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Wine 105: Talking Wine

Chances are you’ve heard people throw around all kinds of interesting words while drinking wine. Maybe a waiter described a frizzante as being jammy on the nose? He knows how to use wine descriptors and you can, too, by starting to learn the essential wine words. Learning basic terms will allow you to better understand and communicate when learning about wine. While we believe that it’s okay to say exactly what a wine smells and tastes like, it’s also good to know some of the more common descriptors and other terms. After all, you’re likely to get better recommendations if you use words with which an expert is familiar. Be sure to take our ten question quiz at the end of this article to see how much you’ve already learned!

Acidity: This very common wine descriptor refers to a feeling of zip or zest on the tongue – similar to that felt from citrus juice. All wine has acidity but too much can make the wine sour while too little leaves the wine flabby.

Aerate: The act of introducing oxygen to wine in order to open it up. Achieved by decanting, swirling, or using a bottle top aerating pourer.

Barnyard: A descriptor that means exactly what it says: that a wine is musty, damp, even meaty. This isn’t a bad thing and the descriptor has a more pleasant sound than musty, damp, and meaty.

Body: This descriptor refers to mouthfeel and the heft, or weight, of the wine. As a general rule, fuller bodied, or heavier, wines will have a higher alcohol content.

Concentrated: Wines described as concentrated are rich, show depth of flavor and lots of fruit.

Corked: An overused term to describe flawed wine. Not all bad wine is corked. A corked wine will smell like moldy newspaper or a wet dog. Wine becomes corked when it contains trichloroanisole.

Decanter: A glass vessel used when serving fuller bodied red wines to open up the nose.

Earthy: A common wine descriptor. Earthy wines will have mushrooms, wet dirt, and similar aromas on the nose.

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Fat: A positive wine descriptor. Refers to a wine that is concentrated and round.

Flabby: A negative wine descriptor. Wines that are not acidic and come across as “flat” are described as flabby.

Fortified Wine: Wine with added brandy or other liquors and is often served for or with dessert. Sherry and port are fortified wines.

Frizzante: A style of wine that contains smaller bubbles than sparkling wine, and is fizzy. Can be found in wines of all colors.

Green: A negative wine descriptor. Used mostly on young wines that were made from grapes before they reached peak maturity on the vine

Herbaceous: A wine descriptor for wines with the scent of herbs

Ice Wine: Sweet wine with a low alcohol content made from frozen grapes.

Jammy: A wine descriptor that can be positive or negative depending on context. Wines that are jammy are made from grapes that are very ripe, giving the wines a sweet fruit like jam with hints of raisins or prunes. If a wine is made when the grapes are overripe the jamminess is not a good quality and can overtake the wine.

Late Harvest: Wines made from the end of harvest which are often sweeter than earlier bottles from the same vintage because they have ripened longer on the vine.

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Maceration: The stage during winemaking when the skins, stems, leaves, and seeds are left in contact with the juice imparting color and tannins into the wine.

Nose: Perfume, aromatics. Or, in layman’s terms, smell.

Oaky: This is a wine descriptor used to describe the flavor of a wine that has been aged in oak barrels for too long. Aging in oak makes the wine more round but over oaking overwhelms the wine.

Plonk: Cheaper wine that lacks character. Often enjoyed by those new to wine.

Quaffable: drinkable.

Ripe: A wine that is made from grapes that were picked at the peak of maturity.

Round: Used to describe a wine’s fruit profile when the fruit is soft, not tart.

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Sec: French for dry. Wines labeled as sec are dry wines; demi sec wines are semi dry.

Table Wine: Despite popular belief, this designation does not refer to the quality of the wine but to the ABV (alcohol by volume). Table wine is 11-14% ABV.

Tannin: A chemical compound found on the skins of grapes and other plants that provide a bitter or astringent feel. Because red wine stays in contact with the stems, seeds, leaves, and skins of grapes longer they are where drinkers will notice tannins.

Unctuous: A wine descriptor used to describe wines with a rich mouthfeel. These wines are also described as “viscous” or “having great legs”.

Vintage: The year the grapes in a wine were harvested.

Wine: An alcoholic beverage made from fermented grapes.

Woody: A descriptor used to describe an overoaked (see: oaky) wine. These wines have overwhelming flavors of butter, smoke, vanilla, mocha, or smoke if aged in French oak and dill pickle if aged in American oak.

Yeast: Added to wine to aid in fermentation and convert sugar to alcohol. Wine can be made without yeast but it will take longer and can be more difficult.

Yield: The grapes produced in a harvest. As a general rule high yields produce lesser quality wine whereas lower yields produce higher quality wines.

Want to see how much you’ve already learned? Just take this quick quiz and then start using the words the next time you drink. Do you have wine terms you’d like to know? Comment or tell us on Facebook and we may just use them in future installments.

Nancy Koziol

Nancy Koziol is a wine writer specializing in wine news, culture, politics, and emerging regions. She has traveled throughout various wine regions and constantly strives to deepen her understanding and appreciation of the holistic experience of wine, from seed to glass. Nancy writes for a variety of wine publications spanning everything from how to make amazing Sangria to understanding the ecological impact of winemaking. She lives in Vermont where she is developing an appreciation for hybrid grapes - something she never thought would happen - and obsessing over orange wines.

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