On your next visit to wine country, why not ask for a chance to taste wine straight from the barrel? Though the tasting will be unlike anything you experience from a bottle, it will be fun and memorable.
ACIDIC: Used to describe wines whose total acid is so high that they taste tart or sour and have a sharp edge on the palate.
AERATION: The process of letting a wine “breathe” in the open air, or swirling wine in a glass. It’s debatable whether aerating bottled wines (mostly reds) improves their quality. Aeration can soften young, tannic wines; it can also fatigue older ones.
AFTERTASTE: The taste or flavors that linger in the mouth after the wine is tasted, spit or swallowed. The aftertaste or “finish” is the most important factor in judging a wine’s character and quality. Great wines have rich, long, complex aftertastes.
AGGRESSIVE: Unpleasantly harsh in taste or texture, usually due to a high level of tannin or acid.
ALCOHOLIC: Used to describe a wine that has too much alcohol for its body and weight, making it unbalanced. A wine with too much alcohol will taste uncharacteristically heavy or hot as a result. This quality is noticeable in aroma and aftertaste.
APPEARANCE: Refers to a wine’s clarity, not color.
AROMA: Traditionally defined as the smell that wine acquires from the grapes and from fermentation. Now it more commonly means the wine’s total smell, including changes that resulted from oak aging or that occurred in the bottle- good or bad. “Bouquet” has a similar meaning.
ASTRINGENT: Describes a rough, harsh, puckery feel in the mouth, usually from tannin or high acidity, that red wines (and a few whites) have. When the harshness stands out, the wine is astringent.
AUSTERE: Used to describe relatively hard, high-acid wines that lack depth and roundness. Usually said of young wines that need time to soften, or wines that lack richness and body.
AWKWARD: Describes a wine that has poor structure, is clumsy or is out of balance.
BACKBONE: Used to denote those wines that are full-bodied, well-structured and balanced by a desirable level of acidity.
BACKWARD: Used to describe a young wine that is less developed than others of its type and class from the same vintage.
BALANCE: A wine has balance when its elements are harmonious and no single element dominates.
BITE: A marked degree of acidity or tannin. An acid grip in the finish should be more like a zestful tang and is tolerable only in a rich, full-bodied wine.
BITTER: Describes one of the four basic tastes (along with sour, salty and sweet). Some grapes–notably Gewurztraminer and Muscat–often have a noticeable bitter edge to their flavors. Another source of bitterness is tannin or stems. If the bitter quality dominates the wine’s flavor or aftertaste, it is considered a fault. In sweet wines a trace of bitterness may complement the flavors. In young red wines it can be a warning signal, as bitterness doesn’t always dissipate with age. Normally, a fine, mature wine should not be bitter on the palate.
BLUNT: Strong in flavor and often alcoholic, but lacking in aromatic interest and development on the palate.
BODY: The impression of weight or fullness on the palate; usually the result of a combination of glycerin, alcohol and sugar. Commonly expressed as full-bodied, medium-bodied or medium-weight, or light-bodied.
BOTTLE SICKNESS: A temporary condition characterized by muted or disjointed fruit flavors. It often occurs immediately after bottling or when wines (usually fragile wines) are shaken in travel. Also called bottle shock. A few days of rest is the cure.
BOUQUET: The smell that a wine develops after it has been bottled and aged. Most appropriate for mature wines that have developed complex flavors beyond basic young fruit and oak aromas.
BRAWNY: Used to describe wines that are hard, intense, tannic and that have raw, woody flavors. The opposite of elegant.
BRIARY: Describes young wines with an earthy or stemmy wild berry character.
BRIGHT: Used for fresh, ripe, zesty, lively young wines with vivid, focused flavors.
BRILLIANT: Describes the appearance of very clear wines with absolutely no visible suspended or particulate matter. Not always a plus, as it can indicate a highly filtered wine.
BROWNING: Describes a wine’s color, and is a sign that a wine is mature and may be faded. A bad sign in young red (or white) wines, but less significant in older wines. Wines 20 to 30 years old may have a brownish edge yet still be enjoyable.
BURNT: Describes wines that have an overdone, smoky, toasty or singed edge. Also used to describe overripe grapes.
BUTTERY: Indicates the smell of melted butter or toasty oak. Also a reference to texture, as in “a rich, buttery Chardonnay.”
CEDARY: Denotes the smell of cedar wood associated with mature Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet blends aged in French or American oak.
CHEWY: Describes rich, heavy, tannic wines that are full-bodied.
CIGAR BOX: Another descriptor for a cedary aroma.
CLEAN: Fresh on the palate and free of any off-taste. Does not necessarily imply good quality.
CLOSED: Describes wines that are concentrated and have character, yet are shy in aroma or flavor.
CLOUDINESS: Lack of clarity to the eye. Fine for old wines with sediment, but it can be a warning signal of protein instability, yeast spoilage or re-fermentation in the bottle in younger wines.
COARSE: Usually refers to texture, and in particular, excessive tannin or oak. Also used to describe harsh bubbles in sparkling wines.
COMPLEXITY: An element in all great wines and many very good ones; a combination of richness, depth, flavor intensity, focus, balance, harmony and finesse.
CORKED: Describes a wine having the off-putting, musty, moldy-newspaper flavor and aroma and dry aftertaste caused by a tainted cork.
DECANTING: Process for separating the sediment from a wine before drinking. Accomplished by slowly and carefully pouring the wine from its bottle into another container.
DELICATE: Used to describe light- to medium-weight wines with good flavors. A desirable quality in wines such as Pinot Noir or Riesling.
DENSE: Describes a wine that has concentrated aromas on the nose and palate. A good sign in young wines.
DEPTH: Describes the complexity and concentration of flavors in a wine, as in a wine with excellent or uncommon depth. Opposite of shallow.
DIRTY: Covers any and all foul, rank, off-putting smells that can occur in a wine, including those caused by bad barrels or corks. A sign of poor winemaking.
DRY: Having no perceptible taste of sugar. Most wine tasters begin to perceive sugar at levels of 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent.
DRYING OUT: Losing fruit (or sweetness in sweet wines) to the extent that acid, alcohol or tannin dominate the taste. At this stage the wine will not improve.
EARTHY: Used to describe both positive and negative attributes in wine. At its best, a pleasant, clean quality that adds complexity to aroma and flavors. The flip side is a funky, barnyardy character that borders on or crosses into dirtiness.
ELEGANT: Used to describe wines of grace, balance and beauty.
FAT: Full-bodied, high alcohol wines low in acidity give a “fat” impression on the palate. Can be a plus with bold, ripe, rich flavors; can also suggest the wine’s structure is suspect.
FINISH: The key to judging a wine’s quality is finish, also called aftertaste–a measure of the taste or flavors that linger in the mouth after the wine is tasted. Great wines have rich, long, complex finishes.
FLESHY: Soft and smooth in texture, with very little tannin.
FLINTY: A descriptor for extremely dry white wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, whose bouquet is reminiscent of flint struck against steel.
FLORAL (also FLOWERY): Literally, having the characteristic aromas of flowers. Mostly associated with white wines.
FRESH: Having a lively, clean and fruity character. An essential for young wines.
FRUITY: Having the aroma and taste of fruit or fruits.
GRAPEY: Characterized by simple flavors and aromas associated with fresh table grapes; distinct from the more complex fruit flavors (currant, black cherry, fig or apricot) found in fine wines.
GRASSY: A signature descriptor for Sauvignon Blanc and a pleasant one unless overbearing and pungent.
GREEN: Tasting of unripe fruit. Wines made from unripe grapes will often possess this quality. Pleasant in Riesling and Gewurztraminer.
GRIP: A welcome firmness of texture, usually from tannin, which helps give definition to wines such as Cabernet and Port.
HARD: Firm; a quality that usually results from high acidity or tannins. Often a descriptor for young red wines.
HARMONIOUS: Well balanced, with no component obtrusive or lacking.
HARSH: Used to describe astringent wines that are tannic or high in alcohol.
HAZY: Used to describe a wine that has small amounts of visible matter. A good quality if a wine is unfined and unfiltered.
HEARTY: Used to describe the full, warm, sometimes rustic qualities found in red wines with high alcohol.
HEADY: Used to describe high-alcohol wines.
HERBACEOUS: Denotes the taste and smell of herbs in a wine. A plus in many wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, and to a lesser extent Merlot and Cabernet. Herbal is a synonym.
HOT: High alcohol, unbalanced wines that tend to burn with “heat” on the finish are called hot. Acceptable in Port-style wines.
LEAFY: Describes the slightly herbaceous, vegetal quality reminiscent of leaves. Can be a positive or a negative, depending on whether it adds to or detracts from a wine’s flavor.
LEAN: A not necessarily critical term used to describe wines made in an austere style. When used as a term of criticism, it indicates a wine is lacking in fruit.
LEGS: The viscous droplets that form and ease down the sides of the glass when the wine is swirled.
LENGTH: The amount of time the sensations of taste and aroma persist after swallowing. The longer the better.
LINGERING: Used to describe the flavor and persistence of flavor in a wine after tasting. When the aftertaste remains on the palate for several seconds, it is said to be lingering.
LIVELY: Describes wines that are fresh and fruity, bright and vivacious.
LUSH: Wines that are high in residual sugar and taste soft or viscous are called lush.
NOSE: The character of a wine as determined by the olfactory sense. Also called aroma; includes bouquet.
NOUVEAU: A style of light, fruity, youthful red wine bottled and sold as soon as possible. Applies mostly to Beaujolais.
NUTTY: Used to describe oxidized wines. Often a flaw, but when it’s close to an oaky flavor it can be a plus.
OAKY: Describes the aroma or taste quality imparted to a wine by the oak barrels or casks in which it was aged. Can be either positive or negative. The terms toasty, vanilla, dill, cedary and smoky indicate the desirable qualities of oak; charred, burnt, green cedar, lumber and plywood describe its unpleasant side.
OFF-DRY: Indicates a slightly sweet wine in which the residual sugar is barely perceptible: 0.6 percent to 1.4 percent.
MALIC: Describes the green apple-like flavor found in young grapes which diminishes as they ripen and mature.
MEATY: Describes red wines that show plenty of concentration and a chewy quality. They may even have an aroma of cooked meat.
MUSTY: Having an off-putting moldy or mildewy smell. The result of a wine being made from moldy grapes, stored in improperly cleaned tanks and barrels, or contaminated by a poor cork.
PEAK: The time when a wine tastes its best–very subjective.
PERFUMED: Describes the strong, usually sweet and floral aromas of some white wines.
PRUNY: Having the flavor of overripe, dried-out grapes. Can add complexity in the right dose.
RAISINY: Having the taste of raisins from ultra-ripe or overripe grapes. Can be pleasant in small doses in some wines.
RAW: Young and undeveloped. A good descriptor of barrel samples of red wine. Raw wines are often tannic and high in alcohol or acidity.
RICH: Wines with generous, full, pleasant flavors, usually sweet and round in nature, are described as rich. In dry wines, richness may be supplied by high alcohol and glycerin, by complex flavors and by an oaky vanilla character. Decidedly sweet wines are also described as rich when the sweetness is backed up by fruity, ripe flavors.
ROBUST: Means full-bodied, intense and vigorous, perhaps a bit overblown.
ROUND: Describes a texture that is smooth, not coarse or tannic.
RUSTIC: Describes wines made by old-fashioned methods or tasting like wines made in an earlier era. Can be a positive quality in distinctive wines that require aging. Can also be a negative quality when used to describe a young, earthy wine that should be fresh and fruity.
SMOKY: Usually an oak barrel byproduct, a smoky quality can add flavor and aromatic complexity to wines.
SOFT: Describes wines low in acid or tannin (sometimes both), making for easy drinking.
SPICY: A descriptor for many wines, indicating the presence of spice flavors such as anise, cinnamon, cloves, mint and pepper which are often present in complex wines.
STRUCTURE: The interaction of elements such as acid, tannin, glycerin, alcohol and body as it relates to a wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Usually preceded by a modifier, as in “firm structure” or “lacking in structure.”
SUBTLE: Describes delicate wines with finesse, or flavors that are understated rather than full-blown and overt. A positive characteristic.
SUPPLE: Describes texture, mostly with reds, as it relates to tannin, body and oak. A positive characteristic.
TANNIN: The mouth-puckering substance–found mostly in red wines–that is derived primarily from grape skins, seeds and stems, but also from oak barrels. Tannin acts as a natural preservative that helps wine age and develop.
TART: Sharp-tasting because of acidity. Occasionally used as a synonym for acidic.
TIGHT: Describes a wine’s structure, concentration and body, as in a “tightly wound” wine. Closed or compact are similar terms.
TINNY: Metallic tasting.
TIRED: Limp, feeble, lackluster.
TOASTY: Describes a flavor derived from the oak barrels in which wines are aged. Also, a character that sometimes develops in sparkling wines.
VEGETAL: Some wines contain elements in their smell and taste which are reminiscent of plants and vegetables. In Cabernet Sauvignon a small amount of this vegetal quality is said to be part of varietal character. But when the vegetal element takes over, or when it shows up in wines in which it does not belong, those wines are considered flawed. Wine scientists have been able to identify the chemical constituent that makes wines smell like asparagus and bell peppers.
VELVETY: Having rich flavor and a silky, sumptuous texture.
VINOUS: Literally means “winelike” and is usually applied to dull wines lacking in distinct varietal character.
VOLATILE (or Volatile Acidity): Describes an excessive and undesirable amount of acidity, which gives a wine a slightly sour, vinegary edge. At very low levels (0.1 percent), it is largely undetectable; at higher levels it is considered a major defect.