A Short and Totally Unscientific Compendium of Wine Terms

Have you ever been in one of those situations like the tasting scene in the movie Sideways?

You’re with an obnoxious friend at a wine tasting. Your friend takes a swirl and sniff and announces he can smell “overwhelming notes of Algerian potpourri with hints of red-tipped tobacco and just a touch of stewed plum.” And then he takes a big old slurp and raves about the “silky tannins” and “luscious fruit” and “lingering finish.”

And you’re all...dude, it smells like grapes. And tastes like wine.

We’ve all been there. (And really, sometimes it does just taste like wine.)

It occurred to me recently that defining (not dictionary defining, but real life defining) some wine terms might be helpful in these situations. And, you know, in life.

So below are some totally unscientific, non-academic and intentionally practical definitions of wine descriptors or wine terms that you may come across in your day to day wine drinking.

Dry: Technically, a wine that is called “dry” is simply a wine in which the fermentation process has run to completion - that is, all the yeast has eaten up all the sugar, and there is no sugar remaining. Dry wines can sometimes have a lot of fruit tastes - but don’t mistake that fruit for sugar. If you’re looking for a dry wine that has a little fruit freshness, ask someone at your wine store for a “dry wine with some fruit on it.” They’ll know exactly what you mean.

Sweet: Likewise, a “sweet” or “off-dry” wine is wine with a little bit of sugar remaining. Sweet wines tend to be a little bit heavier on the palate - thicker, or more viscous. Think a sweet Riesling or a dessert wine. A weird, but effective, way to test for sugar in a wine is to stick the tip of your tongue into the wine and hold your nose. Is your tongue tingling? That's residual sugar! (Yes, I've come up with weird ways to get through my blind tasting exams...)

Palate: Your mouth, tongue, and tasting abilities.

Nose: The “nose” of the wine is the smell. Do you smell fruits? Vegetables? Earth? Subtle herbaceous notes of young eggplant? All of those things constitute the “nose” on a wine.

Body: This is the weight of the wine on your tongue. Think of it like milk - skim milk feels lighter than whole milk, right? It’s the same with wines. Some have a very light body, others feel more full bodied. To taste the difference between a light body and a full bodied wine, try a Loire Valley Muscadet and then try a Napa Valley Chardonnay. For reds, try an Italian Dolcetto and then a California Zinfandel.

Legs: Legs on wine are what happens after you swirl the glass and the wine drips down the side. Those are the legs (the drips themselves are called tears). Legs are NOT an indicator of quality. But the legs can tell you something about the wine. If the legs are thick and viscous, dripping ever so slowly, that wine could be high alcohol or high sugar, or from a warm climate. If the legs slide down the glass quickly and close together, you may be drinking a cool climate, low alcohol, or a dry wine.

Oxidized: Oxidizing a wine is just exposing the wine to air. Oxygen can be dangerous to a wine - too much, and wine “oxidizes” and is ruined. Oxygen is the reason a bottle of wine tastes more like vinegar when you leave it open for 6 days. Think of it like an apple - when you take a bite and leave it on the counter, it turns brown. The same thing happens to wine. When you open a bottle, the wine, figuratively, starts to turn brown.

Tannin: Tannins come from the skins and stems of grapes, and are present in red wines. When you take a sip of red wine, tannins are what make your mouth feel dry. Don’t remember that feeling? Next time you’re drinking a red, push the wine way up into your teeth and gums. Then swallow. Your gums will feel like sandpaper - those are tannins! Tannins provide what is known as “structure” in a wine. As a wine ages, tannins will “fall out” of a wine and collect as sediment in the bottom of the bottle. More on tannins in a few weeks.

Sediment: No, sediment is not dirt in your wine. Sediment can gather at the bottom of your bottle or your glass. Don’t be afraid of it. It’s harmless. It’s generally just composed of residual yeast, tiny bits of the grape, or tannins that have fallen out of the wine as it ages. Some winemakers filter their wine before bottling to avoid sediment; others think leaving them in increases depth and flavor. If you want to remove the sediment before drinking you can decant the wine - pour the bottle slowly into the decanter, and stop pouring as soon as you see the wine sediment enter the neck of the bottle. I once read that you can add excess sediment to bathwater because it’s a natural skin softener. You can literally bathe in wine. Um. I haven’t tried that (yet).

Acidity: The acid profile of a wine is important. It keeps wines fresh, helps wine taste refreshing, and can make a food and wine pairing sing. You can taste for the acid in a wine by noticing how much you salivate after sipping it. When I’m blind tasting for acid content in a wine, I have a “two spit” test I use - if I spit twice, it’s usually an acidic wine! Acid can be more noticeable on white wine - think Sauvignon Blanc - but red wines can have high acid, too (the Italian wines are notable for this).

Finish: This is simply how long you can still taste the wine. If you swallow the wine and lose the flavor instantly, the wine has a short finish. However, if the flavors of the wine are still in your mouth 30 seconds after you've swallowed it, that wine has a long finish.

Terroir: (Tear-wahr) Terroir is not the taste of rocks. Terroir is a French term to describe the intangible “place” of the wine. It is, essentially, a descriptor for how a particular region’s climate, soils, terrain, handling, and all the other variables of a vineyard impact the wine itself. Some sommeliers describe terroir as “the difference.” This is apt, because terroir is truly what separates and distinguishes wine. It definitely has a physical element to it. For example, Napa Valley and the Médoc, in France, both grow Cabernet Sauvignon. But because the Médoc is cooler than Napa, the Médoc Cabs tend to have more acidity, and the Napa Cabs tend to have more natural sweetness due to the sun and heat. The climate is part of the terroir.

Other people get more spiritual with terroir, speaking of it as a way that wine embodies a place. It is true that great terroirs are those that have unique qualities of expressiveness and distinctiveness, that provoke a sense of recognition as soon as they are tasted. “The difference” makes the difference, I suppose.