Frilly language with foreign pronunciations is a big turn-off to most people when it comes time to talk about wine. Wine has a jargon all its own – a language of thousands of descriptors for that luscious liquid swirling around in the glass. Whether you are talking about wine, writing about it, making a simple recommendation or trying to tell a waiter what you like – the one thing that will limit your success more than anything else is your vocabulary. Do you want a powerful red? Or are you really craving a fruit-forward red with firm tannins and a silky finish? Do you want a refreshing white? Or are you really searching for a citric wine with juicy acidity?
See the difference?
So, whether you’re brushing up on your vocab to seduce your dinner date or hoping to make a killer impression at a fancy soiree, these are 5 wine terms you’ll want to have in your arsenal:
Astringency is a mouthfeel sensation, a drying sensation that can be felt on the palate, gums and inner cheeks. It is caused by wines high in tannins or wines whose tannins are still too young for easy drinking. Astringent wines are generally harsher and slightly coarse in texture, which is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s simply a question of personal preference and how in harmony the sensation is with other characteristics.
Terroir (“terˈwär”) is a French term that refers to the cultural and environmental elements that give a wine a sense of place. The climate, soil, altitude, and human intervention that affect how a grape grows are all elements that constitute a wine’s terroir. Each of these elements combined in different ways create wines with subtle yet distinct characteristics. For example, wines from cold climates will generally have higher levels of acidity, while warm climate wines will be higher in alcohol content and more mature fruit aromas.
Thousands of aromas can be detected in a wine’s nose – from fruit to flowers, and cat pee to barnyards. Barnyard aromas include scents of hay, horses, animals, and wet fur, all of which are caused by a wild yeast known as Brettanomyces (Brett), which grows in unclean winemaking facilities. Some critics swear that a little scent of horse sweat adds an enjoyable level of complexity to the wines, while others refuse even to taste wines once they’ve detected Brett in the aromas.
A wine is angular when one or more of its elements – particularly acidity – is out of balance. Angular wines are not in harmony, and on the palate usually feel somewhat array – and lack roundness and finesse. The wine may come from a poor vintage or simply be too high in acidity. An angular wine is the opposite of balanced, silky, velvety and lush.
Wines that have been oxidized or aged for several years, change colors and begin to display brownish hues. As they age, white wines take on golden yellow hues while red wines lose intensity and take on red-brick tones. Rather than describing this oxidized color as ‘brown’ or ‘brownish’ as most wine drinkers do, simply use ‘Tawny.’ It’s slightly more tactful than brown and doesn’t suggest that the wine is flawed in any way.
Wine is a language all its own. The trick is to select your descriptors carefully and deploy them with confidence and not pretention. When you have the right wine terms on hand, you can say what you mean without intimidating your opponent into silence. And that is when the conversation (and the wine itself) really begins to flow.
Madeline Blasberg is a Certified Wine Consultant currently working for Etching Expressions, a company that specializes in personalized wine bottles. She has spent time living in Mendoza, Argentina where she was surrounded by wine, both personally and professionally.