Vino Vocab

A primer on how to speak wine-geek.



When the red-nosed wine blowhards begin flaunting fancy words, I duck out before the bullshit hits the fan. Now, with the growing popularity of wine, these cocky connoisseurs are crawling out of every cellar, anxious for an opportune moment to release their jargon-laden rhetoric. My favorite beverage is so steeped in descriptors . . . can't we just drink?

But I'll face it: Wine geeks won't stop blathering any time soon, nor will I. So even though all I really want is for you to drink more wine, here's my attempt to share our language so you too can become fluent.

Acidity (noun): A substance in grape juice that makes you pucker when you sip, like eating a lemon. Acidity comes from the skins.

Age (verb): Aging mellows tannins (see "Tannins"). Although 95 percent of all wine should be consumed within one year after it's bottled, the remaining big boys — Bordeaux and Burgundy, Spanish and Italian reds, and some California Cabernet Sauvignons — need to be left alone in the bottle to chill out.

Balance (noun): When everything in a wine comes together perfectly. The acids aren't too strong and the astringent tannins don't kick you in the teeth.

Big (adjective): Mostly a word for red wines, meaning lots of beefy flavor and alcohol. Big wines normally need to age before most people would want to come near them.

Body (noun): Wine is normally described as light-, medium-, and heavy-bodied, indicating how heavy the wine feels in your mouth. Kevin Zraly, famed wine educator, invented a way to teach people about body. Think of it as different grades of milk. Light-bodied wines feel like skim milk in the mouth; medium-bodied wines are like whole milk; and full-bodied equals heavy cream.

Breathe (verb): The process of mixing oxygen into the wine to allow its flavors to come forward. Best method: Pour the wine into a glass and swirl it or allow it to sit. Simply opening the wine only lets about an inch of the wine breathe.

Complex (adjective): Complex wine has a lot of personality, and its flavor holds on through the entire sip — from the first taste of fruit to a long-lasting finish (see "Finish").

Crisp (adjective): Sharp acidity in a wine. Normally a compliment for whites.

Dry (adjective): Not sweet. Dry wines have most of the sugar fermented out of them so there's no sense of sweetness on the tongue.

Finish (noun): Refers to the flavor lingering in your mouth after you take a sip. "A long finish" means this flavor lasts a few seconds or more.

Nose (noun): The aroma of a wine. To really "get" the nose, stick your honker down into the glass and breathe deeply.

Oaky (adjective): The wood taste imparted by the oak barrels or oak chips used during fermentation or aging.

Palate (noun): The flat part of the tongue. Sometimes broken into "front, mid, and back" terms.

Structure (noun): The architecture of a wine: the smell, the feel in your mouth, the tannins, acidity, and fruit. "Good structure" is a fabulous compliment for a wine.

Tannin (noun): The drying substance found in the seeds and skins of the grape, mostly in red wines. You can feel tannins as they suck the moisture from your mouth, just like strong-brewed tea. Tannins also enable wine to age.

Tight (adjective): Refers to a red wine's reluctance to be friendly or fruity when you first pour it in the glass. A young wine high in tannins might be "tight" before it gets mixed with oxygen (see "Breathe"). Oxygen helps release its flavors and relax its aroma and flavor. 

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