Top Wine Terms Defined
We’re popping the cork on wine’s most misunderstood words.
Attention wine lovers: If you never fully grasped the meaning of “umami” or got tripped up talking about “terroir,” you know that the world of wine has its own (and sometimes incomprehensible) language. To help oenophiles talk the talk, Wine Enthusiast asked three wine professionals to help break the language barrier by defining the trickiest terms.
“Some find the fifth primary taste elusive, because it’s more of a quality than a flavor,” says Jennifer Johnson, level II certified sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers and certified specialist of wine by the Society of Wine Educators. “Umami is considered pleasant and is described as delicious, which may sound equally obscure, though it’s also savory and meaty.”
Big, ripe Cabernets or fruity, oak-aged Chardonnays exhibit ample umami deliciousness, but these can clash with umami-driven foods, like Parmesan, tuna and shiitake mushrooms. “Their tannins become bitter,” says Johnson. “Mature wines with softened tannins and nuanced umami make for a better match.”
“Think sweaty-horse saddle,” says Johnson. That’s right—you actually smell barnyard in wine. In fact, these aromas—most often found in Old World red wines from regions like Burgundy—can contribute to a wine’s quality and complexity.
“These fresh animal scents come from a byproduct of brettanomyces, a yeast sometimes found on grape skins that causes spoilage and can be a bear for a winemaker to manage,” says Johnson. But the result can be remarkably delicious.
Don’t automatically bristle at this gendered wine term. According to Ross Wheatley, director of food and beverage at Lucy Restaurant and Bar in Yountville, California, this terms is not only “easy to relate to,” it also perfectly describes wines that tend to be lower in alcohol and tannins.
“Imagine a wine that has similar characteristics to a woman and her best qualities,” says Wheatley. “A wine that is light, refined and delicate might be called feminine; the polar opposite of those so-called masculine qualities in wine—strong, muscular, larger and bigger.”
“A closed wine can be a young wine, but most importantly, it needs more time to age in bottle to fully express its aromatic and flavor profile,” says Johnson. “A closed wine may surprise you by tasting like not much of anything or out of balance, perhaps only with hints of fruit and squelching acidity levels.”
So how do drinkers tell the difference between a closed wine and a one-note wine?
“The price tag may guide you—as well as knowledge about producer, region, variety and vintage,” says Johnson. So, do your research when buying wines that may require age.
Rancio wines have been all the rage recently for wine geeks because of their complex flavor profiles in oxidized still wines, yet according to Johnson, “this attribute has seen glory for hundreds of years in fortified wines like oloroso Sherries, Ports and also brandies.
“Sure, rancio shares the same root as rancid, but the difference is that winemakers apply controlled, albeit traditional, French and Spanish methods of exposing wine to air or dry heat during aging, reducing primary fruit aromas and yielding characteristics of nuts, melted butter, candied fruits and even fruit cakes.”
“Ever tried an Australian Shiraz that reminded you of homemade berry jam in your mouth, almost begging for a spoon? That’s chewy,” says Johnson.
A chewy wine has a good amount of weight and/or body on the palate, signifying higher alcohol, ripeness (high sugar at harvest that converts to alcohol) and concentration of fruit—usually the result of grape variety and warm climate.
“Texturally, these components impart a viscosity to a red wine made from thick-skinned grapes that have imparted lots of color pigments, tannins and flavor compounds to the fermenting juice,” says Johnson.
“The best way to describe austere is to imagine that teacher you had at school that no one liked—the one who was mean, closed off, strict and stern, and no matter how hard you tried they never opened up,” says Wheatley.
Wines described as austere tend to feel tight and closed in the mouth, and likely need to be decanted. But it’s not all negative, according to Wheatley.
“Austere wines can sometimes maintain a crisp mouthfeel and good acidity that is finely woven, like a sweater that’s almost too tight to wear but feels good.”
Wines described as muscular have traditionally been linked to bigger-style red wines, including Cabernet Sauvignons, Barolos and Super Tuscans, along with some Rhône blends.
“Imagine a wine that is the exact opposite of what we have described as feminine,” says Wheatley. “These are big, strong wines with lots of power and strength. Muscular means something that feels like it might put hair on your chest.”
“I had to ask what ‘pyrazine’ meant the first time I heard it, and I was told that it was the aromatic compound in green bell peppers,” says Steve Wildy, beverage director of Vetri Family Restaurants in Philadelphia, who oversees all five restaurants’ wine, beer and spirits programs.
So, next time you hear that someone senses pyrazine in a wine, remember that they’re referring to a chemical compound that gives the wine a vegetal characteristic—and that they’ve also been studying their wine terms.
“I'll admit it is an adorable word, but I don’t know how much it occurs in everyday American English outside of wine speak,” says Wildy.
Brambly refers to a blackberry-fruit characteristic in red wine that seems to be supported by a vegetal or green undertone. Brambly qualities show up in many wines, “especially those fermented with whole clusters,” he says, such as Oregon Pinot Noirs, Beaujolais and Southern Rhone blends.”
High-toned is used to describe wines with piercing acidity, sharp aromatics that go straight to your sinuses and tightly wound tannins.
“I really like that high-toned conveys a sense of where the wine will register on your senses,” says Wildy. “If you think of soft, round, jammy, and rich as the bass, then high-toned wines are all treble.”
These wines often come from high-altitude production sites, such as whites from Alto Adige, Nebbiolo from the Valtellina in Lombardia, and some Austrian and German Rieslings.
“This is a really easy one if you think about the property in wine that makes it taste distinctly different from another wine of the same grape variety and vintage made just a mile away,” says Wildy.
Terroir encompasses so much more than just soil composition. It can refer to altitude, which direction the vines face, the age of the vines, the depth of the water table beneath the soil, the tradition of the region or of the family making the wines, the type of wood in the barrels, and many other distinguishing factors.
“We wine speakers will spend our lives trying to describe ‘terroir’ and quantify it scientifically, but will always fall short, because terroir is somehow more than all these things,” says Wildy.