In a well-known watering hole with a reputation for serving up good wine (who shall remain nameless), the following bold statement was overheard: “Wow, look how robust this wine is. It’s big and bold yet still has something pretty about it. There’s a funky earthiness and heaps of spice but that racy acidity cleans up the finish nicely. Charming!” To most of us, this sentence may as well be written in an obscure foreign language. But in the context of ‘wine-speak’ this sentence is an attempt to try and convey what the wine tastes like (albeit glossed up with some rather odd descriptors) and can be quite relevant when trying to describe the particular characteristics of a wine.
The glossary of wine-speak is something that is constantly evolving, but once you get your head around some of the better-known phrases (and even some of the more left-of-centre ones too!) you’ll be able to confidently weave your way into a serious, in-depth wine discussion at any occasion and in any company. Below is a brief foray into the language of wine, which will hopefully allow you to manage some of those awkward wine-related moments with more confidence.
Acidity: Acidity is a vital component when it comes to bringing freshness to wine. Wines with excessive acidity will taste sour and tart whereas wines lacking acidity can seem dull and lifeless. Racy and crisp = good acidity. Flabby = bad.
Aroma: The smell of a young wine, hopefully full of lovely fresh (primary) fruit.
Balance: The holy grail for winemakers. Wines should be in balance, with the acidity, alcohol, fruit and tannins all coming together in harmony.
Barnyard: There’s no denying that if a wine smells like a barnyard it’s going to be tricky to be seen as a positive. Yet historically it was! In more modern times if your wine smells of a barnyard it is more than likely to be slightly faulty or have been produced in a winery with less than acceptable hygiene standards.
Body: Body refers to the complete sense the wine purveys on the palate. Wines with more concentrated fruit flavours, higher alcohol and ripeness will be full bodied and softer wines with less concentrated fruit will most likely be described as light bodied.
Chunky: Not often heard, but when thrown about refers to some wines that are perhaps carry a bit of extra weight.
Clunky: When a wine is out of balance with too much acid and not enough fruit and tannins, or also a wine with too much fruit and lacking acidity. Simply put, a wine that is out of balance.
Closed: If a wine is described as closed it could mean a couple of things. Hopefully it means that with a bit of air it might start to open up and show itself off a bit better but it could also mean that it’s a bit young and could benefit from some time in the cellar.
Corked: Often misunderstood. Cork taint is a fault and a corked wine will smell mouldy and of damp cardboard. It is the result of an unclean or faulty cork. When the cork and wine come into contact this musty smell is imparted upon the wine.
Delicate: Wines which are lighter in body, with a softer personality, normally less fruity and more perfumed.
Delicious: Modern term for wines which are quite simply delicious. We got you there!
Earthy: A term quite often used to try and make excuses for under-ripe wines. Can be positive though, and some older wines can develop a lovely earthy character.
Elegant: In a nutshell, elegant wines are seamlessly constructed with a degree of subtlety rather than being big, jammy and full-bodied.
Fat: Some people like fat wines, some people even have fat wine fetishes, and some people feel you need a knife and fork to get through fat wines. Fat wines have a plumpness to them, and spades of concentrated fruit with lower acidity, giving a sense of opulence and oomph!
Finish (and Length): Not when the bottle is empty but more how the wine ends up on the palate. If the flavour lingers for a while and has layers of fruit, you may say ‘Wine Z has a nice long complex finish’. Wines that have a short finish will usually be cheaper simpler wines but can still have ‘a short but pleasant finish’.
Flabby (what fat wines can quickly become): A wine lacking in acidity that looks flat and unflattering.
Flashy: Commonly wines that attract a hefty price tag, that have probably seen a lot of new oak and will have lots of ripe, rich fruit.
Focused: When a wine has a nose and fruit profile that is really precise and nicely defined.
Funky: Nothing to do with James Brown, funky is loved by some and loathed by others. Generally used to describe a wine that had some slightly different aromas and flavours, which are neither fruity nor faulty!
Herbaceous: Often wines, and some specific varieties, have a lovely herbaceous character, ranging from thyme to lavender and fennel. If a wine is overtly herbaceous it may lack a bit of ripeness.
Intensity: Something for wine makers to strive for. Wines with intensity of fruit balanced with acidity, alcohol and tannins is what we all want to drink and what wine makers look to capture when making wines.
Lean: Even though they might lack the profile of some of their fuller-bodied friends, lean wines, with their lighter framework and more streamlined personality lean wines can still provide oodles of drinking pleasure.
Linear: A wine with nicely defined acidity which gives the wine drive and focus.
Masculine: A full bodied wine with concentrated fruit, high tannins or a dose of new oak would fall into the masculine category.
Minerality: Minerality is more often than not used to describe wines with a flinty, slately, steeliness (but is often wrongly used to describe wines which have racy acidity).
Nose: The nose is wine-speak for the smell.
Oxy (Oxidized): Oxy is used if a wine has been exposed to oxygen and has deteriorated due to the damaging effect oxygen can have on the structure of a wine. Some wines on the other hand are made with a bit of oxidative handling and are intended to have an oxidized character (think Amontillado Sherry and Tawny Port)
Oaky: Oak should always been in balance when used in winemaking. When used judiciously, oak adds a lovely toasty character to white wine and helps build in complexity. With reds it adds layers of flavour and helps the wine soften out before bottling.
Plump: A plump wine is one that has concentration of sumptuous primary fruit and that isn’t over extracted and fat but more… plump!
Pretty: Pretty wines are making a comeback! Petty will refer to a wine that is elegant, normally with a nice floral character that charms the palate rather than making it work too hard.
Silky: Velvety and silky can be used interchangeably to describe a bottle that has a lovely mouth feel, and with a plushness of fruit that is usually fairly plump but not quite fat.
Smokey: Smokiness can be derived from a period of oak maturation. If a wine has a smoky character in its youth it may well have spent some time in highly toasted new oak barrels and could benefit from some in time in the cellar before you pop open the next bottle
Steely: When a wine has higher acidity it will come across as being steely.
Tannins: Tannins are mostly found in red wines and are the cause of the drying sensation you feel on your gums. High, unripe tannins can be aggressive and unpleasant, but round, soft tannins help bring structure to a wine.
Yummy: Perhaps not a technical wine tasting term but let’s face it, sometimes a wine is just yummy and demands that you drink it up in good company and with a smile on your face.
So there you have it: 35 introductory pieces of wine-speak that will not only build your knowledge of the glossary of wine, but hopefully give you more confidence when it comes to selecting your next bottle. If nothing else, hopefully it will at least it give you something to chat about when you are next cornered by a sommelier at a dinner party!