Wines – A Glossary of descriptive terms

(the ones commonly used but not always understood)

by Ben Nuttall  (WSET® Level 3 Award in Wines and Spirits)

Ben in Melbourne

  Wines are Ben’s passion since starting work at Sharman’s Vineyard at 16.

I often find myself, when talking about different wines, that I use terms that are second nature to me but are not as clear to the person I am talking to.  I’ve been meaning to write this post  explaining what is meant when you hear or read these terms in relation to wines.  Included in some sections are recommended styles.  The recommendations might help, especially if you like or hate the particular element described.  Understanding some of these descriptions will also help if you’re offered a wine and it is described with any of these terms.  You’ll have more confidence in whether to say yes or no to a glass. And make a good choice in the wine shop.  Although the label for a lot of people, has a lot to do with that decision!

Acidity:  A common term used to describe the feel of the acidity of wine on your palate.  It is most commonly found on white wine labels although increasingly it is recognized on red wines too (often Pinot Noir).  In white wine, acidity is the tingle you get across your palate with a mouthful. A general rule is the stronger the tingle, the higher the acidity.  It is more noticeable in dryer wines as sweetness can mask the impact of acidity.  As far as wine labelling terms go, “soft” is generally used to indicate a style with low acidity and “crisp” or “clean” are often associated with higher levels.  Some Rieslings are commonly described as having a ‘crisp’ note to them.

In red wine acidity is a bit more complicated as tannins (more on them later) get in the way.  It mainly provides structure to the wine by keeping it hanging around on the palate.  If you have a red that is a big flavour hit up front then fades quickly, the chances are it has fairly low acidity.

Body:  This is a tricky one. It often gets confused with flavour intensity, tannin levels (for red) and alcohol level.  It is, in fact, related to those factors but is also its own entity.  Body is literally a simple question:  how “big” did the wine feel when you took a mouthful?  Ie a light body wine can be equated to the consistency of a mouthful of tea.   A full bodied wine could be closer to a mouthful of milkshake (this is an exaggeration but serves to explain the point).  Light white wines include Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon blanc.  Full bodied whites include oaked Chardonnay, Viognier, Chenin Blanc.  Light reds are Pinot Noir/Lambrusco where full bodied reds are Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon.  This is a very general statement and there will be examples that are lighter or fuller for each variety.  It gives a starting point for you!

Complexity:  Hmmm.  An interesting one and can often be difficult to determine.  It is a measure of how many different flavours you get from the wine.  Was it just all fruit or did you get a one flavour initially and a different one towards the end?  This is one that I often just bench when I’m looking for something for dinner or for socializing.   I don’t want something overly complex if the wine is not the focus of the night.  If the wine is the focus however, complexity can make or break a wine.  Finding a wine that delivers something different every time you have a mouthful can be difficult but is ultimately rewarding when you hit the jackpot.

Flavour intensity:  Now this one is often confused with body when people describe wine.  Intensity is actually a very distinct category of its own.  It is entirely possible to have a light bodied wine with incredible intensity of flavour – just look to Pinot Noir!  Pinot is one of the lightest bodied red varieties but packs a huge flavour punch to such a degree that it is often referred to as the king of all red varieties for the intensity and complexity is can deliver.  Flavour intensity is purely just a measure of how much outright flavour did the wine pack rather than mouthfeel or alcohol level etc.

Have a look at the Wine Tasmania website to see the superb Pinots that Tasmania is getting significant recognition for!

And a couple of special Pinot Noir winemakers which have been a favourite.

Fruit: This is another one of those tricky terms!  ‘Fruit’ or ‘fruitiness’ in wine is often confused with sweetness.  Sweet wines do tend to also be fruity wines however it is possible to have a fruity wine that is dry.  Fruity is a literal descriptor that means “the main flavours you get from this wine will be fruit flavours rather than savoury or herbal”.  Moscatos are definitely a fruity wines for the most part but so are many Rieslings and unoaked Chardonnays. Dolcetto in Australia is fruity for most examples.  In contrast, Italian examples are much more savoury.

Length:  This is a relatively simple one – how long did the flavour of the wine last on your palate? Was it a hit-and-run affair or did it linger?  What defines length is a longer answer but for the purposes of this blog that can be left off.  Generally speaking the longer the length of flavour, the better the wine (provided the wine isn’t spoiled and its unpleasant flavours lingering!).

Sweetness:  As previously explained in the Fruit description, sweetness and fruit in wines are often confused.  Sweetness is also a sometimes abused term – it most often will be a literal term describing the level of sugar in the wine.  However,  it does get used in other contexts.  Sweetness can sometimes be seen in reviews of dry wines when describing the impression of the flavours.  The best example of this is someone describing something like Unoaked Chardonnay.  The wine itself has very low levels of actual sugar, not enough to be called a sweet wine by any means.  What the term sweetness will be referring to in that circumstance is the impression of sweetness flavours like mango/guava/melon can give to a wine.  That spectrum of flavours is considered “sweet” and the term gets attached to them on occasion.  But it is actually describing an idea/impression rather than a literal sugar level.

There is another aspect to sweetness too.  It can be confused with acidity.  Dry wines are defined by a lack of sweetness but do not necessarily have high acidity (look to Viognier – ‘vee-yon-yay’  for an example).  One common misconception is that sweet wines are defined by a lack of acidity.  However this is not true.  The presence of sweetness masks the impact of acidity.  Sweet wines (particularly those of high quality) have high levels of sugar but also have high levels of acidity.  The combination of those two factors stops very sweet wines from being cloying.  Sweetness provides the flavour and acidity. It cleans the palate and prevents the wine from tasting like cordial.

Tannins:  Tannins are a family of chemicals found in grape (particularly red grape) skins and pips as well as in the oak used in wine making.  They effect ageing potential (they act as a preservative) and serve a similar role to acidity in carrying flavour on the palate to increase the length of the wine.  They also provide a huge physical taste sensation to wine and often tie in closely with the body element of red wine.

Most often the term is used in describing red wines.  It can often be a confusing term as they interact with other elements in the wine in unusual ways.  For those unfamiliar with what tannins taste like, they are part of the drying sensation you experience when you have a mouthful of red wine.  The term “grip” is often used in association with tannins and it accurately explains the sensation.  They can pucker the cheeks and suck your mouth dry if out of balance!  To a palate that isn’t used to them, they can taste bitter and certainly provide a unique sensation on the palate. They can feel chalky on your cheeks or leave a furry feeling across your tongue!  The most distinct examples of tannins are found in young, heavily oaked red wines (Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon tend to be the most overt).

This is where it gets a bit confusing.  Red wines designed for aging (think $30+ and under 5yrs old) are often VERY tannic to taste when consumed young as tannins take time to ‘settle in’ and the only thing that does that is time.  Oxygen exposure can do the same which is why you may see young wines being decanted at tastings or in restaurants.  The same wine consumed 5-10 years down the track will taste completely different as far as tannins are concerned – they will be softer and grip your palate significantly less, completely changing the experience.

Tannins are also masked by the intensity of fruit flavours in wines.  Many people have explained to me that they don’t enjoy tannic/dry/bitter red wines but love Shiraz. This bewilders me slightly as Shiraz is often one of the most tannic reds available but is explained by that masking effect.  A fair proportion of Australian shiraz is deliberately produced as a young drinking style.  The fruit is picked when very ripe, giving a big fruit flavour hit when consumed as well as having lower tannin levels.  Good examples of this are wines like (some) Barossa Shiraz and Rutherglen/Heathcote Shiraz.

Labelling-wise, wines low in tannin (or with masked tannins) will use terms like “soft” or “smooth” where wines higher will use “firm tannins”, “dry” or “gripping”.

For styles that are lower in tannins look towards Merlot, Dolcetto or Beaujolais (gamay) as these tend towards low levels and are good stepping stones towards the higher tannin styles if you’re new to the sensation or don’t enjoy it.  Selected examples of Grenache may work too although this requires a little more research into the winemakers/region.  Wines that have aged may also be an option.  Good Shiraz with 10-15 years of age can be incredibly soft/smooth and enjoyable for people who don’t normally enjoy young Shiraz.

Essentially, it is important to have a wine that you are going to enjoy. ‘Enjoy’ needs no explanation.  It is a personal thing and understanding wines and the terms applied to describing them gives you more of a chance to choose again what you enjoyed before, without it being a random thing based purely on an attractive label (although that really helps).