For wine novices and connoisseurs alike, wine tasting sessions let you “try before you buy” and learn what you like. But wine tastings (or just “tastings,” for true aficionados) also offer a special opportunity for beginners: a chance to learn the poetic language of flavor! At first it might seem confusing or just plain pretentious (and sometimes it is!), but wine vocabulary can be a lot of fun–and the descriptions of the wine you taste can be surprisingly vivid!
If you attend a tasting at a winery or specialty store, the owner or professional wine expert (called a sommelier or “somm” for short) will likely present you with a list of wines, along with detailed descriptions of each wine’s flavor. As you learn the wine lingo, the terminology will start to make more sense, but newbies often find it bewildering. Fortunately, we’ve taken the time to cover the basic wine vocabulary to help you get started. Before long, you will be the one holding forth about “notes of tobacconist’s chocolate with a robust finish” and “fruit-forward with lurking hints of tannin.”
A Short Dictionary of Wine Vocabulary
SWEET: We’ll start simple. Sweet means . . . well . . . sweet. If you don’t know when something is sweet, then you have bigger problems than we can address here….
DRY: The opposite of sweet. For wine, this means no sugary taste. Dry wine flavors have more of a (pleasant) bite or snap to them than sweet flavors.
BODY: The sense of a wine’s fullness or weight in the mouth. Typical terms are full-bodied, medium-bodied, or light-bodied.
ROBUST: Describes a full-bodied wine with bold flavor.
COMPLEXITY: A multi-layered taste that can include a wine’s body, richness, depth, flavor intensity, balance, and harmony of flavor elements. Decent wines have complexity–i.e. they don’t just have one simple flavor. Complexity often changes or grows with a wine’s age.
BOUQUET: A fancier term for a wine’s aroma or smell–typically used after the wine has been decanted into a glass. Generally applied to wines that have a pleasant aroma, like a bouquet of flowers.
FINISH: A wine’s aftertaste–the flavor that stays in your mouth after you swallow. This is sometimes contrasted with “up front” or “forward” flavors.
RICHNESS: The quality of having a full, rounded, often sweet or otherwise pleasant flavor.
DEPTH: Refers to a wine’s complexity of flavor, especially when there are multiple aspects or elements to the taste (e.g. a combination of fruit and oak barrel flavors). Multi-layered tastes have “depth.”
BALANCE: Balanced wines have multiple qualities to the flavor, but no one element overpowers the others. Unbalanced wines lack any sense of subtle variation or multilayered tastes.
HARMONIOUS: Describes a wine with contrasting yet well balanced flavors that go together.
FRESH: Often associated with younger wines–having a bright, crisp, vivid, or even fruity taste. Fresh wines also typically have a less notable aftertaste.
FLORAL: Describes an aroma (or, appropriately, “bouquet”) that reminds one of flowers. Usually a property of white or rose wines, but can apply to some reds, as well.
TANNIN: Also called “tannic acid,” a chemical compound responsible for the “dry” flavors in some wines. Tannins are polyphenols that come from, among other sources, the skin and seeds of grapes, and also woody plant fibers like stems or oak barrel staves. Some research suggests that tannins have anti-cancer properties.