Helpful wine terms

I ran across a great listing of descriptive wine terms that I thought would be nice to pass along to those of you who follow my blog.  I’ve had a number of people who ask about how not to look like a neophyte when visiting a winery and I think this listing would be extremely helpful.  Please feel free to use this link, which will open in a separate tab ( wine.html?cid=RSS_DUMMIES2_CONTENT) or allow me to share the information, piece by piece, with you.  The article was written by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan but I’m going to add my own commentary as we go.

There are many specific terms that people use to describe wine.  These words are helpful as they evoke tastes, smells, and memories that meant to give you an idea of what you have tasted or are about to taste.  Don’t be afraid to use these words… but don’t feel that you have to use these descriptors exclusively.  Knowing their meanings can help you understand when someone more” technically knowledgeable” describes a wine to you.  Knowing what you like and what appeals to you will help you choose a wine that you will most enjoy.
  • Aroma or bouquet:The smell of a wine — bouquet applies particularly to the aroma of older winesTake a moment to smell the wine.  Hold the glass just under your nose and inhale deeply for a moment.  Your wine guide (a term I like to describe the person walking you through your tasting at a winery) can give you some specific scents that should be prominent.  Many varietals have unique characteristics and you’ll begin to pick up on these with time.
  • Body:The apparent weight of a wine in your mouth (light, medium, or full)With your first sip, hold the wine in your mouth for a moment to discern it’s texture.  It sounds like a weird thing to do, but you don’t need a great deal of knowledge to tell if a wine seems thin, well-balanced, or heavy before you swallow.  It’s still a personal thing… a wine that feels thin or light to you can seem to have more depth to someone else.  Don’t stress over how a wine feels to you.  It’s not wrong, it’s personal.
  • Crisp:A wine with refreshing acidityIn my experience, this term typically refers to a white wine.   If I am looking for a wine that reminds me of a Granny Smith apple, this is the technical term I want to see used in its description.  It’s not going to smell like flowers… it’s not going to have a great deal of sweetness… This is the wine for someone who wants to taste the fruit but not the sweetness in their beverage.
  • Dry:Not sweetI really like this description of “dry” and “Residual Sugar” included in this article ( and find that it’s helpful to note that a wine that’s considered “dry” can taste fairly sweet.  When you visit James River Cellars Winery ( for a wine tasting,  you’ll find that the first five white wines are all considered “dry” but they vary greatly in the impression of sweetness.   Find what amount of sweetness appeals best to you and you’ll be much happier with your wine purchases.
  • Finish:The impression a wine leaves as you swallow itAgain, linger a moment as you swallow a sip of wine to see if the end matches the beginning, in your opinion.  Ultimately, that’s where the most important deciding factor lies… with YOUR opinion.
  • Flavor intensity:How strong or weak a wine’s flavors areThere are times when you want a strong flavored wine to accompany food… and there are times when you want something that comes across a little softer.   The aroma and color of the wine can give you an indicator of how intense the flavor will be, but be sure to always taste the wine.  You might be surprised, especially when sipping wines made by an especially talented winemaker or vintner.
  • Fruity:A wine whose aromas and flavors suggest fruit; doesn’t imply sweetnessThis is a difficult term around which to wrap my head… I’d always thought “fruity” meant “sweet”.  When tasting your wine, search out flavors of specific fruits… green apple, pear, peach, grapefruit, cherry… these can be found in varying degrees in so many wines that it’s worth taking the time to search your memory bank as you sip, smell, and savor.
  • Oaky:A wine that has oak flavors (smoky, toasty)Smoky and toasty flavors in a wine can be a wonderful thing… but if you’re not a fan, it’s going to quickly turn you off from tasting.  James River Cellars offers two different Chardonnays… one fermented in oak and one fermented in stainless steel.  Tasting these two wines, back-to-back, can be one of the most effective ways to showcase how oak can affect this specific grape.
  • Soft:A wine that has a smooth rather than crisp mouthfeelSoft is a descriptor that is another very individualized one, especially when it comes to wine.  What might feel “soft” to me, could be something entirely different to you.
  • Tannic: A red wine that is firm and leaves the mouth feeling dry

    This is the term you’ll use when a red wine leaves you with a pucker feeling in the back of your throat and a dry feeling throughout your mouth.  If you like this residual feeling when drinking a red wine, you’ll want something with strong tannins… if you’re not a fan, you want something that is described as either soft or smooth.

Use these terms as “jumping off points” when it comes to discussing wine with others and use them with confidence.  No one is wrong when describing how a wine feels or tastes to you and no one can tell you how to feel with regards to a wine.  This is one of my favorite points about wine tasting.  The idea is for you to enjoy yourself when drinking wine…. and to drink more wine.



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