Tasting Notes

How to Decipher the Often Confusing World of Wine Jargon

Wine writer Bob McGinn offers tips on how to accurately describe the wine you like (and the wine you hate).

By Bob McGinn January 28, 2020

Image: Shutterstock

Every occupation and pursuit has its particular vocabulary. Some of those words are necessary for understanding and others are simply shortcuts, like acronyms. This is also true of wine. From the vineyard to the retail shelf or the restaurant, there are numerous terms which help us better understand and enjoy the wine we purchase.

I surveyed several local wine merchants and asked them which words they hear most often from consumers and which words they would like to hear more often. Mark Montalbano of ABC Fine Wine & Spirits and Thomas Morgan of Seagrape Wine Company mentioned the same words. “Sweet” and “dry” are the most common descriptions they hear. Most table wine is dry (with no perceptible sweetness), but many people prefer some sweetness. That is the conundrum. Whether a wine is sweet or dry, rich or thin, crisp or buttery, light or heavy, the degree and definition depends on the perception of the consumer.

An easy way to address this problem is to have a wine you like or hate and use that as a basis. “I enjoy a Tuscan red like Col Di Sasso. Can you recommend something similar?” would be a great beginning. Or you can reverse this if you dislike that wine. Another approach would be, “I am preparing osso buco tonight. What would you recommend to accompany it?”

Both Montalbano and Morgan suggest you view wine managers as resources and engage them to reach higher levels of confidence. A good wine manager or sommelier will offer a couple appropriate suggestions at different price levels.

Keep in mind that wine terms evolve, and the best descriptions are your own. "Crisp," "buttery," "astringent," "complex" and "fruity" are all easily understood. A more advanced vocabulary would include "acidic," "tannic," "earthy," "flabby," "fruit-forward," "jammy," "palate," "dregs" and "oaked," all of which are more refined versions of your impressions. Some wines can be bad and have their own unique terms. The most common cause of bad wine is cork taint; that means the wine is “corked.” Poor storage or age can cause a wine to be “maderised,” or become closer to vinegar than wine. Curious what all those means? Google is a great resource.

If these terms intrigue you and you wish to advance your vocabulary and analysis of wine, consider the American Wine Society’s Aroma Wheel. Since most taste impressions of wine are actually aromas, defining these aromas is a worthwhile exercise, and thousands of dedicated wine lovers use this tool on a regular basis to understand and describe wines.

Wine writer Bob McGinn can reached at gulfcoastwinejournal.com.

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