It seems that a few years ago whenever some wine nut—or worse, a wine snob, would talk about or describe a wine with so many esoteric terms, we’d all roll our eyes and find any reason to get out of that conversation. These days, with so many wine lovers confident in their own description of what they like, some actually find these wine-bores as somewhat entertaining and maybe even humorous.
I’m not saying we can’t wait to see a reality-TV series where guys pontificate some crazy love for some aged grape juice, but if you’re in the right mood—and, perhaps enjoying a glass of vino, wine descriptions can be very interesting, and, if we’re in the market for a particular wine, quite often we use these to find a good bottle for the evening.
Wine guru Eric Asimov says, “Good wines have stories to tell, but sadly, they are at a loss for words. As articulate as a fine wine may be, it is left to humans to supply the translation.”
Well there you go again, yet another wine writer describing a fine wine as palpably articulate. I’ll have to remember that word when I come across a very smart but talkative wine. You know any out there?
So—like it or not, unless you’re playing charades, words are all we have to describe the flavors of our favorite beverage. Although I think it would be fun to play “wine charades” where the players have to “act out” their favorite wine (??), or, pull out from a hat some wine descriptions and attempt to convey them to your team, such as “tight” “spicy” “creamy” or “fruity”! Good game for tasting parties—especially after a few glasses.
Wine lovers are collectors of taste sensations and although the language of wine is entirely subjective we describe wine in metaphors and over time we’ve come up with a wine vocabulary.
So let’s go over some of the more interesting, maybe provocative, and maybe even crazy and/or annoying terms that we come across:
Right out of the gate, it’s good to know the distinctions between “aroma”, “nose”, and “bouquet”. These all describe the smell of wine and are synonymous, but with certain distinctions.
The nose of a wine particularly describes an intense smell of that particular grape in the wine. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon’s predominant fruit aromas are black currants and cassis. So if one comments that the Cab they’re enjoying has or exhibits a great nose, then were talking about the wine delivering strong classic Cab aromas. On the other hand, if your Zinfandel smells like a Cab, then one could say the nose is a bit awkward.
A bouquet on the other hand describes complex aromas in the wine. We’re looking for a lot of good smells coming from the wine and possibly radiating like a pretty bouquet of flowers. Usually they use “bouquet” for older, mature wines, and “aroma” for young ones, but I’ll find a young fruity Beaujolais with a great bouquet.
Often when recommending wine in this column, I’ll first discuss the smells—the aromas—that emanate from a glass of wine poured from a bottle. But the flavor or taste of the wine may or may not exhibit what the aroma displayed. With a good Barolo wine, its nose quite often wafts interesting violet flower aromas. But the Barolo’s taste profile is meshed in cherries, licorice, plums, roses, tar, and tobacco. A great Italian wine to serve with beef, cheeses, game, and mushrooms.
Sometimes you read about a wine being “grapey”. “Aren’t all wines “grapey” since they come from grapes?” Well—most often they mean that the wine is on the young side but with good qualities. And sometimes people will say, “it tastes grapey” which means they want to go on and talk about something else.
The Swimsuit Issue is just out and everyone is talking about body: Body is the way a wine feels in a wine drinker's mouth. It refers to the texture, density or fullness a wine possesses. Wines will be described as being light, medium, or full-bodied. If you desire a thirst quenching wine for lunch, it’s the light-bodied Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Noir is usually medium-bodied; a good Napa Cab, Zinfandel or Petite Sirah is full.
Speaking of full-bodied, there are a bunch of descriptions of good & bad stuff. Words liked “fat”, “flabby”, and “fruit-bombs” usually connote a wine that’s big on fruit flavor but lacks necessary acidity—thus will not work well with food. “Robust”, “big”, “serious”, and “vigorous” wines have intense flavors and hopefully acidity to match.
Some people have never liked the term “dry”. “How can any wine be called dry when they are all very wet!” Basically dry wines are not sweet wines. What really throws people off are those terms used in Champagnes and sparkling wines. A sparkler that has the term “brut” on the label is much drier than one with the term “extra dry”.
If you prefer sparkling wines with no sweetness then pick up a brut sparkler. And actually, a sparkler that does have “extra dry” on the label will have a bit of sweetness to it! Trader Joe’s Markets carry the very tasty and reasonably priced Chateau Ste. Michelle sparklers. But I always hear from wine lovers that they mistakenly grab the “extra dry” bottle that sits beside the “brut” bottle—just because it says "extra dry"! and they lose thought that the brut is the drier one—funny!
"Elegant", "sophisticated" and "sleek" do not necessarily mean your wine bottle has an impressive wine label or is toted about in a wine bag with a tuxedo design. It means that the wine is perfectly balanced with fruit, tannins, complexity of flavors, and acidity. The flavors are outstanding but subtle. Great Pinot Noirs dress up that way—feels like a black-tie event!