Tasting notes should make you thirsty. They should make you want to drink the wine described. But wine writers sometimes get a little hung up on technical matters, or assume that everyone knows what ‘cassis’ is, or what ‘truffle’ tastes like. Here’s a jargon-busting dictionary to help you make sense of it all.
Accessible… Ready to drink. Some wines are deliberately made to be enjoyed young; some need maturing to open up or lose the rough edges of youth (in the right conditions, of course).
Acidity… It’s what gives wine freshness, makes your mouth water (if your eyes water, there’s too much – see ‘volatile acidity’). Too little acidity and the wine can taste ‘flabby’. Acidity also protects wine from ‘browning’ or becoming ‘oxidised’ as well as from yeast infections like brettanomyces (see ‘brett’).
Aftertaste… See ‘length’.
Aggressive… Either very ‘tannic’ or high in ‘acidity’ or both.
Alcoholic… A burning sensation in your mouth due to excessive alcohol. Wines with over 14% alcohol by volume usually taste ‘hot’ if they don’t have enough fruit concentration to balance the alcohol. (At the opposite extreme, too little alcohol can make a wine seem ‘thin’ or ‘watery’).
Angular… Lacks ‘roundness’. See ‘hard’.
Aroma… A fancy word for what a wine smells like.
Astringent… Harsh in taste, either due to youthfully high tannins or very high acidity (this should recede over time in the case of a good wine).
Austere… Sometimes used in a good way to describe wine that is a little shy but should become more generous over time (see ‘closed’). However, it can also imply a hard, dry, ungiving character.
Backbone… Firm, well-formed, not ‘flabby’.
Backward… A wine that isn’t as drinkable/evolved as you might expect for its age. Also see ‘closed’.
Bacterial spoilage… Sometimes visually detectable (a cloudiness due to the presence of micro-organisms or fizziness due to an unwanted secondary fermentation or malolactic fermentation in bottle) but usually discernible as a mouldiness on the nose or palate.
Baked… A wine that smells or tastes cooked, a result of overripe grapes or ‘oxidised’ grape juice. Also see ‘Maderised’.
Balance… Good balance is surely the most desired trait in a wine, where fruit concentration, tannins, acidity and alcohol are in total harmony. All good wines must have it for any chance at all of maturing gracefully.
Bead… Stream of bubbles in sparkling wine, also see ‘mousse’.
Beefy… Similar to ‘chewy’. Also hints that the wine isn’t just fruity but also a little savoury.
Big… A big wine tastes intense, concentrated, full-bodied. Often implies high alcohol, too.
Bite… See ‘grip’.
Bitter… In small concentrations, bitterness can be a pleasant complement to sweet fruit flavours (think ruby grapefruit), but it can also refer to harsh tannins or even indicate a fault.
Blind tasting… Where the identity of the wines being assessed is withheld from the tasters until all scores and notes have been submitted.
Body… The fullness or extract of a wine; its perceived weight in your mouth. A wine can be ‘light’, ‘medium’ or ‘full’ bodied.
Botrytis/ed… A tangy noble-rot character due to grapes being infected by the Botrytis cinerea fungus (highly desirable in Noble Late Harvest dessert wines; occasionally discernible in dry wines).
Bottle age… The development of aromas and flavours as the wine develops in bottle (delicious complexity in good wines; stale or even ‘off’ notes in wines that have aged badly).
Bottle shock… A temporary condition of the wine immediately after bottling, characterised by muted or disjointed fruit flavours.
Bottle stink… Off-putting sulphury smell (think cooked cabbage or even rotten eggs) that is sometimes evident on opening a bottle of wine. But the good news is that it usually dissipates if you allow the wine to breathe for a few minutes.
Bouquet… A wine nerd word, usually reserved for the smell of a mature or maturing wine.
Breathe… Wine ‘breathes’ when it is poured out of the bottle. Exposure to the air destroys ‘bottle stink’ and any other undesirable aromas, allowing the wine to open up and release its positive aromas.
Brettanomyces… Brett for short, this is a type of yeast that spoils a wine when its smell and taste become too obvious. Sensory descriptions range from ‘earthy’ and ‘leathery’ at the tolerable end to ‘Elastoplast’ or even ‘dirty hamster-cage’ when the fault becomes unacceptable.
Bright… Used to describe fresh, lively young wines with focused, ripe flavours.
Brilliant… This usually refers to the appearance of the wine – clear with no cloudiness.
Browning… As red wines age, their colour changes from almost purple to dark ruby, to medium ruby, to ruby with a brown edge (at which point it is usually fully mature and unlikely to get any better), and eventually brown. Browning in young wine is a problem (i.e. the wine is ‘oxidised’).
Burnt match… A smell revealing the addition of sulphur dioxide (almost always added to wines as a general-purpose disinfectant and preservative, with small amounts occurring naturally as a by-product of fermentation). Usually harmless (except for asthmatics), it usually dissipates on exposure to air.
Buttery… On the nose: the smell of melted butter or toasty oak. On the palate: rich in texture, such as a rich, creamy Chardonnay (where the butteriness is a result of malolactic fermentation, which converts sharp ‘malic acid’ into softer ‘lactic acid’).
Cassis… Fancy French word for blackcurrants.
Cat’s pee… A particularly pungent ‘aroma’, sometimes associated with New Zealand-style Sauvignon Blanc.
Chewy… Texture of a dense, full-bodied, fleshy wine, usually the result of high extraction (of colour and tannins).
Chunky… Similar to ‘chewy’.
Cigar box… A (positive) character sometimes picked up in red wines that have been matured in heavily toasted oak barrels.
Classic… Displaying all the positive attributes of a famous region, e.g. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Northern Rhone etc.
Clean… Fresh on the nose and palate, free of any ‘off’ smells or tastes.
Closed… A wine not showing much in terms of smell or taste; sometimes it will ‘open up’ after a bit of time in the glass.
Cloying… Very sweet or sugary wines lacking in balance (i.e. not enough acidity to offset the sweetness).
Coarse… A roughness which usually refers to excessive tannin or oak. Also used to describe large bubbles in sparkling wines.
Coffee… Isn’t this website about wine? In this case, the wine flavour derived from heavily toasted/charred oak, currently very popular in Pinotage. Also see ‘oaky’ and ‘spicy’.
Commercial… Not necessarily a derogatory term; indicates that the wine is a crowd-pleaser.
Complex… A subjective term to describe interesting, multi-layered wines that keep the taster coming back for more. However subtle the nuances, they should be harmonious.
Concentrated… A richness and depth of fruit that is appealing (whether the wine is light, medium or full bodied).
Confected… Unpleasantly sweet, jammy, even artificial (implying added flavourants).
Cork taint… A ‘corked’ wine does not have bits of corks floating in it. Those are just bits of cork. Fish them out. Cork taint is the result of corks not being sterilised properly, resulting in a compound named 2,4,6-trichloroanisole making wine smell musty, mouldy, like damp cardboard or fetid mushrooms. Cork growers are working hard to eliminate the problem, many having already lost business to screwtop producers.
Creamy… A smooth, soft texture; sometimes even a butteriness in white wines that have had extended lees contact and/or wood contact.
Crisp… Fresh, zesty, mouth-watering – all terms indicative of high acidity (usually in young white wine styles).
Delicate… Refers to a light- to medium-bodied wine that is subtle, understated, elegant.
Dense… Used for wines with both concentration of flavour and textural ‘depth’.
Depth… The level of colour and/or flavour concentration as well as complexity.
Deposits… See ‘sediment’.
Dirty… Referring to off-putting smells suggesting lack of cellar hygiene or bad barrels.
Dried-out… A wine that is past its prime, tired, lacking in fruit character or sweetness.
Dry… A wine with no perceptible sweetness.
Dumb… Similar to ‘closed’ but more negative, suggesting that the wines won’t ever develop or open up.
Earthy… From a pleasant damp soil smell (contributing to the complexity of a wine) to a dirty farmyard character (possibly indicating ‘brett’). European wines commonly taste of soil or minerals (‘minerality’) but it should never be at the expense of fruit flavours.
Easy-drinking… Enjoyable, undemanding and inexpensive; usually simple or even boring.
Elegant… Subjective term, but the wine is graceful rather than a big blockbuster; has great balance.
En-primeur… Any wines that are offered for sale before they have been bottled, similar to buying a “future”.
Extract… All the aromas, flavours, tannins and colour extracted from the grapes (excluding sugar). The ‘guts’ of the wine. Sometimes visible in your glass once all the liquid has evaporated!
Fading… A wine past its prime, losing colour, fruit and/or flavour.
Farmyard… An ‘earthiness’ highly desirable for some (especially in Pinot Noir), but can suggest ‘dirty’ aromas.
Fat… Rich and concentrated, sometimes associated with good wines from a hot climate (low to average acidity) but a flaw if excessive, becoming ‘flabby’.
Faulty… Don’t drink it. The wine is flawed, whether due to the condition of the grapes, poor cellar practices, dirty winemaking equipment, or tainted bottles, corks, etc.
Finesse… A subjective term similar to elegance, implying that the wine has that indescribable quality separating fine and great wines from slightly lesser wines.
Finish… See ‘length’.
Flabby or flaccid… Usually implies insufficient acid, poor balance. The wine lacks ‘backbone’.
Flat… Lacks character, acid. Also describes sparkling wine that has lost its fizz.
Flaw… See ‘faulty’.
Fleshy… See ‘chewy’.
Flight… Group of wines in a tasting (can be categorised by grape variety, wine style, vintage or region).
Flinty… A characteristic of some very dry white wines, usually Sauvignon Blanc. Smell is that of flint struck against steel; taste is slightly metallic.
Floral… A flowery component, usually associated with scent (you smell flowers, after all, you don’t eat them).
Focused… Indicative of clearly defined aroma and taste. The hallmark of a fine wine.
Fortified… A wine to which neutral grape spirit has been added either before fermentation is complete (to result in a sweet wine like Port) or after fermentation (for a dry style of sherry).
Forward… Obvious smells and flavours, nothing shy or closed about the wine. A forward wine is usually ready to drink; it can also be a wine that is maturing unusually fast.
Fresh… Whether young or old, a fresh wine is clean, bright and lively, often with high acid levels and pure fruit flavours.
Fruity… All wines should have a concentrated fruit character, but a good wine should have more to it than an obvious fruitiness.
Full-bodied… Wines tending to richness in extract and alcohol.
Funky… This can mean that a wine is slightly faulty but not necessarily in a bad way, i.e. not enough to detract from the overall impression of the wine.
Gamey… See ‘meaty’ but with wilder, herbier venison notes.
Grapey… Simple aromas and flavours but mostly wine doesn’t taste like grapes but a little more interesting.
Grassy… A typical descriptor for Sauvignon Blanc. Mostly pleasant.
Gravelly… See ‘mineral’.
Green… Usually implies under-ripe fruit (and green tannins can be harsh and bitter) but occasionally used in a positive sense (in ‘herbaceous’ Sauvignon Blanc, for example).
Grip… Good grip means a positive, firm texture; the result of balanced acidity/tannins/alcohol. (A wine can also be too grippy if the tannins are so drying as to be Velcro-like.)
Hard… Astringent tannins or high acidity, usually a term for young wines that will (hopefully) mellow over time. If a wine is too hard, it can be described as harsh – which is a flaw.
Heady… Usually used to describe intense, piercing, appealing array of aromas. Can also imply high alcohol.
Heavy… Very full-bodied, even over-extracted.
Herbaceous… Herbal, mainly on the nose. Leafy as opposed to grassy or flowery. A plus in certain wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc).
Hollow… Dilute, lacking in concentration. Usually goes hand-in-hand with a short finish.
Honey/ed… Literally a honey taste or viscous texture, also a sign of development in bottle.
Horizontal tasting… You, after a few too many glasses. No, simply a tasting of different wines of the same variety and vintage (as opposed to a ‘vertical tasting’).
Hot… See ‘alcoholic’.
Intensity… Concentration of aroma and flavour, with great wines vibrant, layered, textured and (above all) balanced. Because intensity can be created artificially (e.g. the addition of acid), it doesn’t always imply greatness.
Jammy… Can imply good ripeness, lots of flavour, but usually hints at over-ripeness, excessive extraction.
Juicy… Vibrant, youthful, fruity style of wine.
Lactic acid… The result of malolactic fermentation, a common winemaking procedure which transforms sharp ‘malic acid’ into this softer, smoother acid.
Lanolin… An oiliness found in some heavy white wines, particularly Semillon.
Leafy… Can be a positive synonym for ‘herbaceous’ but too leafy implies ‘vegetal’ or ‘green’ wine.
Lean… Another word for ‘austere’ (which can be a good thing) but can also mean lacking in fruit or concentration.
Leathery… Sometimes a mature red wine can smell leathery (probably a little ‘earthy’ too). When wine writers get really carried away, they might even refer to things like ‘sweaty saddles’.
Leesy… Creamy richness imparted to a wine from time spent on the lees (the dead or residual yeast particles left after fermentation). Can be toasty or nutty in flavour, most obviously in bottle-fermented sparkling wines.
Legs… Describes how wine clings to the sides of the glass after swirling – the greater the alcohol by volume, the more viscous the wine, and the ‘longer’ the legs. Also known as ‘tears’.
Length… The amount of time the taste of a wine lingers in the mouth after swallowing (or spitting). Generally, the longer the length (or ‘finish’ or ‘aftertaste’), the better the wine.
Light-bodied… At best admirably low in alcohol and delicate; at worst thin and watery.
Light/lite… Officially wines under 10% ABV.
Lively… Usually refers to good, vibrant, crisp acidity. Can also imply fresh, up-front fruit.
Long… Lingering aftertaste. See ‘length’.
Luscious… Rich, soft, velvety – usually used for wines high in sugar.
Maderised… The caramelised-nut character that can be evident in older wines that have also usually ‘browned’.
Malic acid… A major component of a (white) wine’s acidity, its sharp taste is like that of a tangy green apple (desirable in unwooded wines like Sauvignon Blanc, less desirable in a ‘buttery’ Chardonnay or any reds – which are therefore put through malolactic fermentation to convert the malic acid into softer lactic acid).
Mature… Ready to drink.
Matured… Meaning ‘aged’ (either in barrel during the winemaking process or in bottle where the wine has been allowed to develop or attain peak drinking condition).
Meaty… Usually a general ‘savouriness’, sometimes literally the smell/taste of meat (raw, roasted, smoked etc).
Mineral… Minerality suggests ‘earthy’ quality (more stone than soil!). Synonyms could also include ‘gravelly’ or ‘pebbly’.
Mousse… The fine bubbles that characterise a sparkling wine once its cork has been removed. Generally speaking, the smaller the bubbles, the better the quality of the wine.
Mouthfeel… The dominant textural sensations in your mouth when you sip the wine – is it light, medium or full bodied; crisp or viscous; its tannins soft and ripe or harsh and bitter. Also see ‘texture’.
Mouth-filling… Wine that is big, rich, high in fruit extract and usually high in alcohol. See also ‘chewy’.
Musty… A note that occasionally dissipates with aeration but is usually a flaw due to the wine having been stored in dirty barrels or cellars, or exposed to tainted cork.
New World… Implies fruit-forward wines with bold use of oak, as opposed to more subtle, complex, ‘vinous’ wines of the Old World.
Nose… A rather stuck-up wine snob term for the smell of a wine. See also ‘aroma’ and ‘bouquet’.
Nutty… Can be a positive, describing a certain ‘oaky’ flavour, but also used to describe ‘oxidised’ wines.
Oaky… Wines fermented and/or matured in oak barrels usually have discernible aromas and flavours, e.g. spice, toast, vanilla, smoke, cedar etc. If these dominate the fruit character, the wine can be described as oaky. An even bigger problem is when the wine tastes burnt or like plywood.
Off… Flawed or spoilt wine with an abnormal taste or odour. See also ‘faulty’.
Off-dry… A hint of sweetness; ‘fruity’ rather than dry; less sweet than ‘semi-sweet’.
Old World… See ‘New World’.
Opening up… When a ‘closed’ wine’s aromas and flavours start appearing, sometimes only several minutes after being poured.
Oxidised… Wine that has been exposed to air, turning it brown (like an apple you’ve bitten into) and making it taste stale. Older wines gradually turn brown due to tiny amounts of oxygen permeating the cork (and in these tiny quantities adding complexity to the wine, sometimes giving it a sherry-like tang).
Palate… Flavour, taste, texture – everything you experience when the wine is in your mouth.
Peak… When a wine is at its best (almost impossible to predict with certainty, but you know it when you taste it).
Pebbly… See ‘mineral’.
Perfumed… A smell associated mostly with fragrant, aromatic white wines, dry or sweet.
Persistence… See ‘length’.
Pétillance… French word for light, natural sparkle in wine; the tiny (even invisible) bubbles that tingle your tongue due to residual carbonic gas.
Petrol… Older Rieslings can have this pungent scent. See ‘terpenes’.
Pinking… When white wines turn light pink after bottling, it’s usually indicative of a very ‘reductive’ style of winemaking – overdone, faulty. Could also be a sign of oxidation.
Plummy… The smell and taste of ripe plums is often found in rich, concentrated wines.
Plump… See ‘round’ and ‘soft’.
Polished… Everything in balance, no rough edges.
Polyphenols… The compounds present in the skins and pips of grapes that give (red) wine its colour, tannic structure, astringency (the most famous polyphenol is resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant that protects against heart disease and many other health problems).
Porty… Not a good thing when describing unfortified wine. The fruit is over-ripe, ‘stewed’, ‘jammy’, ‘heavy’.
Powerful… See ‘big’.
Precocious… Similar to ‘forward’ but usually reserved for wines that are already soft and drinkable despite being expected to keep maturing gracefully over a long time.
Pruney… A characteristic usually associated with wine made from overripe or even dried-out grapes. Usually regarded as a flaw, only very occasionally as a layer of complexity.
Quaffable… See ‘easy-drinking’.
Racy… Sharp acidity, usually found in young white wines (e.g. Riesling, cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc).
Raisiny… Usually due to very ripe or overripe grapes (and a flaw) but it can be desirable in dessert wines as well as some fortified wines.
Reductive… A pong indicating that the wine has had no exposure whatsoever to oxygen during winemaking, usually also bottled under screwcap. The smell should dissipate once the sulphur compounds (e.g. hydrogen sulphide) have had a chance to react with oxygen in the air. Sometimes not a pong, but no aroma at all until the ‘closed’ wine ‘opens up’.
Residual sugar… The sugar remaining in the wine after fermentation.
Ribena… British wine writers sometimes say a wine smells like this sweet, non-carbonated soft drink flavoured with blackcurrants. Also see ‘cassis’.
Rich… High in extract, flavour, fruit intensity. Doesn’t necessarily imply sweetness.
Robust… See ‘big’.
Rough… Abrasive in texture or flavour.
Round… A term for mature wines that have lost their youthful astringency, or young wines with soft tannins and low acidity. ‘Smooth’ as opposed to coarse or tannic. No sharpness.
Rubbery… Veering towards sulphurous (see ‘burnt match’), this can be a characteristic of some cheaper reds.
Rustic… A little rough around the edges, not ‘polished’ or ‘elegant’.
Rusty… Earthy with a slightly metallic tang, more likely to be found in an older red wine than a young, fruity one.
Savoury… A term for a wine that isn’t only fruity but has spicy and/or earthy complexity.
Sediment… Harmless particles (usually tartaric acid crystals or tannins) that separate out of the wine and settle at the bottom as the wine ages. Easily removed by decanting, sediment usually occurs in unfined or unfiltered wines (see A to Z of Geek Speak).
Shallow… See ‘hollow’.
Sharp… See ‘acidic’ and ‘tart’.
Short… No lingering aftertaste. An insubstantial wine.
Shy… See ‘closed’.
Silky… Denotes a smooth wine with soft ripe tannins.
Simple… Lacking in complexity; can be a pleasant, ‘easy-drinking’ wine.
Smoky… A smoky wine has almost invariably spent some time inside an oak barrel, usually a fairly heavily toasted one.
Smooth… A wine with a soft texture; supple, even glycerous.
Soft… Fine-grained texture, no hard tannins, low in acidity, well integrated.
Sour… Excessively acidic.
Spicy… Although Gewurztraminer is a naturally spicy white variety (Gewurz meaning spice in German), spiciness is usually found in wines that have spent time in oak (e.g. cinnamon and vanilla from lightly toasted oak; cocoa and coffee from more heavily charred oak). American oak typically imparts stronger, sweeter flavours than French oak (e.g. vanilla essence and coconut).
Stalky… Sometimes an alternative for ‘vegetal’, but usually denoting wine that is a bit astringent after having excessive contact with the grape stems.
Stewed… A bit like ‘jammy’. Over-ripe, cooked.
Structure… How the wine hangs together, the relationship between flavours, texture and mouthfeel.
Stylish… Not so much elegant as classy, very well put-together.
Subtle… See ‘delicate’.
Supple… Attractively rounded, nothing aggressive.
Sweaty saddles… See ‘leathery’.
Tannic… Mostly used for wine that is too young, not yet ready to drink. The tannins are firm, sometimes even a bit rough. Ripe tannins usually soften during the bottle-ageing process; unripe tannins tend to remain hard and ‘green’, the wine itself usually unbalanced.
Tart… Acidic and unripe.
TCA… The full name is 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, see ‘cork taint’.
Tears… See ‘legs’.
Terpenes… Distinctive, almost fuel-like smell of certain aromatic white wines (e.g. Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat) especially after some time in bottle.
Terroir… Very occasionally, a wine seems to taste distinctly and consistently different from other wines made from exactly the same grapes grown in other places. This sense of place, the combined impact of climate, geography and geology, is what the French (and others) call terroir.
Texture… The physical sensation of the wine in your mouth, as influenced by the fruit, acid, tannin and alcohol. The ‘mouthfeel’.
Thick… Ripe and concentrated, usually low in acidity.
Thin… An undesirable term describing watery, diluted wine that lacks body (often the case in low-alcohol wines).
Tight… A wine, usually young, whose flavour components are only just discernible but still close-knit (as opposed to ‘closed’).
Tightly knit… Good acidity and tannin levels in a well-made, balanced wine – usually associated with a young wine expected to mature well.
Tired… A lacklustre wine that has lost its freshness, perhaps never intended for ageing, perhaps kept for too long.
Toasty… Smell associated with wine that has spent time in charred or toasted barrels. Also a characteristic sometimes evident in sparkling wine.
Tobacco… Wines can have a fresh or dried tobacco smell (for the latter, see ‘cigar box’).
Tropical… Umbrella term for fruit flavours like mango, pineapple, guava etc.
Truffle… Those who have enjoyed this rare delicacy sometimes pick it up in pungently ‘earthy’ or ‘farmyardy’ wines.
Unfiltered… This means the wine hasn’t been filtered to remove all traces of yeast, bacteria and grape debris. Some winemakers believes filtration also strips wine of flavour and character.
Unfined… This means the wine hasn’t had some sort of protein added to bind with suspended solids, making them settle at the bottom and thereby removing any cloudiness. Some winemakers believes fining a wine can strip it of body and character.
Upfront… See ‘forward’.
VA… See ‘volatile acidity’.
Vanilla… One of the more obvious indicators that a wine has been matured in barrel. See ‘oaky’ and ‘spicy’.
Varietal character… Refers to the ‘typical’ distinguishing flavour/s of a grape variety when harvested.
Vegetal… Usually denoting wine made from unripe fruit – can be pleasant if subtle, even adding complexity, but a flaw if too dominant. Also see ‘stalky’.
Velvety… Similar to ‘silky’.
Vertical tasting… Tasting the same wine across different vintages.
Vinous… A rather hard-to-grasp term which refers to the ‘winey’, post-fermentation, non-fruit notes of a wine.
Viscous… Wines with great fruit concentration and high alcohol can feel almost oily and thick in the mouth – a wonderful quality if there is balancing acidity; unpleasant if they don’t (see ‘flabby’).
Volatile acidity… All wines contain acetic acid – better known as vinegar – which in low concentration can enhance the aroma and complexity of a wine. Excessive amounts, on the other hand, can impart a pungent vinegary or acetone (nail polish-remover) smell. This is known as volatile acidity (VA) and is an indication of an unstable wine.
Voluptuous… Like ‘rich’. In a sexy, seductive way.
Watery… See ‘thin’.
Woody… Excessive oak flavours, out of balance. See ‘oaky’.
Yeasty… Nice when similar to ‘leesy’. Nasty when it’s the gamey/smoky smell of ‘brett’.
Zesty… Lively, crisp, often citrussy.