The world of fine wine is fraught with obstacles. It is shrouded in snobbery and supposed savoir-faire. In fact, so many people believe it to be an elitist knowledge that price, not taste, will often be the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a bottle of vino.
It’s maddening not knowing the difference between a bouquet and a blend, or what makes wine rough round, or robust. We want to make the wine world as accessible to as many people as possible. Thankfully, our helpful article on wine tasting terms is here to help you out.
How to Describe a Wine?
See me, swirl me, sniff me, sip me, savor me. Sounds pretty sexy, right? No, it’s nothing to do with virtual dating in the 21st century. These five little words are the oenologist’s holy bible and what you need to remember the next time you find yourself chatting to Jane Anson or trying different types of wine.
Wine tasting actually begins before you’ve even started. Begin by looking at the wine’s colour – how deep or transparent is it? Is it dark? Purists will use a white background to really get a feel for this, and many can spend hours discussing the merits of a wine before it’s even touched their lips.
- Clarity: Or to give it it’s scientific term: suspended particulate matter. Clarity in wine refers to the reflective quality in the glass – clear wines are good cloudy (also called dull or hazy) ones not as much. It’s important not to confuse clarity with the absence (or presence) of sediment.
- Color: also see opacity. A general rule of thumb: the darker the hue, the older the wine.
- Lees: particles of yeast that form sediment. Gros lees are usually filtered out by the winemaker prior to bottling while fine lees are often kept in order to give the wine complexity and character.
- Opacity: red wine only. The older and fuller bodied the wine, the darker it will be.
- Rim: This is the slight difference in colour where the wine meets the glass. Younger red wines will have a rim that is lighter – think raspberry red. Middle aged wines lean towards a ruby hue. Older wines will be darker still verging on mahogany or appropriately wine in color. White wines have a pale chartreuse color, moving towards gold as they get older.
A couple of things about swirling. This act of swooshing your wine around its glass helps the wine’s aromas to oxygenate, thus making them easier to smell (step three). Use a small amount of wine in a large bowled glass for optimum exposure. And yes, it looks pretty cool too.
- Tears (sometimes also called leg fingers curtains church windows or feet): these are the streaks of wine that are left after the wine has been swirled in the glass and drop back to the liquid. The size and density of the tear speaks volumes; the thicker the tear in general the better quality the wine. Many people feel that it is the very soul of the wine that flows along the glass and a wine that cries beautiful tears denote a great vintage.
More commonly referred to as the nose of the wine. The smell of aromas is given off after that all important swirling. Much of the perceived taste comes from the initial smell. This is an all important past of wine tasting – and we haven’t even tasted a drop yet!
- Aroma: Not to be confused with wine flavors. Primary wine aromas are notably “pleasant” nature smells – think fruity, earthy, leathery, floral, herbal, mineral and woodsy flavours. Secondary aromas come from fermentation while tertiary aromas come from ageing (think spice, oak and toast smells).
- Bouquet: the bouquet is the collective noun for the aromas. So, the aroma would be of lemon while the bouquet would be of citrus fruits. Can also be used to describe the primary, secondary and tertiary aromas all together.
- Clean: wine that is clean or has a clean finish means that there are no “off” smells, such as cork, burnt rubber or horrifically, rotten eggs.
- Intensity: or to put it another way, the look and smell. Intensity when talking about color is the concentration of color – the more opaque the wine is, the higher the intensity. Intensity is described as pale, medium or dark. When talking about intense aromas adjectives such as neutral, clean and powerful are common.
- Nose: see aroma.
- Retronasal: the second wave of smell (aroma) after the nose. This is where wine is inhaled up the nose to the back of the mouth.
The time has finally come for you to actually taste the wine that you have thus far seen swirled and smelled. Breathe in, take a sip and let the wine sit there for a second or so in your mouth. You don’t need to gargle the liquid like mouthwash, au contraire, you want to let all those gorgeous aromas and bouquets linger on your palette like they are a lover.
- Acidity: water has a pH of 7 (neutral), Coca-Cola has a pH of 2.5 (high acidity), white wine has a pH of around 3 and red wine around 4-5. Wines that are higher in acid taste tart on the palette, while low acid wines are mellower. Low acid wines have to be managed correctly as too little acid results in an unpleasant sloppiness to the wine.
- Astringency: the bitter taste that can sometimes lead to the “mouth drying” feeling in red wine. The higher the tannins, the more astringent the wine. Highly tannic wines age beautifully and are best drunk only when they are mature.
- Attack: the initial sensation when you first sip the wine.
- Balance: when the harsh fundamental elements such as acidity and tannin are balanced with the sweetness of the fruit and alcohol.
- Wine Body: basically, how heavy the wine feels on your palette. Wines are either full, medium or light bodied. The weight of body depends on the grape varietal, alcohol content, sugar levels as well as tannin. Full bodied wines are powerful, light bodied wines are leaner and more delicate. Middle bodies wines are, you’ve guessed it, somewhere in between the two.
- Finish or aftertaste: one of the key elements to judge a wine’s quality by. After swallowing (or spitting out) the initial mouthful, the finish is the texture and flavor that lingers in the mouth. Finishes can be short, long or very long.
- Sweetness: not only related to the sugar levels, a wine’s sweetness is defined by its alcohol levels. Wine tasting terms for this often include heady, warm, powerful, weak and vinous. If a wine is not sweet it is classified as dry.
Veni, vidi, vici. You’ve come, you’ve seen, you’ve conquered. Now it’s time to relish the victory. Savoring the wine is the act of letting it linger on the tongue before gently swallowing it. The taste on your palette can be very different from the taste proper, so the swallow should not be a great gulp down. Rather, let the liquid trickle down your throat, slowly seducing you as if it were a lover. Savoring the wine allows for the finish to declare itself. Excellent vintages can have a finish of 20 minutes or more.
- Aftertaste (also called finish): the taste of wine on your tongue and in the back of your throat after the first sip of wine has been swallowed.
- Bitter: or to give it its proper name, phenolic bitterness (for white wines only). Formed by unmatured tannins but can taste amazing when paired with rich or fatty foods. Adjectives used to describe bitter finishing red wines include: structured, coarse, grippy, dense, harsh, austere and angular. Whites may be described as tasting of pith, bitter almond quince or chalk.
- Smooth: A smooth finish is a bit of a red herring. Asking for a wine with “a smooth finish” is a rookie mistake; smooth finishes per se don’t actually exist. The term is actually an overarching term used to describe several individual finishes. Under the smooth finish umbrella we find:
- Tart: common in wines grown in a cool climate. Tart finishes go from fruity to bitter.
- Sweet or smoky: common in older red wines.
- Spicy: the flavor burst that you get in your mouth, similar to when eating radishes or wasabi. Certain grapes, notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera, are well known for their spicy finish. It’s not always a good thing: spiciness can be a sign of an unbalanced wine.
Wine Color Terms
Wine comes in many more colors than just red, white, or rosé. The spectrum is simply phenomenal. Get your paintbox out, there are close to 100 different colors of wine.
White Wine Colors
There are 28 different hues used to describe white wines, although five main ones are most commonly used:
- Lemon-green (think the inside of a lime)
Rosé Wine Colors
Rosé wines have fewer hues, but still come in at a respectable 14. These include:
- Onion-skin (yes, really)
Red Wine Colors
Red wines have a phenomenal 48 hue color spectrum. These fall into one of the following five categories:
Note that the color of red wine evolves over time through ageing. As tannins begin to mature and oxygenation takes place, the color will deepen. So, what starts out as a young ruby, may well turn into an old tawny 15 years down the line.
Wine Aroma & Bouquet Terms
We’ve established the difference between aroma and bouquet above, but with over 100 different terms associated with describing the aroma and bouquet how can you be sure to talk the talk when it’s time to walk the walk? Many professionals use a color wheel, so don’t be afraid to invest in one if you think that this could help you.
Below are some of the most common terms associated with describing wine aromas. Concentrate, there are a lot.
- Dried Fruit
- Green Apple
- Red Apple
- Red Pepper
Wine Structure Terms
When people refer to wine structure, they are referring to the threeway relationship between the wine’s tannins, alcohol and acidity. The structure of a wine is very complex – some say the more complex the better – and a well structured wine will be a perfect balance of all three. When describing wine structure, experts use terms such as:
Wine Faults Terms
Regrettably, not all bottles are a success. The possibility of a fault in their wine haunts any respectable winemaker, but in the way that a perfect circle can never be drawn, 100/100 is nigh impossible to achieve and perfection is unattainable, sometimes you need to have a bit of bad to make the good stand out. Some of these things just happen beyond the winemaker’s control however, some are avoidable. This is why the correct storage is so important particularly if you are looking to sell, not drink, your wine.
Look out mainly for these seven things when opening that vintage bottle of Vouvray:
- Cork Taint (aka 2 4 6-Trichloroanisole or TCA)
- Sulphur Compounds
- Secondary Fermentation
- Heat Damage
- UV Damage
- Microbial and Bacterial Taint
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