Wine can be vexing to describe. “How do you taste all those flavors in a wine?” is a question readers often ask me. My usual advice is to pay attention, not just to what’s in your glass, but also to your environment. “Smell everything, taste with discretion,” is my mantra. Your wine may smell like a garden or a locker room. (Just to be clear, a garden in your glass is good. A locker room, not so much.)
But not all wine terms relate to flavors. Some describe the texture of wine. These are arguably the most important, because we may each perceive different flavors in a wine, but textural characteristics are more universal.
Here are common wine tasting terms, including some I use regularly to describe the flavors and textures of wine, with brief explanations that can help you interpret tasting notes or those wine-geek conversations at dinner parties.
Balance is the harmony among acidity, tannins, fruit, oak and other characteristics of wine on your palate, even though you may notice each of these attributes. It’s the Goldilocks of wine — not too tart, not too sweet, not too oaky, but just right.
Body is the impression of weight on your palate as you hold the wine in your mouth. Light, medium and full are the usual descriptors; none is inherently better than the other. Body is similar to structure. A wine without good body or structure is often described as flabby, indicating a lack of acidity.
A full-bodied wine may be described as “chewy,” which seems nonsensical for a liquid. When I see this word, I suspect the wine might be slightly out of balance, a bit rugged and harsh on the palate.
A wine is said to be earthy if its flavors suggest soil, decaying leaves or “forest floor,” rocks, even mushrooms. “Barnyard” may be earthy or animal — it’s usually considered not a good flavor.
Extraction is the process of steeping a wine, like tea, leaving the juice on the skins for an “extended maceration” or a “cold soak” before fermentation. The idea is to extract maximum color and tannin from the skins before pressing them off the juice, making a bigger, more powerful red wine. These “highly extracted” wines will stain your teeth, your tongue and your shirts a deep purple. This technique can be overdone, resulting in a wine that tastes contrived and manipulated. It has fallen out of favor among those who prefer lighter wines with elegance rather than power.
Finish refers to the aftertaste; the longer it lasts, the better. Unless, of course, the finish tastes like a locker room.
Herbaceous is usually considered a negative, but I don’t always agree. Scents and flavors of herbs, especially sage, thyme and rosemary, are common attributes of red wines from southern France, often described as “garrigue.” However, if a wine tastes “green,” it signifies underripe grapes. A green wine is usually thin and astringent.
Legs refer to the rivulets that flow down the side of your glass after you stop swirling the wine. To say a wine “has good legs” sounds sexist, so we tend to say a wine has tears, like Pagliacci. (Italian opera clowns, we mean no offense.) Tears indicate full body, and maybe high alcohol.
Nose can be a noun or a verb, synonymous with smell. You “nose” a wine by sticking your nose in the glass and taking a sniffy sniff. A wine has a good nose if it smells nice. To elevate the pretentiousness of “nosing” your wine, raise your eyebrows and your pinkie finger.
Ripeness is another reference to how the wine tastes. If someone describes the wine as “overripe,” it suggests raisins, prunes or other dried fruits. This can be fine in dessert wines such as port. In other wines, it may indicate a “hot vintage,” or grapes that were left hanging extra long on the vine, allowing more sugar to accumulate. Long “hang time” was popular about a decade ago, but many growers now are picking earlier to make more elegant, refreshing wines.
Other commonly used wine vocab. A “racy” wine has notable acidity; it is refreshing and palate cleansing, usually leaving you craving another sip.
Some wine writers rebel against the word “savory” to describe a wine, but I like it. It’s a good contrast to “sweet.”
And “sweet” may be the most misunderstood and abused word in the wine lexicon. Consumers often tell retailers they don’t want a sweet wine, because sweet is the opposite of dry, and we are somehow told that dry is the ideal. But wine is made from fruit, and ripe fruit tastes sweet. Ripe flavors are not bad in wine. A truly sweet wine has considerable residual sugar — sugar leftover after fermentation — and can be wonderful for dessert or with cheese. A “semi-dry” or “off-dry” wine can be beautifully balanced (sugar and acidity) to match robust and spicy foods. And let’s face it: We Americans have a sweet tooth. We should get over our fear of “sweet” wines.
With these words in your vocabulary, you can decipher tasting notes to find wines you might like to try. And you can describe ones you like to retailers, to help you find new gems.