How do you buy wine when you don’t know what it tastes like? A lot of folks rely on reading wine descriptions to get an idea of what a wine will taste like. What do they actually mean? If you are relatively new to wine, it is quite helpful to know what to expect from a bottle, which is why some retailers highlight this in the name, although mainly at the cheaper end of the price spectrum.
Every so often, there is an outburst on Twitter about the language used to describe wine and how it often puts people off. In one recent exchange, words that frequently cropped up as turn-offs were “elegant”, “feminine”, “sexy”, “smooth”, “clean” and “quaffable”, but seeing as some of those are often used on back labels, it is clear that not everyone is on board.
The choice of words is interesting, too. What may attract one consumer – “soft”, say – may not to appeal to another. And when you stop to think about it, the terminology can still be rather imprecise. “Fruity” is so vague as to be not that helpful at all, really. What kind of fruit are we talking about? Apples? Blackcurrants? Raspberries? Similarly, what kind of flowers does “floral” evoke? And “aromatic” in what way? Does it smell of persimmon or woodsmoke? It is clearly less a question of giving information than of generating a feelgood factor about what’s in the bottle.
All that said, however, I rather like the choice of “bold” on some labels even though it’s not a word I usually hear in a conversation about wine. Has anyone ever said to you, “I bought this really bold wine the other day”? The “gutsy” on the back label seems to me to describe it better, not least because it is, though I marginally prefer the same store’s “smooth” red in this week’s recommendations. And I am surprised that no one seems to use the word “lush”, maybe due to its ambiguity. “Mellow” obviously resonates, too.
Most wines do not carry this sort of information in their name, of course, so it is a question of scanning the back label for clues, although the suggestion on a Zweigelt that it’s “a lively Viennese waltz that will sweep you off your feet” doesn’t tell you much about what the wine is going to taste like, other than that it’s likely to be fun. Then again, that is probably all you need to know (it does taste of cherries, though).
Examples of wines that actually say what they taste like in their name and at a very low price -
Waitrose Crisp and Floral Italian Dry White, Trevenezie region
If you’re looking for something with a bit more pizazz than Pinot Grigio, but isn’t far from it in style, this refreshing, dry white from Trevenezie is nice. Perfect for a carbonara.
The Dot Austrian Cherry Zweigelt 2020
An exuberant, young, beaujolais-like red that is brimming with bright cherry fruit. Chill, and drink with cold meats.
Waitrose Soft and Juicy Chilean red wine
The word “soft” doesn’t generally win me over, but this wine is lusciously ripe and velvety. One to drink on its own with maybe a nibble of cheese – brie would work well.
Wine descriptors are common terms that you can use to describe a particular wine. Descriptors can help you put words to the wine you are tasting. Unless you want to drink the same wine for the rest of your life, you’re going to have to decide what you like or don’t like in a wine and communicate that to another person who can steer you toward a wine you’ll like.
Finding the words to describe what you like or don’t like, and then getting the other person to understand what you mean.
Wines with high acidity taste tart and zesty. Red wines have more tart fruit characteristics (versus “sweet fruit”). White wines are often described with characteristics similar to lemon or lime juice.
This is a very unfriendly wine. It hits your mouth and then turns it inside out. It usually means the wine has very high acidity and very little fruit flavors. An austere wine is not fruit-forward nor opulent.
Big describes a wine with massive flavor in your mouth that takes up all sections of your mouth and tongue. A big wine is not necessarily a fruit-forward wine, it can also mean that it has big tannins.
Bright wines are higher in acidity and make your mouth water. GO TO ACIDITY
A wine with buttery characteristics has been aged in oak and generally is rich and flat (less Acidity). A buttery wine often has a cream-like texture that hits the middle of your tongue almost like oil (or butter) and has a smooth finish.
A wine that is described as tasting like charcoal tastes gritty, it’s usually dry (with higher tannins) and has this rustic flavor. Charcoal is often associated with a similar characteristic: pencil lead (but less refined).
When you take a sip of wine with chewy tannins, it dries out the interior of your mouth so that you “chew” or clean the tannins out of the insides of your mouth.
Cigar box flavors are hinting toward sweetness and cedar-wood with an abundance of smoke. This is a super positive and desirable characteristic that we love to use when finding a wine that can be slowly sipped on a leather chair.
A complex wine simply means that when you taste it, the flavor changes from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow. As much as I love complex wines, using the word “complex” to describe a wine is a cop-out unless you go on to describe how it’s complex.
Creamy is a popular description for white wines and sparkling wines fermented or aged in oak. In Champagne, creamy is a favored characteristic that is associated with the famous bottles of bubbly…such as Krug. A creamy wine could be in part because of something called malolactic fermentation. Look for creamy in chardonnay if you like buttery. Look for creamy in cabernet sauvignon if you like smooooth.
The word Crisp with wine is more often used to describe a white wine. A crisp wine is most likely simple but goes well sitting on a patio in summer.
Dense is favored for use in bold red wines such as cabernet sauvignon, Côtes du Rhône and Brunello di Montalcino but usually isn’t a positive characteristic in other wines because it implies that wine is handicapped.
A classic go-to move for a wine writer trying to describe that awkward green and unpleasant finish on a wine. They don’t want to hate on the wine - they just want you to know that if you don’t like the wine it means you don’t like earthy and you’re a bad person.
When a wine writer says ‘elegant’ she/he means that the wine is NOT big, NOT fruity, NOT opulent and NOT bold. Off-vintages are often referred to as elegant vintages as they have higher acid and tend to have more ‘green’ characteristics. Elegant wines may taste bad when they are first released, but they also tend to age better. Elegant is that retired ballerina who puts the fat-n-sassy retired cheerleaders to shame.
Wide, Big, Massive, Opulent: These are all similar synonyms of fat. Turns out fat is the least desirable of all of them because it is flabby. A fat wine comes in and takes up all the room in your mouth and hangs in awkward places.
Flabby means the wine has no acidity. It’s a negative connotation so don’t say it to a winemaker! They will spear you with their forklift.
A flamboyant wine is trying to get your attention with an abundance of fruit. The writer picks up on this and calls it out. No joke.
Imagine the iron-laden sensation of having a piece of raw steak in your mouth that is fleshy.
This wine falls on its face unless you have it with food. It is lacking something that eating something will fulfill. Keep in mind, wines that stand on their own are better drunk without food. doh!
With each subsequent sip, your mouth dries up similar to how my mouth did in the Minerality Tastes Like Rocks? video. Wine with grip is hard to drink, better to sip.
Hint of = This-Wine-Definitely-Has-This-Character-Especially-on-the-Finish. Expect things like oak, herbs, fruits, soil, or gym socks in the flavor when there is a hint of it in the description.
Sommeliers and wine experts cringe when they hear this term while the rest of us delight. Jam is delicious and it is part of the PB&J experience. In wine, jammy indicates a wine with a cooked berry sweetness that is syrupy and often is used to describe American wines like zinfandel, grenache, cabernet franc and Australian shiraz…
Juicy like the wine was grape juice just a moment ago.
Imagine that smell of fresh wet concrete; now imagine that flavor in your mouth. If you don’t have time to lick concrete, don’t worry!
Oh oak! The ultimate non-grape influence to the flavors in wine. In white wine it adds butter, vanilla and sometimes coconut. In red wine it adds flavors often referred to as baking spices, vanilla and sometimes dill. There are many different countries that make oak wine barrels and wine geeks freak out over who makes the best (American v. France v. Hungarian).
This word is a baseline word to a style of wine that is rich, smooth, and bold. If you are a rich, smooth, bold wine guy, “Opulent” is your word.
Refined is a subset of elegant wines. This term is often used while describing tannins in a wine. These wines have the “less is more” ideology about them. GO TO ELEGANT
Silky is the red-wine equivalent word to creamy with white wines. If you like silky for bed sheets than you will most likely enjoy silky on your tongue. GO TO CREAMY, VELVETY
A wine that has a smooth rather than crisp mouthfeel. Soft wines typically have a low amount of acidity.
A steely wine has higher acid and more sharp edges. It is the man-ballerina of wine.
A structured wine has high tannin and acid and is hard to drink. People say “structured” because they think that if you give the wine a few years, it’ll soften up and be yummy. GO TO AUSTERE
A wine that is unoaked doesn’t have vanilla, cream, butter or baking spices in it. An unoaked white wine is more zesty with lemony flavors (see Minerally), while an unoaked red wine tends to be more tart.
Lush, smooth, and silky are all synonyms of a velvety wine. To imagine velvety, visualize watching perfectly smooth chocolate pouring into a mold on a Dove chocolate commercial.
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