Decoding the mysteries of wine terminology
A few days ago, a friend of mine was telling me about an experience she had while trying to order a glass of wine. New to a certain bar, this friend was perusing the wine list, looking for something that would sooth the soul after a hard day at work. The sommelier offered her something that he described as “funky.”
“Funky?” she replied, thinking more Wild Cherry, the band, than dark cherry, the brooding fruit.
“Yeah, you know, animalistic,” he offered hopefully, only for my friend to shoot him down again.
“You mean there’s a hint of tiger in my wine?”
Of course it took her all of 5 minutes after she and the sommelier parted company to call me and give me the detailed play by play of her viniferous experience. “I’m sorry,” I apologized on his behalf, “he should have realized you’re a wine novice, and while you appreciate a nice glass, you’re certainly not about to wax poetic about it.”
There’s a saying in journalism: know your audience. And the same can be said for sommeliers. Not everyone is going to appreciate the sometimes hilarious and often pompous descriptions doled out by those in the wine trade. But some will – and they’ll want to get in on the mysterious conversation. But just like my friend, they haven’t quite mastered the ancient language of Wineish and could really use a crash course, so I’ve cobbled together a list of what I think are some of the more common words you’ll hear bantered about at the Gourmet Food & Wine show.
Acid – you may sometimes hear terms like “bracing acidity,” or “lack of acidity,” or “balanced acidity” and all these terms refer to a technical component of the wine called, you guessed it, acidity. Acidity is what pulls the wine together, and, like a see saw, balances out the alcohol found in the wine. Just like a pinch of salt in sweet baking, acid is a necessary component of wine to add complexity and nuances. (See below).
Animal – Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Can also be interjected with “horse,” “barnyard,” and even “sweaty saddle,” these descriptors are often used with Old World, or European, wines — especially red. In some Chiantis, Barolos, Burgundies and Bordeaux, the prominent aromas and flavours are less fruit and more earthy notes.
Austere – This is exactly what it sounds like. A wine that is not yet showing any real fruit or any other flavours or aromas. It’s often because the wine is a bit too young and needs time to age. It’s also sometimes used interchangeably with “tight.”
Complex – This is also exactly what it sounds like: wines that have lots of different aromas and flavours ranging from fruity to earthy.
Concentrated – Wines that are very intense in flavours and aromas. Think of raisins compared to grapes and sundried tomatoes versus fresh tomatoes, the flavours are far more concentrated. When it comes to wine, the word often refers to wines that have very powerful and acute flavours.
Corked – This is bad. The term refers to wines that have lost their fruity characteristics and are now dominated by a wet cardboard or “corky” smell. Once the wine is infected with this smell, it’s impossible to get out. Some estimates are that 1 out of every 10 bottles are affected by cork taint, so it’s likely you’ve encountered this, even if you have’t known it.
Elegant – This is one of those more esoteric terms; it can refer to the flavour or mouthfeel of the wine and often both. If a wine feels soft in your mouth, and has a very delicate flavour to it, that’s an “elegant” wine. (See “powerful”)
Ethereal – This is a more extreme description of elegant. It’s tough to find, but can refer to a wine that feels very light and soft in the mouth but also has very defined and complex flavours.
Flabby – As you’ve likely guessed, this is not complimentary. It’s often used in reference to a wine that lacks acidity and therefore has no central thread to tie it together.
Jammy – This is often used when describing New World reds – especially some Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from California or Australia. This refers to a wine that is very pronounced with fruit flavours, that are so bold it’s like drinking a liquid jam.
Lush – The opposite of austere, wines of this description are often bursting with aromas and flavour and almost hedonistic in taste and texture.
Intense – Like concentrated, intense wines are focused with very pronounced, obvious and bold flavours and aromas.
Integrated – A well integrated wine refers to wines that are in balance: no particular flavour or technical component sticks out, everything’s blended with everything else.
Mineral – This can mean lead, gravel, slate, stone, seashell, petrol or even gunflint. While that may be surprising, if you think about it, a lot of vines grow best in rocky, gravelly, or chalky soil so some people believe the vines pick up these flavours. It’s a good thing that gives the wine “complexity.” (See how this is all coming together?)
Nuanced – Similar to complex, this refers to the subtle nuances of the wine. Literally meaning “fine distinction” in the dictionary, this indicates wines that have a lot lot of different, yet often understated, components.
Refined – Very much like elegant, this is another descriptor for wines that have achieved a subtle mouthfeel and delicate yet distinct flavour.
Rich – Another way to say a wine is concentrated or intense.
Smoky – A lot of wines will pick up a slightly smoky flavour and aroma. Often imparted by oak, but also occasionally existing in wine grapes before they become wine. For example, a lot of people think Syrah from the Rhone has a smoky aroma similar to bacon.
Unctuous – This refers to the mouthfeel of a wine that is creamy and coats the mouth.
Velvety – This refers to the mouthfeel of a wine that is soft and feels like velvet in the mouth.