classic rituals. It is done, by tradition, with a lighted candle behind the neck of the bottle to illuminate the sediment when it appears. Glass decanters are among the most beautiful objects associated with wine. They are not original bottle once it has been washed out.
Distinguished: About the nicest thing wine tasters (a reserved group) can say about a wine.
Dry: Sour wine is bad wine, so well-made wine that isn't sweet is dry. Most table wines are dry, meaning that anywhere from a small amount to no residual sugar remains after fermentation. It is fashionable to favor "dry" wines, but many people react adversely to those that are bone dry.
Earthy: Sometimes, by earthy people, called a "barnyard" smell or taste. A moderate dose is fascinating; a large one is awful.
Elegant: A classy wine, but not so classy as one you would call distinguished.
Flat: A sparkling wine without its bubbles or a still wine that lacks life on the taste buds.
Flabby: Richness without character. The wine coats the taste buds but doesn't stimulate them.
Flinty: Think of (or imagine) the smell of flint struck with steel; then taste a chablis or another very dry white wine.
Flowery: The scent of flowers. A very positive quality in white wines that are not very dry.
Foxy: A very special aroma associated with native American grapes such as the concord and with wines made from them. Indefinable and unforgettable.
Fresh: A wine that is lively and playful on the palate; an essential quality - combined with fruitiness - in a wine meant to be drunk young.
Full: As in body , but not as in weight. The wine gives the sensation of being thick-textured, though not heavy with alcohol. It should still be balanced and even graceful.
Grapey: A taste of grapes in the wine; not a compliment.
Green: An untamed wine that tastes harsh and acid. Sometimes this problem goes away as the wine ages; sometimes it is a sign of bad winemaking.
Hard: A stiff, ungiving wine that shows little or no fruit or charm. This can be a plus in a young red wine as it suggests slow maturing and long life.
Harsh: Harder than hard, and full of acidity, too; downright unpleasant.
Legs: Streaks that run down the side of a glass after wine has been swirled. Once thought to indicate the amount of glycerin, but really caused by ethyl alcohol.
Mellow: A soft, mature wine and - among wine salesmen - a way to say a wine is somewhat sweet without turning off the customer who insists on a "dry" wine.
Metallic: A bitter, unpleasantly acid taste that taints some white wines and occasionally a red. Steely , positive term, is not a substitute.
Moldy: Mold on the skins of grapes may lend an undesirable smell and taste to a wine. This happens most often when there is rain and warm weather just before or during a harvest. Too much mold becomes rot and too many rotted grapes mean spoiled wine. A mold called the "noble rot" (Botrytis cinerea) is a necessary quantity, however, in making sweet dessert wines such as sauternes.
Nose: The bouquet or aroma of a wine.
Oaky: A pronounced taste of the wood in which wine is aged. Oak barrels are the most popular medium for aging red wines. Also some white wines, particularly California chardonnays, are aged in oak to the point where this taste becomes recognizable.
Oxidized: A wine that has been exposed to the air and developed a flat, somewhat nutty taste and deeper color.
Ripe: A fruity wine that is ready to drink.
Round: A wine that is balanced and somewhat full.
Silken: Applied most often to mature red wines that seem to slide across the taste buds. Nothing offends.
Small: Lacking in status, but quite adequate; satisfactory but not a remarkable achievement.
Smooth: A wine without harshness; perhaps not so elegant as silken .
Soft: Gives easily of its sensations and doesn't strike at the taste buds. A wine can, however, be so soft it becomes flabby and lacks character.
Supple: A well-balanced, not-too-rich wine that is highly pleasing to drink.
Sour: A spoiled wine, one that is turning to vinegar.
Steely: A wine of austerity and dignity, usually very dry; more to be admired than cherished.
Stemmy (or stalky ): An unwelcome harshness that can be detected in the nose as well as on the palate, caused by stems or stalks being fermented with the grape juice.
Sulphur: A sterilizing and preserving agent used in barrels and in wine itself. If improperly used, it can lend a "rotten" and egg" odor to white wines.
Sweet: This taste may be caused by natural or added sugar. If limited in degree, sweetness can be a very appealing quality in a "dry" wine, but it also can be employed to mask defects. Some fortified wines - sherries and ports - are intended to be sweet, as are the auslese wines of Germany and sauternes.
Tannic: The pucker power in young red wines is tannic acid, which comes from stems and skins of the grapes and oak aging barrels. It plays an important role in the maturing process of great wines.
Tart: Acid, but not in the negative sense of harsh .