DECANTED: THE ONLY WINE TERMS YOU NEED TO KNOW
The world of wine can appear to be an intimidating place! Whether it’s bouquet or botrytis, tannins or tannat, it seems there’s a mountain of wine terms that the layperson just doesn’t have time to learn.
Realistically though, you’ll only ever need a handful of words to describe wine well. (Hint: you don’t really need to know what botrytis is to enjoy a sweet wine.) And when talking about the styles, flavours or structures of wine you like, equipping yourself with those few words can get you a long way.
So here’s the Brown Bag Wines guide to the only wine terms you’ll ever need: you’ll be ordering like a pro in no time!
WINE STRUCTURE: DECODING A WINE’S DNA
Let’s start with the wine’s key traits, as these will give you an excellent basis to describe the bare bones of your wine.
Body generally refers to the wine’s intensity, but there’s no need to get too technical. Think of a ‘full-bodied’ wine as a bold syrah (Shiraz in Australia) where a wine with a ‘light-body’ might be a gamay (like Beaujolais) or pinot noir.
You might notice a difference in colour or feeling in the mouth, and the body might lend itself to the finish of the wine (how long you can still taste the wine after drinking). Don’t worry too much about the details here though, as winemakers have lots of tricks up their sleeves to change body and finish, including how much time the wine spends in oak barrels for instance.
‘Sweet’ and ‘dry’ are technical terms having to do with the amount of sugar left in the wine. Given that our tongues are usually quite inept at picking up how much sugar there is in wine, and considering the fact that it’s something you can’t smell, you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on the exact sugar levels.
Instead, pick out the difference between “dry” (no sugar) and “sweet” (plenty of sugar) and pick a happy medium between there that suits the wines you like. Be warned though – a common pitfall is to think ‘fruity’ means the same as sweet; it doesn’t. Plenty of dry rieslings, for example, have intense fruity flavours.
Acidity is one of the most important components of truly delicious wine. Imagine a gulp of refreshing home-made lemonade, with all the mouth-watering, tingling sensations zipping around your tongue - that’s the all-important acidity.
A wine without good acidity will feel ‘flat’ and ‘dull’. Use words like ‘zesty’, ‘tart’, ‘fresh’ and ‘bright’ to describe high-acidity in wines, or pick a type of sourness to compare to. Does the wine have a lemon-juice acidity, for instance, or do you taste more green apples and pears? You’ll find acidity is often more noticeable in white wines, but reds can benefit from high-acidity too: it’s what makes some Italian reds perfect partners for ripe tomato dishes.
Alcohol levels in wine can vary greatly, from low-alcohol sparkling like Moscato d’Asti (~5.5%) right up to fortified wines like Madeira (~20%). The alcohol level is directly related to the ripeness of the grapes, so you’ll find that cooler-climate wines (like rieslings and gewürtztraminer from the Alsace) often produce lower-alcohol wines.
Wines from warm climates, like Southern Australia, are often a little stronger, though this can vary on grape type. The giveaway here is a warming sensation in the back of the mouth as you drink; wines with high-alcohol may give a little kick and can be described as “warm” or “hot” when tasting. Ultimately though, you’ll rarely need to describe how alcoholic a wine is – just check the label!
Tannin in wine primarily comes from the skin and seeds of a grape, and often develops with age. So certain grape varieties can have high tannic structure when young, but older vintages will have a softer, more developed tannic structure.
However, here’s where most of us start switching off. Many people see describing tannic structure in a wine as the first step on the road to becoming a bonafide wine snob, but it needn’t be that way. Tannins are both simple to pick up and incredibly important to a wine. If you can start to describe levels of tannin you do and don’t like, you’ll be in a great position. No snobs here!
You’ll identify tannins with that bitter, mouth-drying feeling, much like the astringent taste of black tea. They can also be ‘crunchy’ or a little ‘gritty’, and wines with high tannins are described as ‘tannic’. If it’s not something you enjoy, ask for ‘softer’ or ‘more developed tannins’. Alternatively, you can stick to wine varieties with naturally lower tannins like a pinot noir, as opposed to those with higher tannins such as Sangiovese.
WINE PROFILE: HITTING THE HIGH NOTES
Now that you can describe the makeup of your favourite wines, let’s take a look at the tastes and flavour profiles that you’ll want to differentiate between.
As you drink your favourite wine, remember to breathe in its aroma. Doing this will really help you pick up the wine’s unique flavours.
Consider the following wine terms your profile starter pack; the main profiles you’ll need to know to get describing your favourite wines. If you’re interested to know more, there’s plenty of reading to do out there!
‘Fruity’ is the most common and widely-used descriptor for wines, but it still creates some confusion. Amazingly wine tends to taste of every fruit except grapes! When you describe your favourite wines, remember that none of the fruit has been actually added to the wine, you’re just picking up the similarities between wine and other fruits. Meaning you can’t be exactly wrong. The more descriptive the better.
So, you can start with the broad types of fruit you’re tasting/ smelling and work from there – berries (like redcurrant, blackberries), tropical (pineapple, starfruit), orchard (apples, pears) or stone fruits (peaches, plums).
You can think of exact fruits that the wine reminds you of (peach and grapefruit notes in Chardonnay are common, for instance) or general types of fruit; bright fruit flavours like fresh lemon as opposed to darker flavours like stewed plum. Older wines can lose their fresh fruit notes so, at that point, you’ll see more savoury flavours coming through.
This term refers to anything green or plant-like that can smell or taste of herbs and flowers. It might be cut-grass, tarragon or freshly-picked jasmine.
Again, wines that display herbal qualities are generally implications of the flavour. In some cases, oils from plants like eucalyptus are blown onto the grapes, so you may pick up on those notes in wines from Australia, for instance. Flavours needn’t be fresh and green either – older wines can sometimes have a dusty note to them, maybe a little like dried rose or potpourri.
Be bold and creative when describing the herbal notes that you like. Certain grape varieties regularly display the same notes, so if you love cut-grass, try a Sauvignon Blanc for instance. If you’re picking out something you don’t like, you can use the word ‘vegetal’ to describe under-ripe or very green notes.
Used to describe tastes from the spice draw – anything from nutmeg to vanilla, black pepper to cinnamon. Some of these tastes are present in the grape itself, like a peppery Shiraz blend.
The spice flavour could also come from the oak barrels the wine is stored in. Try to be as specific on the spice as you can, because ‘spicy’ can broadly mean the heat of alcohol as much as the spice elements you’re getting. If you don’t like spices in your wine, you can aim for clean wines that haven’t been aged in new oak and stick to more neutral grapes, like a Cortese.
Here’s where ‘wine-speak’ can get a little vague – ‘minerality’ is often used to describe all those flavours that taste of something else. It might be chalk or granite, wet rocks or salt, but they are all loosely bundled into ‘minerality’.
Don’t be too afraid to use this term though, as you’ll find plenty of instances when it fits quite nicely. The best bet is to be as precise with what you like as you can. If you don’t like wines to taste a bit chalky or salty, then say so!
Being precise with your choices will help you narrow down the mineral notes you do like, and pick wines that fit those profiles. For the adventurous, try this wine for a taste of true sulphuric minerality.
BALANCE: THE PERFECT BLEND
All great wines have one thing in common: balance. Whether they’re a smoky Syrah from St Joseph or a zesty Italian Cortese, every wine is striving to perfectly balance their DNA (body, alcohol, sweetness, acidity and tannins) and layer on their profile (fruity, herbaceous, spicy and much more). Trust us, you’ll know a well-balanced wine as soon as you taste it.
Add in what you know about how and where the wine is made (see our post on the differences between organic, biodynamic and natural wines here) and you’ll start to see how easy it becomes to decode your favourite wines. Now, armed with your essential new vocabulary, an understanding of how your wine is made and a few delicious wines, you’ll be ready to take on the wine pros at their own game!
If you want to learn more or to pick up a bottle to test out your new skills, get in touch with us today. Cheers!
- Bonné, Jon (2017). The New Wine Rules. Ten Speed Press.
- Puckette, Madeline & Hammock, Justin (2018). Wine Folly: Magnum Edition: The Master Guide. Penguin Random House.