Understanding Wine Descriptors – Part 1

In one of my previous posts I discussed about the nature of wine tasting notes that are mostly visible on the web nowadays. Most of them can be encountered on on-line wine forums/communities/tasting groups – a virtual world of wine linguists where anyone who is not accustomed to the language may feel a bit out of place.

If you happen to be one of these rank outsiders, it is worthwhile to get a basic understanding of the most common descriptors that have become almost de rigueur and to a large extent indispensable in modern day wine language.

Following is a list of such words/jargons/phrases that I’ve come across the most. Please note that they are not in any particular sensory order (appearance, nose & palate) but are general words that are most likely to appear in tasting notes. This list does not include the wine faults which I’ll discuss in my next post:

  • Astringent – A drying and often unpleasant sensation after swallowing. Mostly used to describe red wines with high tannin. Imagine a very strong black and unsweetened tea!
  • Austere – Simply, a wine that is hard to enjoy mostly due to high acidity or lack of fruit characters.
  • Autolytic characters – Used to describe Champagne and other sparkling wines made in the ‘traditional’ way. A character achieved by ageing these wines on dead and decomposing yeast cells. Synonymous with ‘yeasty’, ‘biscuity’, ‘briochy’ etc.
  • Big – A wine so full and rich in flavour that it seems big in the mouth. Sometimes may also be used to indicate high alcohol and tannic (not harsh but well integrated with flavour components) wines.
  • Body – Primarily indicates a combination of fruit, alcohol and sweetness but may also account for other factors.
  • Buttery – A creamy, almost butter like sensation observed in oak matured Chardonnays. See Malo characters below.
  • Chewy – Used for tannins that are so obvious that they need to be chewed before swallowing.
  • Closed – A wine that does not express itself entirely because it hasn’t matured enough.
  • Cloying – A negative term that indicates the sweetness of the wine which masks other characters.
  • Complex – In wine language, a positive term. Used for wines that demonstrate a balanced and wide range of flavour and aroma components.
  • Crisp – White wines that have high levels of but not necessarily unpleasant acidity.
  • Dumb – More or less similar to closed but in a more negative sense as they may not express themselves with age.
  • Depth – Suggests how long lasting the flavour profiles of a wine are.
  • Extract/Extraction – A term used to indicate the overall concentration of colour and flavour as ‘extracted’ from the skins of the grapes.
  • Flabby – A wine that lacks the required acidity to make it balanced.
  • Finish – Simply, the sensation once the wine is swallowed. A big factor in deciding the quality.
  • Firm – A wine which holds itself well with either acidity or tannin.
  • Fleshy – A positive term to suggest body and extract.
  • Hollow – A wine with initial burst of flavour and a lingering finish but not so obvious in between. Requires a trained palate to observe this.
  • Hot – Indicates high alcohol. Heat observed on swallowing.
  • Jammy – Red wines with jam like smells. May indicate over-ripe fruits but not necessarily in a negative sense.
  • Lean – Somewhat watery. Lacking body and character.
  • Legs/Tears – Refers to the droplets that cling to the glass and descend down slowly after swirling. A result of high alcohol or sugar content.
  • Length – How long the flavour lingers in the mouth after being swallowed.
  • Malo characters – Malo is the short form of ‘Malolactic Fermentation’ which not only softens the wine (of acidity) but also imparts ‘Malo’ characters which, in white wines are generally described as ‘creamy’ and ‘buttery’.
  • Minerally – A wine that is perceived to have some distinct qualities that resembles mineral characters. For example, imagine striking two flint stones and smelling it! Top German Rieslings show plenty of minerally characters.
  • Powerful – A wine’s ability to pack a punch. In other words how powerful is it in terms of flavours, tannin and alcohol.
  • Robust – A wine with plenty of character in terms of body, flavour, length and overall profile.
  • Structure – Indicates the overall balance and harmony of all the wine’s components.
  • Supple – An easy drinking wine with a smooth texture. Often used to describe the balance of red wines.
  • Vinous – A rather ambiguous tasting term. Simply speaking it just suggests a simple wine that just tastes of ‘wine’ (Vin=wine in French) without displaying the complexities of a truly good wine.
  • Viscous – Mostly refers to the texture which is not thin. A combination of alcohol, sweetness fruit and oak extract.
  • Vegetal/Herbaceous – Can be used in both positive and negative ways. When positive it refers to the distinct grassy/leafy aromas of grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc. In negative terms it means unripe tannins and fruit flavours in red wines.
  • Zesty – Often used to describe the acidity in a wine. Can also sometimes denote the citrus flavour profiles in grapes.

Although there are hundreds of other tasting terms used within the wine community, the list above are the ones that I’ve come across the most and in my view will assist a novice wine drinker in his/her quest to, well simply enjoy wine!

Part 2 on wine faults follows.




One thought on “Understanding Wine Descriptors – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Champagne – overrated & overpriced « Niladri’s Wine Musings

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