Wine Tasting Terms and What They Really Mean
Words have meaning, but their definitions can be elastic, especially when it comes to wine terms and tasting notes. Certain terms crop up frequently to describe the flavor, aroma and texture of wine. Slightly removed from their literal meaning, these words and descriptions often refer to particular traits in wine. Here is a list of common tasting terms and wine lingo, and what they mean for the everyday person.
Zesty relates to the very fresh and intense smell and taste from the peel of citrus fruit, be it lemon, orange, grapefruit or tangerine. As a wine-tasting note, it implies aromatic intensity and a mouthwatering freshness that’s driven by high acidity. If not qualified with a specific fruit, zesty usually refers to lemon.
Jammy refers to the smell and taste of red or black fruits (berries, plums, cherries) that no longer appear fresh, but cooked. While fruit jam may smell good, jammy tends to be a negative descriptor for a wine. It suggests that the grapes were harvested overripe, causing them to lack tension or freshness. This can happen in warm/hot vintages and/or regions.
Jammy notes can also be a result of excessively warm fermentation temperatures and carelessness in the cellar. However, some people love these very ripe, rounded red fruit notes.
Crisp is a very useful term. It describes pleasant acidity in a still or sparkling wine. It also suggests a certain agility and lightness that’s brisk and refreshing. In comparison, a crisp wine certainly is less acidic than a zesty wine.
Crisp wines are ideal apéritifs, and include nonvintage sparkling wines, light-bodied, unoaked whites like Gavi or Muscadet, or lighter-bodied reds like Gamay and unoaked Pinot Noir. Crispness can also be used to qualify the lifting acidity in a much rounder wine, like a richly oaked Chardonnay with crisp acidity.
Bright describes the pleasant effect that acidity has on primary varietal flavors; bright apple or cherry fruit suggest heightened primary notes of fruit. The same applies to red wines as well.
Acidity is central to wine, and it gives tension to the body and precision to flavor. Brightness suggests a certain lightness, animation and digestibility.
This refers both to the taste and aroma of wines. It’s a wide, but positive term. Spiciness can be associated with the inherent varietal pepperiness of grapes like Syrah/Shiraz or Grüner Veltliner. It can also refer to baking spice notes of clove, nutmeg or cinnamon imparted by oak aging.
Usually a reference to spiciness is qualified by with another descriptor, like black pepper spice. The one spice that seems to be exempt is vanilla, which is usually referred to by itself.
Floral notes often refer to the aroma of a wine. They can be intense, like the varietal rose aroma of Gewürztraminer, or the honeysuckle notes Muscat has thanks to its grape skins. Floral notes can also be subtle, like a touch of jasmine or summer blossom on a light, slightly aromatic white wine. (Good Prosecco often has this.)
You’ll find overtones of rose, violet or peony in high-quality reds from temperate climates. Pinot Noir, Malbec, Syrah and Nebbiolo can all be hauntingly floral. Subtle floral notes are a sign of quality and complexity.