When Lily and I started this website we launched it with the aim of making wine more accessible to people who may have felt excluded by wine culture. We wanted to give them confidence when reading a wine list or visiting a liquor store.
As someone who works in the wine industry, I talk about the qualities/characteristics of wine every day and pride myself on describing our wines to people in a clear, down to earth manner. Despite having this in mind, sometimes I will use a ‘wino’ term. Sometimes someone may even use a term that I’m not familiar with, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I’m still learning.
These terms have been coined for a reason: they accurately describe characteristics of wine. But sometimes they can be ridiculously confusing.
With this in mind, I’ve written an article explaining some wine terms for the everyday person.
Terroir – Simply put, this means the essence of a place. Terroir represents the unique environment in which a wine is produced, taking into consideration numerous factors like qualities of the soil and the climate which it is produced in. The French base their appellation laws (AOC) on this concept and that’s why in most cases wine labels are listed by where it’s from, rather than the grape, as the wine is seen as an extension and representation of that place because of its terroir.
Botrytis – This is the technical term for ‘Noble Rot’. Basically this occurs naturally and is a process for making sweet wine. Certain grapes are affected by a natural fungus, which starts to concentrate the sugars in the grapes, making the remaining juice delightfully sweet.
Bouquet – The mixture of aromas you smell in the wine.
Balance – I use this term a lot, especially when describing Nova Scotia Icewine, because the soil in Nova Scotia has high acidity, it really balances the sweetness of the wine and prevents it from becoming too cloying (too sweet). A wine is balanced when all the elements (sweetness, tannin, acidity and alcohol) are in tune with one another.
Body – Normally refers to the alcohol content in the wine, for example; if something is full bodied, you can expect it to be higher in alcohol.
Complexity – This means that there are several flavour profiles occurring at once. If a wine is complex then it is normally said in a good way, as the different flavour profiles blend well together. This is normally found in mature wines that have had some time aging in the bottle.
Oak/Oaky – When a wine is described as being ‘oaky’, it means that a major aroma one can detect is that of oak, it would also slightly smokey. The aroma indicates that it has been aged in an oak barrel. American oak barrels normally give off the strongest oak aromas because they have a wider wood grain than barrels made from French or Hungarian oak .
Corked – This is when a wine has suffered cork taint. If a wine is corked then it will lack the fruity aromas and I often liken it to smelling like wet dog or mould. When a server in a restaurant pours the wine for a customer to try, they are giving the customer a chance to test for cork taint. Screw cap wine can’t be corked but it can be oxidised.
Oxidised – This is when too much oxygen has mixed into the wine and it starts to smell and taste a bit like vinegar. As mentioned, screw cap wine can be oxidised if the top hasn’t been sealed properly so that if you are in a restaurant then it is still worthwhile to sample it first.
Crisp – This refers to acidity. If something is crisp then it means it is pleasantly acidic. Nova Scotian white wines are normally crisp due to the acidic soil found there.
Tannin – A tannin is a natural polyphenol that is found in grape skins. You can find it in tea and dark chocolate too. The flavour qualities of a tannin normally reflect slight bitterness and it is most prevalent in fuller bodied red wines that have come from thick skinned grapes.
Finish – This is how long the flavours linger in your mouth after you have finished the wine. Quite self explanatory! Generally, a longer finish indicates a wine of higher quality.
Firm – Normally a more medium/full bodied wine will be described as firm; as this is when there a notable tannins in the wine that aren’t too overpowering.
Peak – A wine is forever evolving and ultimately will hit a ‘peak’ before starting a steady decline in quality. Taste qualities in a wine that is peaking are identified by a good balance of a variety of qualities, like acidity, tannin and alcohol etc. After a wine peaks, the flavours will start to close up and it will taste a bit off and oxidised. You can find information on the aging qualities of wine in a previous article here.
I think I will leave it there, as there’s quite a lot of information to take in! We will post further key-word descriptors in future articles, but this is something for you to be going on with.
There’s a great book by Jancis Robinson called The 24 Hour Wine Expert which has a great list of key phrases. Also, just remember that the more you drink, the more you will pick up on these phrases and concepts. What I like to do is go through wines I know (for me this will normally our selection at the vineyard) focus on a couple of key terms and think about the wine’s qualities and if they represent any of the phrases.
However, I am a massive wine nerd and wouldn’t necessarily expect a casual wine drinker to invest that amount of time and effort… it’s a great way to learn though!
– J A M E S