What Do Wine Tasting Terms Mean?
Published by Simon Huntington on 31/08/2017
Ever read a wine tasting note and thought, “what on earth does that mean?” The descriptive terms used in tasting notes can sometimes seem downright odd. After all, there are no twigs in an oaky white, or pebbles in a mineral red.
Often, this is because language is just really bad at describing the sensations we feel. This is especially true of senses as primal as taste and smell, which evolved long before we developed language. Wine tasters, therefore, are forced to convey their impressions via metaphors.
As a parallel, think about how hard it would be to describe pain without metaphor. A stabbing pain doesn’t literally have to mean you’re being shanked, and you don’t have to be sitting too close to a radiator to have a burning pain (although you should probably get that checked out).
With wine, there’s the added problem that, if tasting notes are written immediately after a particularly lengthy and enjoyable tasting, the creative juices can be a little over-stimulated.
But we’ve read many wine tasting notes that seem like they could only have been written by a random wine review generator: “The 2011 Syrah from Champs de Merde incorporates flippant shrimp midtones with a complex millet essence….”
We can’t promise to explain what a flippant shrimp tastes like, but we can explain what many of the most common tasting terms mean.
Abbreviation of ‘alcohol by volume’. It is normally listed on a wine label in percentage format to let you know how much alcohol is in the bottle you’re about to drink.
Acid is present in all grapes and is an absolutely essential part of any wine. It can be detected by the sharp, crisp character it gives wines. It is responsible for making a wine taste fresh and is an important balance to any sweetness.
Wine described as having an 'autolytic' character have a yeasty or bread-like smell or taste. Often this comes from ageing the wine on its lees.
When a wine has all its essential components (acid, tannin, sugar and alcohol) in harmony, so that one component does not overwhelm any of the others.
Barrels in winemaking are usually made from oak - either French or American - and are often used to age wine or sometimes as a container for fermentation. American oak tends to impart a stronger, sweeter flavour than French oak. Either can be toasted before use to bring a different dimension, but the most common distinction made between barrel types is between old and new. New barrels can overwhelm the natural flavour of the wine if they're overused, so older ones, or a mixture, are often preferred.
A special type of barrel. Barriques have a capacity of 225 litres and are relatively tall. Although they are all a set size, the term barrique does not indicate whether it is old or new oak, or the level of toasting inside.
Biodynamics is a farming practice that advocates harmony between the earth, the vine and the cosmos. Its theories hail from anthropologist Rudolph Steiner who proposed that everything is connected and cyclical when it comes to agriculture. Proponents of this system say that their wines are more stable and are truer expressions of their vineyard. Some of our growers use biodynamic practices, but whether this is what makes their grapes so good, or whether they are just good growers anyway, is open to debate.
Individual wines can be blended together to make something with better balance. Blending might be between wines made from different grape varieties, grown in different vineyards, harvested in different years, or treated differently during the winemaking process.
A tasting where the identity of the wines being tasted is withheld from the people doing the tasting. It’s a pretty good way to sort out wines that legitimately taste amazing, from those relying on their label and/or reputation to influence the tasters.
Term to describe the weight of a wine in the mouth. Full-bodied wine is heavier, with more power, more alcohol, tannin and flavour. Lighter-bodied wine is more delicate.
A wine that’s not very forthcoming with its characteristics and maybe needs to breathe, or age for a bit longer. It doesn’t necessarily mean a bad wine – like a person who’s not very open and friendly at first, but then turns out to be really nice once you get to know them, sometimes you just have to give a wine the benefit of the doubt.
Not a wine with emotional problems, but a wine with lots of different flavour characteristics, all working together. Generally considered a good thing.
Cork taint is a specific wine fault caused by a fungus which can lay hidden deep within cork bark. Its effects can range from the barely detectable to the severe. At the less serious end of the scale, it’s often difficult to say for certain that something is amiss without opening a second bottle for comparison. The fruit flavour of the wine may appear dull and muted, and the wine may finish short. In more severe cases, the wine will smell distinctly musty and, in extreme instances, of rotting cardboard or like a mouldy dog.
A wine with a few bits of cork floating around in it is not corked, although you might want to have a word with the person who poured you your glass.
A wine (typically white) with higher acidity and leaner fruit, which comes across to the drinker as fresher, more zingy and more enjoyable to drink on a hot day. If it tastes of cheese and onion, you’re not drinking wine.
Some wines have a taste of red fruit, combined with juicy acidity, which is best described as “crunchy”. Think of a crisp red apple, or a firm red plum.
A French term for a particular batch, blend or type of wine.
A wine is dry if it contains little or no residual sugar. A common mistake is to believe that a wine is not dry if it tastes of sweet things, such as fruit. The flavour of the wine is unrelated to whether a wine is dry or not.
A wine with more savoury flavours and aromas of forest floor or mushrooms might be said to be earthy. It usually also indicates a style of wine with less impression of fruit sweetness.
A wine that lacks acidity. Think how less refreshing fizzy drinks become when they go flat; the carbon dioxide bubbles give these drinks more acidity and, once it’s gone, they’re not as nice to drink.
When you swallow a wine (or spit it out… like that’s a thing) the flavours and sensations of the wine will stay with you for a period of time. Poor quality wines tend to disappear from the mouth quickly, whereas high quality wines are said to have a long finish i.e. the flavours last a long time. If you like the taste, that’s a good thing!
A wine which emphasises ripe, jammy fruit character as its principal characteristic, as opposed to an older wine, which might be more earthy and gamey, or an oaky wine dominated by aromas of toast or vanilla.
A tasting of wines from the same year, but from multiple producers. Usually organised around a theme such as grape, region or style.
The particles that settle at the bottom of a tank or barrel after fermentation or ageing, made up of dead yeast cells and grape fragments. Leaving a wine to age on these lees can impart additional complexity to the finished product, adding silky texture and bready aromas.
Vines growing on particular types of soil – for example Santorini’s volcanic soils, or Chablis’ Kimmeridgian chalk – are said to impart a mineral characteristic to their wines. While it’s hard to define what constitutes a mineral flavour, research conducted by Dr Wendy Parr of Lincoln University, New Zealand found that most tasters agree that mineral wines tend to taste of citrus, with fresh zingy notes, a smoky character, and chalky texture.
A wine smelling or tasting of characteristics derived from ageing in oak barrels. These can range from sweet vanilla (indicating use of American oak) or more subtle buttered-toast notes (from French oak).
As vines get older, they become less vigorous and produce fewer grapes, but the grapes they do produce become more intensely flavoured and complex. There’s no legal definition, but as a rule of thumb, vines would need to be aged around 50 years to be considered old. If a vine produces less fruit, this means less wine can be made, so as well as being better, a wine made from old vines is also likely to be a little more expensive.
This is what happens when a wine has been exposed to oxygen for too long. This can happen during the winemaking process, or if it has been stored incorrectly and the closure has failed. It’s why your wine starts to taste like vinegar after a few days of being left open.
No Mr Muscle involved. Just means a well-made wine with smooth tannins / texture.
A specialist waiter in a restaurant, who oversees the wine list and advises customers on wine choices. Not everyone who loves wine, or whose profession involves wine, is a sommelier.
Acidity and tannin are two major components of a wine that give it structure, texture and the ability to age and improve.
Think of a glass of wine being a bit like a body – the fruit is the muscle and the acidity and tannin are the skeleton – neither would work without the other.
A well-structured wine is one where these different components are in harmony with each other, and this might also give the impression that the wine could age well.
Some wines are actually sweet – in other words, they contain a significant amount of sugar. Others may be incorrectly described as sweet, even when they’re actually bone dry, because their ripe fruit character gives an impression of sweetness.
A bitter compound that naturally occurs in the skins, seeds and stems of a grape. They give wines dryness and structure, and can add complexity. Tannins are also an antioxidant, working to protect the wine as it ages. Tannins can be detected in many wines - they feel grainy and drying on your gums.
A French term, which doesn't have a single direct equivalent in English. It refers to the combination of factors that influence the quality and character of wine in a particular area or vineyard, including soil, climate and grape variety. If a vineyard or region is said to have good terroir, it means that it is all of those factors are favourable for the production of good wine. A wine tasting of its terroir indicates that it is typical of its region and/or vineyard.
A tasting of the same wine, but from different vintages, alongside one another.
The year a particular wine’s grapes were picked. If a wine is 'non-vintage' it means it is made up of a blend of wines from different years, and not that it is of lesser quality. Most Champagne, for example, is non-vintage.
Who’s ever actually tasted a wet stone? Not us! This is one of those difficult-to-define, evocative terms, indicating something like the smell of a pebble beach in the rain, with hints of salinity and earth.
A person who lives in a winery and occasionally makes wine.
Anything you think we missed? Get in touch with your best / worst / funniest wine tasting notes and we’ll do our best to decipher them and get them added to our list.
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