Liquids: Wine Terminology

“This,” said the sommelier as he presented me with a bottle of Ca’Viola “Barturot” Dolcetto D’Alba, “has a most excellent nose.” We nodded at each other before he commenced pouring the wine. “You’ll see that it’s deep ruby with purple-black highlights, great viscosity, a beautiful bouquet of violets, jammy blackberry fruit, powerful structure, and great length.”

If I hadn’t known him, I would have slapped him. It was all an act to get a rise out of me. And it did. The sommelier in question is David Lynch, a Boston College grad and wine writer who also happens to be the wine director at Babbo in New York City. Lynch, coauthor with fellow BC alum and oenophile Joseph Bastianich of Vino Italiano (Clarkson-Potter), believes the problem with wine lingo is that there’s no objective wine-tasting vocabulary for flavors. “The thing that marks weak writing is the same thing that marks weak wine-list writing: weak adjectives,” he says with exasperation. “Words like ‘fine,’ ‘young,’ ‘yummy,’ ‘delish.’ ‘Delish’ is descriptive of nothing.”

I couldn’t agree more. Tasting notes and catch phrases used by salespeople and marketers are usually written by professionals for other professionals. Those words are then passed on to everyday Joes who haven’t a clue in the world what they mean.

“Learning to appreciate wine is one thing; communicating about it is another thing entirely,” say Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in The World Atlas of Wine (fifth edition, Mitchell Beazley), the Holy Grail of wine encyclopedias. “Taste has no vocabulary just as color has no sound. Apart from the words ‘sweet,’ ‘salt,’ ‘sour,’ and ‘bitter,’ every word in the language of taste is borrowed from the other senses.” Still, by using words to describe sensations, wine lingo should help clarify them. But it often doesn’t because it’s based on cryptic phrases understood only by those in “the club.” Lynch nails it when he says: “Wine geekdom has a language all its own that’s no different from the secret words children create to keep other kids out of their fort.”

Herewith, the keys to the fort: a cheat sheet of the most commonly used—and misunderstood—wine terms and phrases. Now when you hear them, you can break the code before slapping someone.

What they say: “Bright acidity!” What it sounds like: Someone squeezed a lemon
on a wine geek’s paper cut. What they mean: The tart, refreshing quality of some wine that makes your mouth water. Good examples: riesling (from Germany or Alsace, France); sauvignon blanc (from New Zealand or South Africa); Beaujolais-Villages (from France); Chianti (from Italy).

What they say: “Great balance!” What it sounds like: A St. Pauli Girl–esque fräulein gripping five beer steins in each hand. What they mean: The four components of wine are equal: acid balanced against sweetness; fruit balanced against tannin. Good examples: If I must name names, pinot grigio (from Italy’s Friuli region) and pinot noir from Oregon.

What they say: “Lovely body!” What it sounds like: The Pirelli Tire calendar just arrived. What they mean: How the wine feels in your mouth. Light connotes thin and simple; medium means full-flavored without being too heavy; heavy means the wine has a robust, round, and very rich feel. Good examples: I prefer medium to full body, which can be found in both whites (California chardonnay and white burgundy) and reds (French Rhône, Italian Chianti, Spanish Rioja).

What they say: “Beautiful nose!” What it sounds like: Yet another crack at poor Karl Malden. What they mean: A pretentious way of saying a wine smells pleasant. Good examples: All wine should smell pleasant. My favorite aroma? The honeysuckle perfume of the viognier grape (from Condrieu in France).

What they say: “So well concentrated!” What it sounds like: The frozen O.J. needs more water. What they mean: The wine is full-bodied. Good examples: Any of the “Big Boys”: Bordeaux and Burgundy (France); Amarone, Barolo, and Chianti Classico Riserva (Italy); Rioja Gran Reserva (Spain); superpremium cabernet sauvignon (California, Australia, Chile).

What they say: “Intense extract!” What it sounds like: There was a typo in a recipe calling for a “splash of vanilla.” What they mean: The color and concentration of flavor; inky color implies superconcentration, lending the wine a thick feeling on the palate. Good examples: Again, look to the “Big Boys” above.

What they say: “Wonderful finish!” What it sounds like: Prince Charles to Camilla, postcoitus. What they mean: The overall taste that remains in your mouth after you’ve swallowed the wine. A full-bodied wine has a long finish; a light-bodied wine has a shorter finish. Good examples: All good wine has something of a finish. Want to ride a roller coaster? Strap in with one of the “Big Boys.”

What they say: “Just a little fruity.” What it sounds like: Mr. Roper describing Jack Tripper. What they mean: Fruit sweetness, not to be confused with technical sweetness (think Sauternes) or residual sugar (think white zinfandel). It’s best never to describe a wine as sweet, as few really are; but most should be fruity. Good examples: Want to taste a cornucopia? Buy a chardonnay from California’s central coast.

What they say: “Nice legs!” What it sounds like: Sinatra to Mia Farrow. What they mean: Every wine has “legs,” the drops of wine that “tear” down the side of the wine glass. Though it is, in fact, a pretentious allusion to viscosity, it’s really antiquated and unhelpful. It means nothing. If a wine geek says this to you, say: “Thank you!” Good examples: There’s no such thing.

What they say: “Wow, what length!” What it sounds like: My wife during
Mark Wahlberg’s famous scene in Boogie Nights. What they mean: Refers
to how long you taste the “finish.” Good examples: See “Finish.”

What they say: “Pleasant mouthfeel!” What it sounds like: Prince Charles to Camilla again. What they mean: The impressions or sensations a wine makes on your palate, especially weight and texture. Good examples: Every wine has mouthfeel. You’re on your own to discover what you like.

What they say: “Solid structure!” What it sounds like: King Kong atop the Empire State Building. What they mean: A catchall phrase to sum up if a wine is in “balance.” Makes great cocktail party fodder. Good examples: See “Balance.”

What they say: “Firm tannin!” What it sounds like: George Hamilton to himself in the mirror. What they mean: A natural byproduct in wine by way of grape skins, seeds, and stems. In young wines tannin is a distinct puckery bitterness; in older wines it’s discernible as “full-bodied” “mouthfeel.” Good examples: Try a young cabernet sauvignon (less than five years old) next to an older one (at least eight to 10 years old). You’ll understand tannin.