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Descriptive Terms


Excerpted from DK COMPANION WINES OF THE WORLD – Copyright 2010 DK Publishing

Descriptive Terms

There are a large number of commonly used words and phrases for discussing the style and character of a wine. Definitions are not water-tight and there is often a large margin of overlap between the various terms.

age-worthy
Applied to wines that will benefit from further maturation in the bottle. Typical examples of age-worthy wines are young with either powerful tannins, good acidity, or some sweetness.

aromatic
A wine with lots of perfumed, fruity aromas, which normally leap out of the glass. Aromatic grape varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Muscat.

austere
A wine that lacks fruity flavours and displays harsh, bitter tannins and/or high acidity.

acidic
All wines need acidity to keep them balanced, but too much is a fault. Acidity is detected on the sides of the tongue.

balanced
A wine with all its components (mainly acidity, alcohol, fruit, tannins, sugar, and extract) in harmony, with no one element prominent.

big
A full-bodied wine that leaves a major impression on the senses, typically containing high levels of fruit, tannins, and/or alcohol. Also used to mean plenty of flavour.

bitter
Normally a negative term used to describe a wine with an excess of harsh tannins, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, detected at the back of the tongue. In some reds, however, a certain amount of bitterness is a desirable characteristic.

blockbuster
Used to describe exceptionally “big“ wines. Think large amounts of fruit, alcohol, tannins, or oaky flavours.

body
The weight or feel of wine in the mouth, determined by its alcohol and extract. To work out whether a wine is light-, medium- or full-bodied, it may be useful to compare it to the feel of water.

clean
Lacking faults in terms of aroma and flavour.

complex
A wine with many layers of aroma and flavour – many different fruits, plus characteristics such as spice and vanilla. Complexity is one of the elements that separates an average wine from a good or great one. The most complex wines have typically gone through a period of ageing, allowing more flavours to develop.

concentrated
An intense taste, normally found in wines with high levels of tannin, sugar, and flavouring and colouring compounds.

crisp
Noticeable acidity but in a positive, refreshing way. Usually used for white wines with clean, fresh flavours.

dry
No obvious sugar or sweetness in the wine. Note that very ripe, fruity flavours and new oak flavours can sometimes give the impression of sweetness, although the wine itself can still be dry. “Dried-out“ is a term given to red wines which have spent too long in barrel or bottle and have lost their fruit flavour.

easy-drinking
A relatively simple wine that can be enjoyed without much thought. It will be fruity and, if red, low in tannin.

elegant
A subjective term, used to describe a good quality, subtle, balanced wine which is not too fruity, and is extremely pleasant to drink.

extract
All the solid matter in a wine such as tannins, sugars, and colouring and flavouring compounds. Extract is what gives a wine its body.

fitness
Quality of a wine that displays elegance.

flabby
A negative term used for a wine which has low acidity and is therefore unbalanced. It can make for a slightly cloying taste.

fleshy
A wine which feels almost solid in texture when in the mouth, thanks to high levels of fruit and extract.

fresh
Like crisp, noticeably acidic in an attractive, refreshing way. Normally used for young white wines.

fruity
A wine with plenty of attractive fruit favours.

harsh
Rough around the edges, lacking in subtlety

heavy
Normally refers to a full-bodied, tannic red wine, and means it is tough to drink or heavy going. It may indicate that the wine needs to spend further time in bottle.

mature
Ready to drink. Generally used for quality wines that require time in bottle. Over-mature is a euphemism for past its best.

oaky
Normally a negative term to describe when oak flavours dominate other flavours in a wine. If the wine is young and good quality, it may lose some of its oakiness with a few years in bottle. Oak flavours can be desirable but only if they are balanced by fruit.

powerful
A “big“ wine with high levels of extract and/or alcohol. Can be used in a positive or negative sense.

racey
Word similar in meaning to crisp and fresh, used to describe wines with noticeable levels of refreshing acidity. It is especially associated with Riesling.

rich
Like concentrated, implying deep, intense flavours in the mouth. Can also be used to mean slightly sweet.

ripe
Wine made from ripe grapes and showing flavours of richer, warmer-climate fruits, such as pineapples (rather than apples). Ripe wine might also suggest a certain sweetness, even though it may not contain sugar.

simple
Lacking complexity, with one-dimensional flavours. This is a fault in expensive wine, but it may not be a problem for everyday drinking wine

soft
A red wine with gentle tannins. Also known as smooth.

structured
Normally refers to the tannins in a red wine, which support the other elements. In a “well-structured“ wine the tannins are noticeable but still balanced. Sometimes used for acidity in white wines, for example a wine can be described as having a “good acidic structure“.

subtle
Normally linked to finesse, it means a wine contains a number of different nuances and tastes. It can also be a euphemism for a wine lacking in fruity flavours.

sweet
A wine with noticeable levels of sugar, detected by the tip of the tongue. The phrase “sweet fruit flavours “ may be used to describe an extremely ripe style of wine.

tannic
An excess of tannins, the drying compounds that come from the skins, pips, and stalks of grapes. Some tannic wines simply require further maturation in bottle. Tannins are not necessarily a bad thing, they just need to be balanced by fruity flavours.

up-front
Used to describe an easy-drinking style of wine with straightforward, fruity flavours.

warm
A wine with an excess of alcohol leaves a “warm“ finish. Can be used to describe full-bodied, spicy red wines.

10 Responses to “Descriptive Terms”

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