Wine Basics

By: Steve Pitcher

Wine Term Glossary

Appearance refers to the wine's clarity, not color.
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For as many different types of wine there are for you to try, there are twice as many words to describe the experience. Here is a list of some of the words wine enthusiasts use when discussing their favorite drink:

Acetic: A vinegarlike smell that indicates the presence of too much acetic acid. It may also be the result of wine left exposed to air for too long. Also see volatile acidity.


Acetone: A smell resembling nail polish; caused by too much amyl acetate.

Acid, acidity: A natural by-product of all grapes and an essential component of wine that preserves its freshness, keeps it lively, and shapes its flavors. Too much acidity makes the wine sour or unpleasantly tart; too little results in a flat or flabby wine.

Aftertaste: The taste left in the mouth after the wine is swallowed. The longer a pleasing aftertaste lingers in the mouth, the finer the quality of the wine. Similar terms are length and finish.

Aggressive: Unpleasantly harsh in texture because the wine has excessive acid or tannins.

Appearance: Refers to the wine's clarity, not its color.

Aroma: The smell of a young wine that comes from the grapes and the winemaking process, including aging in oak barrels. As the wine ages, the aromas should develop into a more complex bouquet.

Astringent: A rough, dry, harsh, puckery feeling in the mouth that results from excessive tannins and/or acidity.

Austere: Lacks generosity and richness, simple. Also see lean.

Balance: Occurs when all the wine's components, including concentration of fruit, levels of tannin and alcohol, and acidity, are in harmony; no one component overshadows the others.

Berrylike: A noticeable berry fruit character in aromas and flavors that resembles blackberries, raspberries, black currants, and/or black cherries. Used when one or more of these fruits is sensed but cannot be isolated.

Big: A full-bodied, intensely flavored wine with a hefty feel on the palate; often highly alcoholic.

Black currant: A fruit characteristic often used as a tasting note when describing the aroma and flavor of red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Also see cassis.

Black fruit: Inclusive term for black currant, blackberry, and black cherry, used in wine description when one or more of these fruit characteristics is sensed but cannot be specified.

Body: Describes the weight and level of fullness of a wine in your mouth, such as light bodied, medium bodied, medium-full bodied, and full bodied. The higher the body level, the higher the concentration of fruit, alcohol, and glycerine (a minor chemical product of fermentation) in the wine.

Bold: Dramatic; quite obvious and impressive. A similar term is forward.

Bouquet: The evolution of the wine's aroma after it has aged in the bottle, developing complexity and nuance.

Brawny: A big, full-bodied wine with lots of flavor that's pleasant to drink but not particularly elegant.

Brilliant: A very clear appearance with no cloudiness or floating particles.

Buttery: The smell, and sometimes the taste, of melted butter. It may also describe the wine's texture, as in a "rich, buttery Chardonnay."

Cassis: French for black currant.

Cedar, cedary: The smell of cedar wood often found in bottle-aged Bordeaux red wines and Cabernet Sauvignons; an element of bouquet.

Chewy: A rich, full-bodied, tannic red wine with lots of flavor, similar to brawny.

Cigar box: Aroma of cigar leaf before burning coupled with a cedary smell reminiscent of the inside of a cigar box.

Claret (rhymes with carrot): An English word that refers to a red wine blended in the Bordeaux tradition, using at least two of the five traditional grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.

Closed: Offering little or no aroma; lacking intensity.

Complex, complexity: A combination of many subtle elements in aroma and flavor that add up to a wine of great interest and appeal.

Corked: Moldy or musty smell (sometimes like wet cardboard) that occurs when a wine has been spoiled by contamination from a flawed cork. If the wine tastes dull and leaves a dry aftertaste, it's probably "corked."

Creamy: A silky or slightly thick mouth feel.

Crisp: Firm, refreshing, pleasant acidity; most often used in relation to white wines.

Cuvie: French for blend. It may also refer to a specific lot of wine.

Deep, depth: Highly concentrated flavors and/or intense aromas. Well-made wines are often described as exhibiting good or excellent "depth of flavor" because they seem to have layers of flavors that are intertwined.

Delicate: Light- to medium-bodied wines, usually white (though Pinot Noir can sometimes be described as delicate), with subtle but pleasing flavors.

Dry: Having little or no taste of sugar (any sweetness results from the attributes of the fruit). Bone dry is absolutely devoid of any sugary quality.

Earthy: Refers to a wine that smells of mushrooms or slightly damp, loamy topsoil. Similar to how the woods smell after a light spring rain: a combination of wet leaves, tree bark, damp earth. Sometimes musty or dusty. When used in a negative sense, it means dirty and unpleasant or funky, reminiscent of a compost heap, caused by undesirable fermentation by-products that can smell of cooked cabbage and garlic.

Elegant: Exhibiting grace, balance, smoothness, complexity, and refinement on the palate; no rough edges.

Extract: Very rich, concentrated fruit flavors.

Fat, flabby: A full-bodied wine with a high level of alcohol and a lower-than-normal level of acidity, made from very ripe grapes, usually from a warm harvest. This can be a positive element when the flavors are bold, ripe, and rich. If the acidity is inadequate, a fat wine becomes flabby and is considered flawed.

Finesse: Describes a wine in which an extravagant element (such as very ripe fruit or the use of 100 percent new oak in fermentation and aging) is tamed into something more refined or delicate. A similar term is breed, which implies that a wine is harmonious and lovely, with overall characteristics reaching classical expectations of varietal character, balance, and structure.

Finish: The lingering flavors on the palate after a wine is swallowed. Similar terms are aftertaste and length.

Flat: Very low or deficient in acidity making the texture seem dull; can also refer to sparkling wine that has lost its bubbles.

Fleshy: Smooth and soft in texture, chewy, with a lot of fruit (also see generous). Rich texture (from the glycerine in the wine) and ripe fruit make the wine feel a little bit like syrup in the mouth. A similar term is fat, a combination of medium to full body and slightly low acidity, which makes the wine feel and taste more obvious and show less elegance.

Floral, flowery: An aroma reminiscent of flowers, such as roses, lemon blossoms, or jasmine. Associated mainly with white wines, though some reds, such as Pinot Noir, may also exhibit floral scents.

Focused: When the wine's aromas and flavors are clearly delineated

Forward: Aromas (usually) or flavors that are quite obvious, requiring very little time or effort to perceive or recognize, usually in young wine.

Fresh: A lively, clean, fruity character.

Full-bodied: Rich in alcoholic strength and fruit extract.

Gamy: A smell you might encounter in a butcher shop, something like raw venison or game birds. Often noticeable in mature Burgundian Pinot Noir, older Bordeaux reds, and Syrahs.

Generous: Offering more than a standard measure of flavors and aromas.

"Grassy" refers to the wine scent of freshly cut grass.
Publications International, Ltd.

Grassy: Often associated with Sauvignon Blanc, suggesting the scent of freshly cut grass.

Green: The smell of a wine (red or white) made from underripe grapes, sometimes vegetal.

Hard: Showing firm, astringent tannins or excess acidity, often applied to young red wines. Time may tame this characteristic. Opposite of soft.

Harsh: Rough, hard, astringent texture due to excess tannins and/or acidity. Considered a flaw.

Hazy: Cloudy in appearance.

Hearty: A wine that is not particularly elegant; contains lots of fruit, as well as noticeable tannins and alcohol. Usually used to describe red wines, such as Zinfandel or Petite Sirah. Sometimes the term brawny is used in its place.

Herbaceous: The smell and taste of fresh or dried herbs like thyme, lavender, or rosemary.

Hint: A very subtle or slight yet significant aroma or flavor component, such as "a hint of

Honeyed: Rich smell and taste resembling honey or honeycomb. Usually noticeable in white dessert wines, such as Sauternes or a Beerenauslese Riesling.

Hot: High in alcohol. A hot wine will leave a burning sensation at the back of the throat when swallowed.

Jammy: Concentrated, rich, quite ripe fruit flavors, like jam.

Leafy: A green or vegetal smell similar to herbaceous, but more reminiscent of leaves than herbs.

Lean: A wine without generosity or fatness, lacking in fruit. This is not necessarily a negative term, such a wine is often a fine match with food. Another word for the same thing is austere.

Leather, leathery: Tasting of dried fruit or having a fragrance that is similar to glove or saddle leather. This is not necessarily negative, provided you find the quality attractive.

Lively: The quality of being fresh, youthful, and fruity with bright acidity.

Long: Refers to the length of time the wine lingers on the palate after swallowing. A wine that leaves an impression of flavor on the palate for more than a few seconds (sometimes up to several minutes in great wine) is said to be "long in the mouth" or to possess great length.

Lush, luscious: Velvety; soft and round in texture with generous, rich fruit.

Meaty: Denotes a red wine with abundant, concentrated fruit and a "chewy" texture. It also refers to the smell of cooked or roasted meat.

Mellow: Soft, unaggressive, sometimes slightly sweet.

Musty: An unpleasant moldy or mildew smell that can be the result of using moldy grapes, poor or unclean tanks or barrels, or a bad cork.

Nose: The wine's smell, including bouquet in older wines.

Oaky: The aroma, and sometimes flavor, imparted to a wine from the oak barrels used to age it. It may be positive, as when the oaky character is toasty, vanilla, or moderately smoky. Negative characteristics are charred, burnt, or woody.

Off: Having a flaw or not showing true varietal character, something wrong with the nose or flavors. An "off" nose, for example, may exhibit a smell that is unpleasant or uncharacteristic of the type of wine.

Opulent: Rich and flavorful, bursting with character and complexities.

Oxidized: Flat, stale smells and flavors, sometimes resembling Sherry or old apples. Indicates that a wine has been exposed too long to air, either at the winery or in an open bottle.

Peppery: The aroma and flavor sensation of pepper spice, usually either black pepper or white pepper. Often noticeable in Syrahs and Zinfandels.

Perfumed: Aroma in fragrant white wine that is strong, usually sweet, and sometimes floral.

Plummy: The smell and taste of ripe plums found in rich, concentrated red wines.

Pronounced: A very apparent element in aroma or flavor. If a Sauvignon Blanc has a "pronounced grassy nose," it means that the wine smells very grassy or has a bell pepper quality that is impossible to ignore.

Pruny: Exhibiting the flavor of overripe fruit or raisins. Raisiny is also used in this context.

Racy: Lively and zesty with bright acidity.

Rich: High in extract with generous, full, pleasant flavors and a smooth, round texture.

Robust: Full-bodied and expressive with intense flavors.

Round: Texture that is smooth, not coarse or roughly tannic.

"Silky" is defined as firm yet soft in texture.
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Silky: A firm yet distinctly soft texture, not as opulent as velvety.

Smoky: Aromas and sometimes flavors imparted to the wine from the toasted oak barrels used for fermentation and/or aging. This characteristic may also be a product of the soil in which the grapes were grown, for example, in the red wines of Graves in Bordeaux and the Pouilly-Fume of the Loire Valley, which are made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Soft: Round and mellow, low in acidity, with no rough tannic edges. Opposite of hard.

Spicy: General term indicating aromas and/or flavors of one or more kinds of spice, such as clove, cinnamon, pepper, anise, and mint.

Stalky: A green, vegetal character suggesting the wine had too much contact with the grape stems. Another word that means the same thing is stemmy.

Strong: Powerful, alcoholic.

Subtle: Suggesting aromas and/or flavors that are understated but significant, as opposed to overt.

Sulfur, sulfury: A smell resembling a struck match. Sulfur is used in wineries to clean barrels and can taint the wine stored in them if improperly used.

Supple: Lush, soft, very round in texture.

Tannic, tannins: A wine's tannins, a mouth-puckering substance that is necessary for aging, come primarily from the grape's skins and seeds. If too much of this substance is in the finished wine, it will seem firm and rough in the mouth. A tannic wine is one that is young and unready to drink. Over time, tannins should mellow, becoming less noticeable.

Tight: A wine that has yet to open up and develop; not expressive in aromas and flavors but exhibits good acidity and a good level of tannins.

Tobacco, tobacco leaf: The scent of fresh burning tobacco or a high-quality cigar wrapper. Considered desirable in many red wines. Similar to cigar box but without any cedary overtones.

Vegetal: Green smells and tastes of plants and vegetables, such as bell pepper. In some wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon, this is a varietal characteristic but only at reduced levels. When it is the dominant characteristic of the wine, it is a flaw.

Velvety: A rich, smooth, almost thick texture, more opulent than silky.

Volatile, volatile acidity: Commonly noted as "VA," this is the presence of an excessive amount of acidity, which imparts a vinegarlike smell to the wine. Also see acetic.

Entering the world of wine may seem intimidating at first. There are so many wines, and it's hard for the beginner to differentiate between them. Hopefully this article has shown you that the art of enjoying wine should be just that -- a joy. Now that you have the background information and the journal pages you need, it's time to hit the wineries.

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