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.
This term is tricky, as it can be a positive or negative descriptor. Context is key. Some tasters use this term as a euphemism for unripeness, others as a more neutral descriptor for aromas of green vegetation.
Certain grape varieties are known for their herbaceous elements. Sauvignon Blanc, for instance, can have attractive herbaceous notes of cut grass and tomato leaf. Likewise, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenère and Cabernet Franc can all display a green bell pepper aroma and leafiness.
Herbaceousness can also be a function of cooler vintages and climates. Cabernet Franc from the Loire, with its almost conifer-like aromas, is typically an attractively herbaceous wine.
Unless it’s used to describe a particular fruit (like “green apple”), green usually describes a wine that displays signs of unripeness. It’s mostly used in a negative context.
Green suggests that a wine’s grapes were not at optimum ripeness, too tart and did not reach their full aromatic potential. This could be due to overcropping, the threat of bad weather during harvest (which can cause a winery to pick grapes too soon) or a poor growing season.
When aromas are green, they can be described as “herbaceous” (see above). In flavor, green suggests unpleasantly strong acidity and lack of fruit, while green tannins are harsh and even bitter.
In wines, this term is used to describe ripe, fresh and lively acidity. Lemon is a positive descriptor that signals refreshment and pleasant tension.
When it’s qualified as juice, flesh or zest, it has even more meaning. This is also achieved by specifying variety, like to highlight the milder acidity of Meyer lemon, or the aromatic ripeness of Amalfi lemon.
This is a collective term that refers to the aromas and flavors of fruits like mango, passion fruit, lychee and pineapple. Chardonnay in warm climates, for instance, can attain tropical overtones. However, the term can be lazy if a taster doesn’t spell out particular fruits.
Tropical is an apt description for aromas that are highly appetizing but somewhat overwhelming, like Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc made from very ripe fruit. The term is most often used for white wines.
Minerality tends to refer to notions that cannot easily be described in terms of fruit or spice. For some, minerality comes across as a smoky, struck-match note. For others, it’s akin to petrichor, the smell of rain on earth or stone.
Mineral became fashionable as a descriptor, and is now almost meaninglessness due to overuse. Champagne and Chablis can seemingly taste of chalk, and Riesling can have notes of slate, but it’s better to spell these things out.
If you come across this word, it almost always refers to subtle, stony flavors, mostly in acidic whites. The term is always positive and suggests complexity.
Earthy can be good or bad. Negatively, it can be used to deride muddled flavors and aromas that are not clear-cut, or are a little funky. In positive terms, it can describe the pleasant, clean smell of freshly turned wet earth.
Traditionally made Alsace Pinot Gris can fit the latter, more favorable description. It can also apply to wines that rested a long time on their lees—the dead yeast cells after fermentation.
In red wines, earthy tends to be used to express attractive notes, like those associated with the aroma of fresh soil and decaying leaves in fall. This can be particularly prevalent in evolving or mature reds. You could expect to come across it in Rioja Reserva or mature Pinot Noir.
A catch-all term for fruit. But it begs the question: What fruit in particular?
In wine terms, “fruity” is used for easy-drinking wines that aren’t too complex or demanding, and provide easy charm and pleasure. If a bottling is merely described as fruity without further qualification, it usually means the wine is simple but good. If the term appears alongside many other descriptors, it’s generally meant to signify approachability.
When oak barrels are new, they impart aromas to wines that are fermented or matured in them. The most common flavor associated with oak is vanilla, but other warm, rounded, spicy notes also fall under this heading.
In white wines, oak often comes across as plain vanilla, toffee or popcorn. In reds, it can be a warming note of cinnamon or nutmeg.
Oaky notes can be subtle or overt, depending on whether the barrel has been used before and the type of oak it was made with. American oak provides coconut notes, while French oak can come out as smoky. However, if the term is used on its own, it can suggest unbalanced wine where fruit and varietal notes are drowned out by overbearing new barrels.
Tannins contribute to the texture of wine—the way it feels in the mouth. Tannins are phenolic compounds present in grape skins and pips. Red wines are made by macerating the juice of red grapes with their skins, seeds and pulp, extracting color and tannins. Oak barrels can also give tannins to a wine.
A wine that is tannic has lots of these compounds and feels astringent. This is because either the grape variety itself is very tannic, or the wine has been moved a lot during maceration to extract as many tannins as possible.
Very tannic grape varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Nebbiolo. If a wine is described solely as tannic, it suggests imbalance and astringency. If the term is qualified, it can be very positive, as tannins also imply structured wines that can age and evolve. If you’re looking to describe a tannic wine, you should comment both on quantity and quality of the tannins.
To make a barrel, oak staves have to be bent. This can be done with steam, hot water or fire. When done with fire, the inside of a barrel is toasted. This process can happen to a higher or lesser degree (often to a winemaker’s specifications), and such barrels are sold according to their toasting grade.
If a wine is described as toasty, it displays pleasant, roasted flavors and aromas that have seeped into the wine. These can be reminiscent of toasted bread, toffee or caramel, and even mocha or espresso.
The term suggests a warming, generous richness of flavor, accented with oaky spice. Heavily oaked Chardonnays can be toasty, as can spicy Zinfandels, Merlots or Cabernet Sauvignons aged in new oak, or super ripe Shiraz from Barossa and rich Pinotage from South Africa. Toasted oak staves or chips can also be added to a tank of wine to impart flavor and aroma at far cheaper cost.