You know what wines you like but you're unsure how to describe them? You've always wondered what "blanc de noirs" means? Learning the fundamentals of tasting descriptions and winemaking terms will help you decipher the world of wine and let you buy wine more confidently.
Describing a wine
- Acidity: High levels of acidity give wine zest and tartness. Acid reds generally are lighter in body and colour. For white wines, similarities with lemon or lime juice often apply. Too much acid makes the wine sharp.
- Astringency: the mouth-puckering effect of tannin, especially used to describe unbalanced red wines.
- Balance: the harmonious relationship between alcohol, acidity, fruit, sugar and tannin.
- Big: a wine with intense flavours, body and/or tannin that takes occupies all sections of your mouth.
- Body: Refers to the sensation of weight or concentration of the wine in the mouth. Full-bodied wines usually have higher levels of alcohol and more tannin.
- Buttery(/creamy): A buttery or creamy wine doesn’t exactly taste nor smell like dairy but it does have a cream-like texture that hits the tongue like butter would. Wines with buttery characteristics have almost invariably been aged in oak.
- Complex: Describes a wine in which a broad range of nuances is present, from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow it.
- Corked: The dreaded word. Corked wines smell and taste of damp, soggy cardboard and are so to speak undrinkable.
- Crisp: Used to describe dry wines with good acid "bite". Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings generally fall into that category.
- Dry: A wine is dry when it has no residual sugar and therefore isn’t sweet. Most wines – and the vast majority of red wines – are considered dry.
- Earthy: a wine with aromas and flavour reminiscent of earth, such as forest floor or mushrooms. Can be used both as a positive and negative remark.
- Fruit forward: a fruit-forward wine will boast intense fruity flavours reminiscent of sweet fruits. Such reds may taste like raspberry or cherry whereas whites can, for example, evoke sweet Meyer lemon or ripe white fruits.
- Jammy: indicates the presence of a sweetness akin to cooked berries. Especially used to describe New World red wines like American Zinfandel or Australian Shiraz.
- Juicy: A term mostly used for light, easy-drinking and fruity red wines.
- Mineral: attributed to the smell or taste of wet stones, crushed rocks, salinity. Flint, slate, granite and limestone are among the most cited rocky notes.
- Oaked: Arguably the easiest wine characteristic to discern and the ultimate non-grape influence to wine flavours. In white wine, it adds notes of butter, vanilla and even coconut. In red wine, oaky flavours are often referred to as baking spices and vanilla.
- Off dry: Popular term used to describe wines (mostly whites) with a touch of residual sugar. In between dry and dessert wines.
- Silky(or velvety): red-wine equivalent word to creamy with white wines. Balanced medium to full bodied-wines with soft tannins often fall into that category. Every sip of such a wine is so smooth to the palate that it reminds of silk or velvet.
- Tannin: A substance found in the skins, stalks and pips of grapes as well as in the wood of ageing barrels. Wines with lots of tannins can dry out the interior of your mouth with every sip.
- Barrique: A small wooden barrel used for ageing wine.
- Blanc de blancs: A white wine made entirely from white grapes. The term is commonly used for sparkling wines, especially Champagne.
- Blanc de noirs: translates into “white from blacks”, referring to a white wine (usually bubbly) made from dark grapes.
- Botrytis cinerea(Noble Rot): A mould that dehydrates the grape and imparts a honeyed flavour to wine. Mostly used to make dessert wines like Sauternes or Tokaji.
- Brut: Sparkling wine style that is very dry, meaning little or no residual sugar.
- Carbonic maceration: Technique consisting of fermenting whole grapes in a closed tank that has been pumped full of carbon dioxide. Employed to make lighter red wines with fruitier aromas. Strongly associated with the Beaujolais wine region.
- Chaptalization: The process of adding sugar to grape juice (must) in order to boost alcohol content in the finished wine. The sugar is consumed by the yeast when it is fermented into alcohol so it doesn’t make the wine sweeter. Used in colder regions (Loire, Burgundy) but illegal in a lot of warmer regions (California, Bordeaux).
- Dosage: A step in the sparkling wine production process that involves adding a small amount of sugar and/or must into the fermented wine before definitely corking it. The base wine for most sparkling wines being very acidic, the purpose of dosage is reducing the tartness.
- Fortified: A fortified wine is a delicious, viscous wine-based sipping treat that is made from adding grape brandy during the fermentation process. Theses wines have a higher alcohol content and a longer shelf life once they’re opened.
- Icewine: Wine made from grapes that have frozen on the vine.
- Lees (Sur lie): deposits of residual yeast and other particles that precipitate to the bottom of the fermenting container. Some wines (usually white) are left in contact with their lees to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine. “Sur lie” (French for “on lees”) wines are bottled directly with the lees, a practice very common in Muscadet.
- Maceration: the process of soaking crushed grapes, seeds, and stems in a wine must to extract colour and aroma compounds as well as tannins.
- Malolactic fermentation: A secondary fermentation resulting from the action of lactic bacteria. Unlike a yeast fermentation though, no alcohol is produced. Instead, malolactic fermentation (or MLF as it is commonly referred to) turns tart-tasting malic acid into softer-tasting lactic acid. This is encouraged or discouraged depending on the style of wine desired. The process is standard for most red wines but also used for some whites like buttery Chardonnays.
- Méthode champenoise (or traditional method): a method of making sparkling wine, notably Champagne, by allowing the last stage of fermentation to take place in the bottle
- Oak: Used to act on the colour, flavour, tannin profile and texture of wine. Most of the time, it is introduced in the form of a barrel within which the wine ferments or ages but it can also come into play as free-floating chips added to wine during the fermentation stage. Two main types of oak are used around the winemaking world: French and American.
- American Oak: Adds a lot of flavour to wine (overpowering might say some), which is why it is most commonly used to age tougher reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel - and rarely used for white wines. Usually cheaper than French oak.
- French Oak: Tends to impart favour compounds more subtly than American Oak. Used for both red and white wines, and is an ideal match with varieties that soak up flavours easily, like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
- Oxidative: While oxidation is a common wine fault, oxidative is actually a deliberate winemaking style, most famously used in Madeira wines and in the region of Jura, France. Oxidative wines are exposed to controlled amounts of oxygen so that they can develop some non-primary fruit aromas and textural complexity without going bad.
- Racking: a method in wine production of moving wine from one barrel to another using gravity rather than a pump (which can be disruptive to a wine) so as to leave any sediment behind.
- Terroir: basically how a specific region’s climate, soil and general environment affect the final taste of wine.
- Tirage: The process by which the base wine is combined with yeast and sugar, and then bottled. Once inside the bottle, secondary fermentation begins and bubbles appear. In other words, this is how the bubbles get into your favourite sparkling wine.