Wine 101: Basic Terminology

Wine 101: Basic Terminology 1

When it comes to describing why we like red over white, Malbec over CabSav, or even South Australian Shiraz over South African Shiraz, it can be difficult to find the words. We are often well versed in what things look like, sound like, and perhaps even feel like, but our vocabulary for gustatory and olfactory sensations is often limited.

A gustatory and olfactory vocabulary can help you articulate what it is about a certain type of wine that appeals to you. Remember that our sense of smell and taste are inextricably linked.

So, here are a few terms used to describe what’s happening to your senses when tasting wine. Some of them might be obvious, others involve synesthesia and might surprise you (how can a beverage be ‘chewy’?). Synesthesia is the confusion or mix-up of senses, when the wires get crossed. Sometimes we describe the way something sounds with a visual adjective and so on. Gustatory and olfactory language often involved synesthesia in an attempt to communicate the complicated and less understood senses of smell and taste. You’ll find some below.

The terms below are an introduction to the world of wine tasting and will give you the language to effectively communicate your love of certain wines. It is widely recognised that giving language to emotions, sensations, and memories empowers us and draws things into sharper focus. By giving yourself the language to understand wine, you will add fullness to your drinking experience and be more likely to savour and appreciate the experience.

Wine 101: Basic Terminology 2

Smell, Taste, & Lingering Taste:

Nose/bouquet: the aroma of the wine as you put your nose to the glass and breath deeply.

Palate: the overall taste, so this is where you use you can apply your new gustatory language.

Aftertaste: The taste that lingers on your tongue after a few sips

  • The aftertaste is salty if it lingers past the tip on both sides
  • The aftertaste is sweet if it stays close to the tip
  • The aftertaste is sour is it runs along the backside of your tongue
  • The aftertaste is bitter if you can continue to taste the wine at the back-most part of your tongue.

Gustatory/Olfactory language (remember there will be cross over)

Tannins: This is something to explain upfront. Tannins are a substance that comes from the grape stems, seeds and skin. Tannins create a puckering sensation inside your mouth. (Just like the feeling of biting into a cider apple, or sipping green tea that is much too strong.) Tannins are natural preservatives and a huge player in the aging and development of wine. A wine high in tannins is ‘tannic’.

Round: used to define a glass of wine that has a very smooth texture to it.

Soft: describes a wine with very low acidity or with very few tannins (it doesn’t make your mouth pucker).

Chewy: on the other hand, chewy is the right word for wines that are full bodied and full of tannins. They have so many tannins and make your mouth pucker so much it feels like you could chew the wine instead of drink it.

Sweet: use sweet to describe a wine that leaves you with the taste of sugar on the tongue.

Dry: is the antonym of sweet (the diametric opposite). Dry describes a wine that seems to have no taste of sugar. Remember, taste and smell are subjective and therefore what might taste very dry to you, might only taste slightly dry to someone else (because sweetness, and the lack thereof [i.e. dryness], is something our palates having varying degrees of exposure to).

Oaky: is a term that describes the smell or taste of strong woodiness. A wine is likely to taste or smell oaky if it was aged in oak barrels or casks.

Wine 101: Basic Terminology 3

Fruity: now, fruity as a descriptor can of course refer to the nose of the wine, or the palate of the wine. If the wine smells like fresh fruit or has the taste of fresh fruit, it can be described as fruity.

Grassy: this is a significant marker used in the description of sauvignon blanc wines.

Floral: is most likely to be a descriptor of the nose of a wine (given that most of us don’t eat flowers regularly). Floral refers to an aroma of flowers when smelling the wine.  It is usually associated with white wine.

Earthy: is term to describe wine that has residual flavors or aromas of soil. For the grapes that clung to their roots and soaked up the essence of the earth.  Earthiness is most commonly associated with Pinot Noirs and Cabernets. When describing the complexities of wine earthiness can be a good sign.

Clean: describes a wine that doesn’t have any flavors that are unbalanced or a wine that feels fresh across the palate. 

Crisp: is a word for wines that are highly acidic with hints of bright fruit and a clean finish. These wines have a bit of bite and they don’t linger on the pallet.

With those gustatory and olfactory words under your belt you’ll better appreciate your wine drinking experience, feel more comfortable at wine tastings, and perhaps teach your friends a thing or two. The list of wine terminology is endless but this is a good start with some basics. Master these before tackling a more comprehensive glossary; your senses might be overwhelmed.

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