Wine Terms

Acid, Acidity: A natural byproduct of fermentation in wine. The acids provide the backbone of a good wine, but too much can be unpleasant, while too little leaves a wine without character. It gives a wine a sense of body and structure. Acidity is never obvious in a balanced wine.

Aftertaste: The flavor that remains after you swallow. Surprisingly, this may differ significantly from the taste while the wine is in your mouth. A lingering aftertaste is a virtue, as long as the taste is good!

Alcohol: Contributes to the wine’s body and texture (which is one reason why non-alcoholic wines don’t taste “natural”); but if the wine is so strong that the presence of alcohol communicates itself as a raw heat, may be a flaw.

Anise: Faint licorice, a pleasant element in some Spanish reds; may indicate, however, that the wine has been artificially acidified, a practice that may improve short-term enjoyment but tends to make wines that cellar poorly.

Apple: Pleasant apple-fruit aroma, particularly characteristic of Chardonnays made without excessive oak.

Apricot: Apricot flavors are often noted in sweet white wines, particularly if affected by botyrtis (see below).

Aroma: The smell of a wine is part of the tasting experience, because smell and taste are closely related. It is interchanged with bouquet.

Attack: A technical term for the first impression the wine makes as it reaches your palate, distinguished (in time sequence) from “middle” or “mid-palate” and “finish” or “aftertaste.”

Austere: A Simple one-dimensional wine usually applied to young wines of ageworthy quality to denote unrealized potential or light yet acidic, not necessarily simple, as in a Chablis.

Backbone: The sense of structure present in a wine with sufficient acidity.

Balanced: The proper harmony of acidity, fruit and, where appropriate, tannins. A wine may show many good characteristics, but it will not be complete unless it is balanced.

Barnyard: “Earthy,” “organic” character reminiscent of country lanes. Expected in red Burgundies, and in proportion, considered desirable.

Beaujolais-like: Resembling Beaujolais – Light, fruity and fresh, a wine more for quaffing than contemplation.

Big: A broad, general term for a full-bodied, strong, assertive, robust and flavorful wine. Some people like wines big, others prefer them delicate.

Bitter: Not common in wines but found occasionally — particularly in the aftertaste, and usually in subtle, refreshing form — in some Italian wines and Alsatian whites.

Blackberry: A common descriptor for the smell or taste in young Zinfandels.

Black cherry: Quite common in red wines, particularly Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chianti’s.

Blackcurrant: “Cassis” in French, a fruity and herbaceous quality that’s the hallmark of red Bordeaux.

Black fruit: A catchall term for mixed black-cherry, blackberry, plum and similar fruit aromas, commonplace in many good red wines.

Black pepper: Fragrant, floral, and distinctively peppery. A trademark of Syrah, also found in Grenache, Carignan, Petite Sirah.

Body: The overall texture or weight of wine in the mouth, most influenced by alcohol, glycerin and, in the case of dessert wines, sugar. Depth or substance underlying the taste.

Botrytis: The desirable rot (“Edelfaule” in German) that afflicts grapes — particularly Riesling — late in the harvest season, causing the grapes to dry and shrivel, concentrating the sugar in intensely sweet juice that makes memorable dessert wines. Manifests itself in the finished wine as a delicious honey-apricot flavor.

Bouquet, bottle bouquet: The smell or scent that is one of wine’s most important characteristics, indicating the taste. It is also associated with the smells that develop with age in the wine bottle, as opposed to “aroma,” the smells associated with the fruit.

Breed: Character and complexity, usually refering to high quality.

Bright: As a color, transparent; as a flavor, high but not excessive in acidity.

Brilliant: A visual term: Exceptionally clear and transparent.

Brut: Dry, usually applied to Champagne and other sparkling wines; indicates less than 1.5 percent residual sugar by volume in Champagne and means greater dryness then the term “extra dry”.

Butter, buttery: As the name suggests, an obvious taste of butter in the wine. Common in Chardonnay, especially from California, it’s often a sign that the wine has gone through “malolactic fermentation” (see below).

Candied, candied fruit: Specific flavor descriptor, just like the bits of fruit found in the traditional holiday fruitcake. It is often found in California Pinot Noirs.

Cantaloupe: As the name indicates. This and other melon flavors are typical of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Grigio and Chenin Blanc.

Carbonic maceration: The Beaujolais process, in which whole grapes are fermented without crushing. Creates a very fruity wine with characteristic aromas of bananas, strawberries and cotton.

Cassis: French blackcurrant liqueur, classic description for the aroma of red Bordeaux. Also used to make the traditional Kir. (White wine with a little Cassis)

Cedar: Check an old-fashioned cedar chest to sample this herbaceous aroma, which is often found in Bordeaux and California Cabernet.

Citric: Generic citrus fruit, a pleasurable element in many whites.

Character: Balance, assertiveness, finesse and most other good qualities combine to create character.

Cheesy: Organic, ripe natural cheese aromas, almost always a flaw, typically indicating filthy wine making and an unwanted secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Cherry-berry: Akin to black fruit (above), a delightful fruit combination often noted in good red wines.

Chewy, chunky: A textural description for a wine so full-bodied that it almost seems as if you could chew it.

Chocolate, dark-chocolate: Not sweet but rich, pleasantly “burnt” flavor, usually in robust red wines. In some cases may be associated with aging in oak barrels.

Cigar box: Mixed cedar and tobacco, a surprisingly lovely scent that’s typical of some fine Bordeaux.

Clean: Overall description for a wine with no unpleasant or “off” aromas or tastes.

Closed: Showing little aroma or flavor. May be a temporary condition “dumb” in an ageworthy wine that is past its youth but not yet mature.

Cloves: Spicy flavor — look for it in Spanish Rioja — often associated with oak.

Cloying: Too sweet, without balancing acidity. When sweetness and acid are in good balance, the result is the natural, fresh sweetness of good fruit juice. Lacking acidic balance, you have the artificial, cloying sweetness of candy.

Complex: The best wines display a fairly broad range of qualities that render their taste complex and challenging – in contrast to simple wines that lack depth and character.

Consistent: As I use it, refers to a wine’s aroma, taste and aftertaste all being appropriate to each other.

Corked, corky: Always a flaw: Wine afflicted by an undetectable cork fungus that imparts an unpleasant musty, damp-cardboard flavor that obliterates all other aromas and flavors in the wine. The French call it bouchonne.

Creamy: A textural description used to describe a mouth feel, most often in discussing bubbly wines.

Crisp: Acidic tartness noticeable without overwhelming; a favorable term, typical of good whites.

Delicate: Complex, with many flavors working together, but not overbearing. Usually lighter in style.

Dominant: The aroma or flavor in question outweighs everything else in the wine. Not usually a favorable description; inimical to “balance.”

Dry: The absence of sugar or sweetness. A fully dry wine contains no residual sugar. An over used and often misused term that should imply no positive or negative evaluation.

Dumb: See “closed” above: An ageworthy wine that has lost its youthful fruit but not yet gained the complex bouquet of bottle age, and not showing much of anything during the interim.

Earthy: Tasting of the soil in which the grapes were grown; sometimes implying imbalance or a fault, “earthy” wines tend to be controversial, and a little bit is usually enough.

Evolution: The development of complex and desirable aromas and flavors (see “bouquet” above) in ageworthy wine cellared under appropriate temperature conditions.

Figs: As with “dates,” an aroma reminiscent of the fruit. May show in oaky Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs.

Finish: A wine-taster’s synonym for “aftertaste” (above), the flavors remaining in your mouth after the wine is swallowed.

Flat, fat, flabby: Heavy, insipid. Critical term for a wine without sufficient acidity, therefore lacking “structure.”

Floral, Flowery: General term for a wine with aromas more reminiscent of flowers than fruit. May be very pleasant, especially in white wines.

Forward: A wine that reaches out to you with full aromas and flavors that, as I’ll occasionally note in a highly positive metaphor, “leap out of the glass.”

Foxy: Strong “grape jelly” aroma and flavor characteristic of native American grapes like Concord and sometimes found in more subtle form in red French-hybrid grapes. Not generally well thought of by serious wine lovers, but a well-made Concord.

Fragile: An older wine, fully mature, of such age that it’s declining.

Fragrant: General term for a wine with a full, accessible aroma.

Fresh: General term for a wine with good, pleasant fruit aromas and flavors.

Fruit, fruity: Overall description for wines in which fruitiness is the predominant quality without any specific fruitiness coming forward.

Fruit bomb: A rather jocular term for a wine in which forward fruit dominates the flavor profile. Although such a wine is almost always pleasant to drink, the term implies a lack of balance, with fruit excessive for the wine’s acidic structure.

Full, full-bodied: A textural description for a wine that feels full and weighty on the palate, typically associated with wines of relatively high alcoholic content.

Funky: Modern slang for an “earthy” wine with strongly organic qualities, may be complimentary, neutral or negative depending on its intensity and the taster’s personal preference.

Garnet: A color description, reddish-purple. A cooked jam color to describe the luxurious appearance of fine wines.

Gold: Color description for white wines; a full gold color generally reflects either some age or substantial oak.

Grapefruit: Just like the fruit; most commonly found in Sauvignon Blanc, also commonplace in Gewurztraminer.

Grassy: Walk through your lawn after cutting the grass, and you’ll never mistake this aroma, often found in Sauvignon Blanc.

Green olive: Specific vegetal aroma, often noted in Cabernet Sauvignon. May, surprisingly, be closely chemically related to the typical “blackcurrant” or “cassis” of Cabernet.

Green peppers: Herbaceous/vegetal quality generally thought excessive; once a specific pejorative for reds from California’s Monterey region, but modern vineyard management has largely overcome this fault.

Gulpable: Light and refreshing and, well, easy to drink. Not usually applied to the fancier line of wines.

Hay: Similar to “grass,” only more so.

Hazelnut: A specific nutty quality, usually subtle, not commonplace but pleasant when it occurs. I’ve found it in Italian Tocai Friulano, French White Burgundies and some dry Spanish whites.

Hazy: A visual description for a wine that’s less than clear. In this age of industrial-produced wines, a hazy sample is a rarity, but some “unfiltered” wines may appear less brilliant than most.

Hollow, empty: Lacking substance between the first taste and the finish, as in “hole in the middle” under “middle” below.

Honey: Specific flavor and aroma description, characteristic of botrytis but may also appear as a flavor nuance in dry white wines.

Hot: Burns the tongue and palate, generally a sign of excessive or unbalanced alcohol.

Jammy: So fruity that it’s reminiscent of jam or jelly. Often applied to big Zinfandels.

Juicy: Forward, approachable fruit, not necessarily found in a complex wine, but tasty and pleasing.

Lean: Yet another synonym for “acidic,” this one suggesting a light wine with sharp acidity, a good food wine.

Leather: Another take on “earthy,” often found in older reds; may add a specific adjective, as appropriate, such as “bookbinder’s leather” or “saddle leather.”

Lemon, lemony, lemon-squirt, lemon-lime: Specific citric flavors, commonplace in dry white wines, demonstrating why these wines go so well with seafood and fish, just as fresh lemons do.

Length: The time that the “finish” or “aftertaste” persists in the mouth; generally, the greater the length, the better the wine.

Light, light-bodied, lightweight: Another textural description, indicating a wine that crosses the palate without much of a sense of weight or body. May be associated with low alcoholic content.

Luscious: Another rather broad term, usually complimentary, indicating that the wine is full of fruit, approachable and well-balanced.

Maderized: Wine that’s turned brown and nutty, like a bad Sherry or Madeira, with bad treatment or excessive age. Synonymous with “oxidized.”

Malolactic: A wine-making process in which the wine is put through a special fermentation that converts its malic acid into lactic acid. The result is a soft, mellower wine that some wine lovers find “flabby” but that’s very popular in the marketplace.

Meaty: As in “gamey,” above, a specific kind of “earthy” quality, quite literally reminiscent of raw beef, sometimes found in red Rhones.

Medicinal: Herbal aromatics, not necessarily unpleasant, may evoke alcohol or witch hazel.

Medium, medium-bodied: As the name implies, a wine that’s neither light-bodied nor heavy-bodied. Because of its middle-of-the-road status, this is rarely worth mentioning in a tasting note.

Melon, muskmelon, musky melon: As with “cantaloupe,” a musky, melon aroma that’s found in many whites– Pinots Blanc, Gris and Grigio, also Muscadet and sometimes Riesling.

Middle, mid-palate: Another technical term (see also “attack” and “finish” or “aftertaste”) for the sequence of sensations as the wine hits your palate. This alludes to the impression between first taste and swallowing; you’ll sometimes hear a wine described as having “a hole in the middle” if the mid-palate impression isn’t up to the attack or the finish.

Mineral: Difficult-to-describe term that may reflect the “stony” character of Chablis. Associated with the minerals in the soil.

Mint: A specific flavor of mint, usually found only in subtle proportions. Often found in California Cabernets.

Mouth-filling: Similar to “full-bodied,” a wine that impresses itself with weight, texture and flavor on the palate.

Mushrooms: A mild earthy quality, pleasant in restraint, although a musty, mushroomy quality may also indicate a “corked” wine (above).

Musty: Usually an indication that the wine is “corked,” although some older wines may show an initial mustiness that blows off with time in the glass. Corked wines never improve with breathing.

Nose: Wine taster’s term for the overall smell of a wine, its aroma and bouquet only more so!

Nutmeg: Pleasant spice, akin to “cloves,” typical of some reds, particularly those aged in oak.

Nutty, nutlike: Undifferentiated nuts, may be present as a subtle flavor element in any wine or as a predominant characteristic in a Sherry, Madeira or Tawny Port … or, as above, in a “maderized” wine that’s over the hill.

Oak, oaky: Showing substantial influence of the oak barrels in which the wine was aged. This may manifest itself in many forms depending on the wine, the source of the oak, whether the barrels were “toasted” (charred) and whether they are large or small, new or old. Oaky white wines often show such flavors as pineapple and tropical fruit. Oaky reds may show strong vanilla aromas, herbal dill, or spices.

Olive, ripe olive, black olive: An odd but not necessarily unpleasant flavor to find in a wine, turns up occasionally in Mediterranean reds and in some of the more flavorful Sauvignon Blancs and White Bordeaux.

Opaque: Visual description, too dark to see through.

Organic: Broad, general term for “earthy,” “forest floor,” “cheesy,” “leather,” “barnyard” and related aromas and flavors.

Over the hill: A wine that’s been kept too long (or poorly) and is no longer enjoyable.

Oxidized: Chemical term for “maderized,” the reaction that occurs when wine interacts with air in the bottle over years (or, more quickly, after the bottle is opened), and turns brown, Sherrylike and unattractive. A controlled edge of oxidation, however, may be normal and even desirable in an old, ageworthy White Burgundy.

Palpable: Easily perceptible; usually modifies “tannins.”

Peach: Specific fruit description, often found in Riesling or Gewurztraminer and sometimes in dessert wines.

Pear: Specific fruit description, typically associated with Chardonnay aged in toasted oak barrels.

Peppery: Spicy with the fragrant pungence of black pepper. Typical of Rhone and Languedoc reds made from Syrah and Grenache. See “black pepper.”

Perfumed: Aroma description, usually reflects a heavy floral quality.

Persists, persistent: Generally describes the length of a wine’s finish or aftertaste, roughly synonymous with “long.”

Pineapple: Specific fruit flavor, often associated with California Chardonnay, particularly if heightened by oak. Primary component of “tropical fruit,” below.

Pinpoint: Classic description of the peculiarly tiny bubbles that flow in a lasting fountain from the bottom of your glass when very fine Champagne is poured.

Plum, plummy: Very common description for red wines, particularly budget-range reds made from grapes grown in particularly warm climates.

Quaffer, quaffing wine: A wine that’s simple but refreshing, prompting easy swigging rather than thoughtful contemplation. See “gulpable.”

Racy: A particularly approving synonym for “acidic,” this one suggesting a wine with a tart-crisp acidic flavor well balanced by fruit in a style that’s particularly refreshing.

Raisins: When perceptible as a specific fruit, generally the sign of a simple table wine made from warm-weather grapes (as in “plums” and “prunes” above).

Raspberry: Specific fruit description, often found in Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Young Cabernet.

Red fruit: Broad catchall term for red wines with mixed flavors of apples, raspberries, strawberries, etc., and quite typical of Languedoc reds, among others. Compare “black fruit,” above.

Residual sugar: Technical term for the natural sugar that remains in naturally sweet wines after the conversion of fruit sugars into alcohol.

Ripe: General term for the overall impression of fruit in a wine; a favorable description for a wine in good balance, stops a bit short of “juicy,” “jammy” and similar terms describing wines in which fruit is dominant.

Rising bread dough: Very specific aroma description for a fresh, yeasty quality that is found in Champagnes and White Burgundies. Also “toasty” or “biscuity” is used to describe this scent.

Robust: Akin to “big” as a description for a full-bodied, full-flavored wine, but perhaps even more so.

Rough: Slight, usually acceptable harshness in a wine, characteristic of “country-style” and “spaghetti” wines.

Rubber band: Unpleasant sulfurous flavor. Like “burnt match,” it may blow off with time in the glass but indicates the likelihood of excessive sulfuring by the wine maker. Also typical of some French-hybrid reds made in Eastern U.S. wineries.

Ruby: Reddish-orange. Like “garnet,” a jewel color used as a metaphor for fine red wine.

Short: Finish or aftertaste that doesn’t last. Opposite of “long” or “lingering.”

Smoky: An odd and somewhat controversial description. The French “Pouilly-Fumé” and the imitative American “Fumé Blanc” are said to be based on a smoky quality. A lightly toasted (charred) oak barrel can impart a notably smoky quality to white wines, and some Fumé Blancs in particular take advantage of this.

Smooth: General textural term, favorable; contrasts with “rough” or “astringent,” above.

Soft: A low-acid wine, not tart nor sour. Taken to extremes, it yields a wine that’s “fat” or “flabby,” but within an arm’s length of balance, the wine may be palatable, even gulpable; many mass-market wines are consciously made on the soft side.

Spicy: General term for mixed spices, most often the cinnamon, clove and nutmeg mix that I find typical of some red wines aged in European oak.

Stalky, stemmy: Very specific vegetative descriptions, rather rare, most often found in unappealing Pinot Noir made from young vines or under-ripe grapes.

Steely: A specific kind of acidity that’s firm and seemingly metallic, typical of some very fine Sauvignon Blancs such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the Loire.

Stony: Akin to “steely,” above, but with a distinct mineral quality alongside the metal. Reminiscent of licking on a pebble, something that most little boys do at one time or another. Classic descriptor for Chablis.

Straw: Common color in white wines, lighter and less yellow than gold.

Strawberry: Specific fruit aroma descriptor, commonplace in Beaujolais.

Structure: Overall term describing a wine’s sense of body, largely built, as described above, on acidity, with alcohol and tannins as additional elements.

Subtle: Complex and balanced; implies more participating elements than “delicate,” but balance is critical. A wine that’s “outrageous” or “in-your-face” may be complex, but it isn’t likely to be subtle.

Tannic, tannins: Referring to the presence of tannic acid that comes from the skins, seeds and stems of the grapes. Tannin is a necessary component of good wine, especially good red wine, and is most evident in the first few years of maturity. Eventually, it subsides during the maturation process. Tannin when young tastes or feels like a cotton swab is being run down your tongue. It is that drying sensation in your mouth not to be confused with the mouth-puckering of acidity.

Tart: Broad synonym for “acidic.” A positive term for crisp acidity and good balance.

Terroir: Having a taste of the earth or soil. Gout de terroir describes the characteristic aromas and flavors of wine from grapes grown in a particular vineyard or region, incorporating the contributions of both soil and climate to the wine’s unique style.

Toast, toasty: Descriptive flavor and aroma term that may result from making wine in lightly toasted or charred oak barrels; Also found in fine Champagnes and older Bordeaux.

Tobacco, tobacco-leaf: Specific vegetal aroma quite common in some Bordeaux and California Cabernet.

Tropical fruit: General term for mixed figs, dates and pineapple, with an emphasis on the latter; highly characteristic of oaky California Chardonnay.

Truffles: Subtle, earthy mushrooms. The choice of this pricey fungus as a descriptor strongly implies a favorable intent, as is not necessarily the case with its cousin “mushroom.”

Vanilla: Specific spice term, highly characteristic of some wines (particularly Spanish and some California reds) aged in new American oak.

Varietal: Technical term meaning “type of wine grape.” Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are all varietals. In a wine note, “varietal character” means that the wine shows the expected aromas and flavors for the grape from which it is made.

Vegetal: Roughly synonymous with “herbaceous” but probably a bit more negative.

Velvet, velvety: A rather imprecise texture description implying delicious smoothness, classically used to describe red Burgundy and other fine Pinot Noir.

Vinegary, volatile acidity: Acetic acid present. Historically a common sign of poorly made or stored wine, now rare in this age of high-tech industrial wine making. Tiny quantities may be present, and acceptable, in wines made by carbonic maceration (Beaujolais), and, startlingly, fine dessert wines.

Violets: A truly lovely floral quality characteristic of some Italian reds, particularly Barolo, Barbaresco, and others made from the Nebbiolo grape.

Walnuts: The most overtly nutlike of the various nut descriptors; classic definition for Sherry.

Wildflowers: Generalized term for light, delicate flowers in a wine’s aroma, one that I almost always greet with pleasure.

Woody: General term for an oaky wine in which wood characteristics dominate.

Yeasty: Pleasant scent of yeast, often noted in sparkling wines. Compare “rising bread dough.”

Zinfandel: This powerhouse wine grape is of mysterious parentage, Enologists are unsure where this grape came from or its genetic parents. Zinfandel is grown almost exclusively in warmer regions of California and its character as a wine shows that fact off with jammy red-berry aromas, with an undertone of apricots or peaches and a healthy dose of both alcohol and tannin. This is a truly All-American wine and accordingly matches well with bar-b-cued dished and grilled foods.