Tasting notes can be a helpful tool when picking a new wine to try. But the wine world is full of insider terminology that is often purposefully ambiguous.
The good news is that if you still feel lost after reading a wine review, the fault may not be your own. We decode seven commonly used tasting terms to help the next time a writer’s tasting notes make you want to scream, “Just tell me what you mean!”
Red and Black Berries
Red and black berry flavors might seem like a straightforward tasting note, but are all berries really the same? Would you equate a raspberry to a cranberry in any other context?
What reviewers usually mean is that wines with red berry flavors are often bright and juicy, while dark berries can indicate a more brooding, nuanced wine. But when a tasting note simply says red and black berries you may be left scratching your head wondering, “Shouldn’t it be one or the other?”
Perhaps tasters should be taking their cue from the candy aisle. When red and black are used in conjunction, what they mean is mixed berry—think more pomegranate, cranberry and black cherry, or even something akin to shoving a handful of Skittles in your mouth at once. Wines with these mixed-berry characteristics have a little more weight, but plenty of juicy acidity, along with a general sense of muddled fruitiness.
The term tropical by itself is hazy—there is whole world of tropical fruits with strong distinct flavors. What does a writer mean? Pineapple? Papaya? Coconut? These tropical flavors all differ vastly.
Before you start accusing the taster of being lazy, consider the wine itself might actually be the uninspiring one. Wines produced in a more immediately quaffable style at a wallet-friendly price point are often made to be simple. Many don’t strive for specific flavors like pineapple and guava, but rather opt for a general mishmash that is uncomplicated, but delivers a juicy and ripe palate.
The term spice by itself doesn’t offer much. It could mean freshly cracked black pepper or sweet clove. It could mean notes of hazelnut, but it could also mean anise. This elusive term is nearly impossible to decode without several yards of red string in a dimly lit room.
There are a few clues to look for. If you’re lucky, the spice in question may be mentioned elsewhere in the note, possibly clarified later with specific references to something like cinnamon or nutmeg. However, spice on the palate or as a part of the finish is often deceptively not referring to a spice flavor at all, but instead, is a catchall term that refers to a prickling sensation on the tongue not easily defined by tannin or acidity.
This oft-debated term gets a lot of heat, but what does it really mean?
Context is key here. If the type of mineral is specified, like granite or river rocks, the meaning is clear and the wine will have a distinctly stony flavor. (Think back to when you were a kid and ended up with a rock or two in your mouth at some point.) However, if the notes just say “minerality” with no qualifiers, there is probably distinct, crisp, but not searing acidity worth mentioning—one that isn’t pegged to specific flavor, like “lemon-lime acidity”. The sensation is there but is more neutral.
Sometimes it may sound like tasters listened to way to much hip-hop in the 1980s when they talk about “fresh” wines. Hopefully there are more clues in the rest of note, because fresh on its own doesn’t mean a whole lot (and is often holding hands with equally vague “mineraly”).
This throwaway term, when no further context is given, is a good clue that the wine is simple, more focused on primary fruit flavors. It often stands for neutral or subtle flavors and plenty of acidity that doesn’t leave a strong impression one way or the other.
Ever read “This is an open wine,” and think, well yes, I just opened it? You’re not alone. This vague tasting term is often described with other unclear wording like generous or approachable.
Wine described as open can be taken as a call to action, as in this wine is ready to drink immediately. “Open” means the wine has finished developing and is in its optimal drinking window laying it all out. There are no subtle nuances to seek out in these wines.
Some wines are naturally more aromatic or perfumed than others, but it’s not necessarily an indication of quality, and red wines meant to age can be described as tight or closed while still young. But if aromas are being described as muted, veiled or need to be coaxed from the glass with aggressive swirling, your polite writer may be hinting at something else: sulfur.
SO2 stabilizes wine, helping with longevity, overseas travel and preserving the delicate, fresh fruit flavors in your rosé, but when there is too much sulfur it can muffle the aromas of your wine. In more extreme cases, this effect can be paired with aromas of onions or recently-struck match.
Not to worry. Sulfur tends to “blow off” with a little time to air. Sulfur protects your wine from oxygen, but only for so long once it’s open. If your wine seems to have muted aromas, pour it into a carafe or decanter and wait a few minutes. Your next taste may surprise you.