Uncorking the Secrets of Common Jargon

Why Understanding Wine Terms Matters (Even for Casual Drinkers)

Wine jargon can intimidate. What is the difference between aromas, bouquets and characteristics? What are tannins, terroir and tartrates – and does it really matter? Wine people do sometimes seem to top the vernacular charts. Though, with the ascendency of craft beer and artisanal gin, not to mention an ever-increasing interest in the properties and pleasures of tea and coffee, this notion of snobbery might be fading. Nespresso, for example, is now giving clients aroma profile words such as cereal and green tea, which are highly fashionable. In any event, every discipline or industry has its own set of terms that allow for clear communication and understanding, which, by definition, potentially alienates the outsider.

Unpacking High Tannins and Low Acidity: Classifying Wines for Informed Choices

In essence, wine language is a classification system to enhance learning, understanding and appreciation. Wine students, studying, for example, with WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), are taught how to identify colour, acidity, tannins and so on, and then classify a single wine as having High Tannins as opposed to Low, Medium Acidity and so on. Such classification might seem to take the soul out of a wine, but it is a rigorous system that helps students get to the bottom of a wine.

Food & Wine Harmony: How Jargon Can Elevate Your Culinary Journey

And why is this all useful? If you know you like high acidity versus low acidity or low tannins as opposed to high tannins, you’ll soon learn which wines work for you, whether you’re in a restaurant or a wine store and whether you’ve got someone to advise you or not. Do also bear in mind that wine is traditionally consumed with food – hence that other terminology category that can come across as overbearing – food and wine pairing. Simply put, wine can improve the sensation of food, perhaps as a palate cleanser for fat or moderate certain elements such as spice. Some wine does not taste appealing without food.

Communicating about wine without resorting to wine vernacular simply does not work – as Pingza, a consumer wine app launched in the UK last year, discovered. Its founder, former Hong Kong resident Matthew Aylmer, realised that the trick was to explain, as simply as possible, what the most often-used wine terms mean. What are those most-used terms?

Appearance, Nose, Taste: The Building Blocks of Wine Appreciation

According to programmes such as the WSET, the core components of wine are appearance, nose, and taste.

Appearance gives an experienced taster an idea of the age of a wine, but for most of us, noting the colour might simply be for pleasure. We are attracted to white, yellow, green, pink, purple and red foods (and orange, but that’s another story!), and these, for the most part, are wine’s palette. With Champagne or sparkling wine, we check to make sure the wine contains the promised bubbles; if the bottle has been open for too long, these will have almost all disappeared.

The term nose is often rendered as aroma, bouquet or perfume, and intensity is also noted. This is not to say that a powerful aroma is superior to a subtle smell; it is just an observation. Nose is perhaps the most important component part of wine appreciation, because of its physiological relationship to taste. We know that if we lose our sense of smell, we cannot taste, either. Perhaps the most confusing thing is that wine can smell of everything from chocolate to damp earth, from honeysuckle to lime zest, but almost never of grapes! But the smell of wine almost always has at least one component part of fruit, and as we develop our sense of smell, it can be useful to divide fruit into categories. For red wine, the spectrum runs from soft berries (strawberry, raspberry) through to orchard fruit (red cherry, red plum) and dark fruit (blackcurrant, blackberry). For white wine, the range is from citrus (lemon, grapefruit) through to orchard fruit (apple, pear) and stone fruit (peach, apricot) and then tropical (pineapple, lychee). Suggest one of these groups to yourself as you smell. It does not matter if you smell lime while someone else smells lemon; you’re in the same ballpark.

The taste of wine is also known as the palate, implicit in which is both the function of the tongue and roof of the mouth in the tasting process, and the actual taste of the wine, and how long it lingers on the palate. Length on wine usually denotes higher quality. The tasting process essentially involves five component parts: fruit, tannin, acidity, sugars and alcohol.

Let us go through these one by one.

From Berries to Blackcurrants: Identifying Fruity Notes in Wine

Almost all wine has some sense of fruit, and indeed, if you are asked to describe a wine and you say nice and fruity, you are almost certainly right. Fruit might be expressed as a distinct cherry aroma, a deep taste of blackberry or a lingering sense of grapefruit.

From Lemon Zest to Lingering Finish: Decoding Essential Wine Components

Acidity in wine is revealed as freshness and could be compared to a squeeze of lemon on a piece of grilled fish – it brings the dish to life. Acidity is more prevalent in white wine than in red and is responsible for the refreshing tang of rosé wine.

The Balancing Act: How Sweetness, Alcohol, & Tannin Play Together

Sweet or dessert wine is another style where sweetness is deliberately preserved. However, all grapes have naturally occurring sugars, which are converted to alcohol during the fermentation process. Almost all wine has a touch of residual sugar, and a touch of sweetness should not be seen as a bad thing.

Alcohol is responsible for what is referred to as body or mouthfeel. A wine that has the texture of, say, a caffe latte, would be referred to as full-bodied, while a light-bodied wine would be more ephemeral, with a sensation closer perhaps to green tea.

Tannin is generally present in red wine to varying degrees and is found in grape skins and pips and in oak barrels, in which wine is sometimes aged. Tannin is less about taste and more about sensation: astringency causes a drying sensation which, in a young wine, might even give the sense of our lips sticking to our gums. Tannins are an essential part of a wine that can age.

Beyond Jargon: Discovering Why You Like the Wines You Like

Learning how to classify wines allows us to better understand the styles of wine we most enjoy and may lead us to the ultimate conclusion about a wine as an assessment of its quality or its balance. In culinary terms, balance can be compared with the seasoning of a dish. If a red wine gives a burning sensation at the back of the mouth, the alcohol is out of balance with the other component parts; and if you feel your white wine could be improved with a squeeze of lemon, it lacks balance and freshness. The ability to distinguish between an everyday, inexpensive wine and a complex wine with pedigree is something to be admired, but perhaps the ability to spot a wine of balance is even more useful.

Text Annabel Jackson