Learning the Lingo
There are a lot of pretentious and fanciful words tossed around to describe wine. Tasting notes from producers, for example, ought to be taken with a grain of salt. Such notes are often useful but are, after all, a sales pitch. Some wine writers can also get a bit carried away with words. Although there have been many attempts to create an “official” wine tasting language, none has yet been fully accepted. Wine talk, like any specialist language, is beneficial only so long as it helps the reader understand the subject a little better. Here are some widely used terms you may find useful:
Acidity: There are good acids and bad ones. The good ones make wine lively and refreshing. "Volatile" acidity, mainly acetic acid, may be acceptable in small quantities but a significant amount will turn wine into vinegar.
Astringent: Associated with tannin, can be attractively dry or dried out and harsh.
Backbone: Used to describe a wine with firm structure.
Balanced: Harmony among the key components, acids, tannins, fruit and alcohol.
Big: A wine of substantial body and flavour. Usually implies high alcohol content as well.
Body: A measure of the "weight" or density of a wine, as in light, medium, or full bodied.
Botrytis or Botrytized: The "Noble Rot" of late harvested grapes produces an incredibly complex, concentrated flavour in the great dessert wines of Sauternes, Germany, Hungary's Tokay and certain New World producers. Note: Botrytis does not occur every year. Unaffected wines will be much less interesting.
Complex: A wine with different layers of flavor. Intriguing, demands your full attention.
Corky: An off-smell derived from a bad cork. The reason the cork is placed before you in a restaurant is so you may sniff it to ensure it is untainted before the wine is served. It is more important, however, to taste the wine to ensure that it is acceptable.
Depth: Not found in an everyday wine, but one worth contemplating - complex.
Earthy: A usually pleasing pungency - often associated with the Merlot grape and rustic old style European wines.
Extract: Primarily the fruit content which is extracted from the grape. More extract means a richer wine. Excessive extraction is a fault.
Fat: Rounded and mouth-filling, without a strong impression of acidity. A virtue in a buttery, New World Chardonnay, but would be a fault in a style that should be crisply acidic.
Finesse: Sums up everything that is most difficult to quantify, but which ultimately defines great wine -- memorable elegance, subtlety and complexity.
Finish: The lingering impression of taste after swallowing. The longer, the better.
Fruity: A fruity wine is one in which the impression of ripe fruit predominates. Often associated with simple wines made to be drunk young, may also be true of better wines that have not yet fully developed.
Full: Refers to body. Substantial, mouth-filling.
Green: Over acidic. Sometimes, a wine tastes this way because it needs more time to shed acidity. Often though, it is because the grapes were under ripe when harvested.
Hollow: A curious vacuum in taste between the first impression and the finish. Definitely a fault.
Legs: The thick drops, or tears that roll down the side of a wineglass when swirled. Mistakenly thought to be associated with glycerol, but actually an indication of alcohol found in wines over 12%.
Jammy: typical of some Australian and other New World styles, indicating a richly fruity quality. Sometimes complimentary, but when used critically implies cloying excessive sweetness.
Light: Self-evidently the opposite of full. Appropriate in a refreshing white or rosé, but a fault in a red style designed to be more substantial.
Oaky: The aroma and taste imparted by oak aging. American oak gives an impression of vanilla, or sometimes sandalwood (as in Rioja). French oak can be spicy in a different way. Many people get the scent of cedar. Oak softens and adds complexity but it should not dominate.
Oxidation: Spoilage caused by excessive exposure to air. Sometimes referred to as "Maderization" because of its similarity to Madeira where the effect is desirable.
Round: Satisfying and with no rough edges, as in "well-rounded".
Short: An abrupt and premature finish on the palate. Leaves the palate unsatisfied.
Supple: Attractively approachable, implies good quality but not greatness.
Structure: The "architecture" of the components. Applies only to substantial wines.
Tannic: Tannin is derived from the skins, seeds and sometimes the stalks of grapes, as well as the wood used for aging. Can be hard and chalky, or soft and chewy. Tannins permit a wine to age well and soften with time.
Texture: A definite feel in the mouth associated with more substantial wines. "chewy," "meaty," "velvety," are some terms used to describe texture.