Wine Characteristics Glossary From A to Z

Karen Frazier
Group of friends wine tasting

Wine reviewers use a variety of terms to describe the characteristics of the wines they taste. While some of those descriptions are clear-cut, others may leave you hunting for a definition and wondering if "flabby" or "brooding" are good traits in wines. A glossary of wine tasting terms can help you identify the wines you want to explore.

A

Acidic: A tart, sour, or fresh feeling in the mouth when you taste the wine. Wine that has a distinct tang is acidic. Acids in wines are necessary to balance other flavors, but too much acidity can create an unbalanced wine.

Aggressive: Wines described as aggressive are either too tannic, too acidic, or a combination of both.

Alcoholic: A wine with a noticeably high alcohol content; perceived as a hotness in the wine.

Angular: A term used to describe young wines that display predominately sharp, bitter, or tart flavor characteristics.

Aroma: The wine's scent characteristics; very closely tied in with the flavors.

Sniffing a wine's aromas

Aromatic: Varieties of grapes that have especially noticeable aromas. Some aromatic grapes include Viognier, Torrontés, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, and Pinot Gris.

Astringent: Wine that leaves the mouth feeling overwhelmingly dry. Wines that are highly astringent have a high level of tannins, acids, or a combination of both. Astringent wines are often described as austere and mellow as they age.

Austere: A wine with crisp but harsh flavor characteristics. Austere wines are generally young wines with high acids, tannins, or both.

Awkward: Another term used to describe an unbalanced wine. This lack of balance may be between fruit and acids, acids and tannins, or all of the above.

B

Backbone: A description that is synonymous with full-bodied and refers to wines that are well balanced.

Backward: Wines that are strong in alcohol content and high in tannins. Backward is often used in the same manner as brawny.

Balanced: A wine that is not too acidic, astringent, tannic, or fruity.

Big: Wine that is full-bodied and well rounded in flavors. Red wines described as big are usually high in tannins.

Bitter: Bitter flavors are considered a flaw in wines.

Blunt: Wine displaying strong alcoholic tastes and lacking in bouquet and aromatics can be described as blunt.

Body: The weight and texture of a wine on the palate. It is most commonly used in terms of full, light, or medium bodied.

Bone dry: Bone dry wines have no residual sugar. They may also be highly tannic of have high acidity.

Bouquet: The scents and aromas of wine. Some commonly used bouquet descriptions are grassy, vegetal, earthy, and floral.

Brawny: Young red wines with harsh tannins and high alcohol content, also referred to as briary and backward. Brawny wines are aged to help soften the tannins and mellow the alcohol content, resulting in a more elegant, well rounded wine.

Briary: Wines that are strong in alcohol content and high in tannins. Briary is often used in the same manner as brawny.

Bright: Light bodied wines with plenty of acidity.

Briny: Another term for salty, some wines, such as Albariño, have salty flavors.

Salt bucket

Brooding: A positive description given to wine that is robust and very complex.

Buttery: A term usually reserved for white wines, especially Chardonnay. Buttery flavors often come from malolactic fermentation in the winemaking process. The term is used to describe a white wine with hints of flavors and/or aromas of melted butter and toasted oak.

C

Chewy: Wines that are intense in flavor characteristics, bold, and full-bodied.

Clarity: How the wine looks in the glass. It should be clear and bright and not have any indications of haze.

Clean: Fresh tasting wines void of any off-tastes or odd aromas. Alternatively, it might refer to a wine that is unspoiled or one made without pesticides, sulfites, and fining agents.

Closed: Young wines that could use additional aging, as aging helps to develop a wine's character. This term is used to describe wines that are lacking in aroma, color and body. Typically in a closed wine, the tannins are so powerful that all other flavors "hide" behind them; age will soften the tannins and the wines will open.

Cloudy: A clouded appearance, often from sediment or found in an unfiltered wine. In some cases, cloudiness can also be a sign of a tainted wine.

Cloying: A negative description generally given for sweet wines that are not balanced in acid structure, residual sugars, and tannins.

Coarse: A wine with decent weight and texture (body) but lacking everywhere else.

Complex: A wine that displays many different, perfectly balanced flavor characteristics and aromas.

Creamy: Wine with a silky and smooth mouth feel.

D

Delicate: Mild wines or wines with very light flavors and aromas. While it isn't a necessarily negative term, it can refer to wines that are a bit tasteless and light in the mouth.

Dense: A wine with concentrated flavor characteristics and aromas.

Dry: A wine with low residual sugar and minimal to no sweetness.

E

Earthy: A term used to describe both the bouquet and flavor of the wine; refers to a rich-soil scent or flavor. Earthy flavors and aromas are often imparted to the wine by the terroir in which the grapes are grown.

Spiral grape vines in Santorini

Elegant: A refined and delicate wine; balanced and mature.

F

Fading: A wine that is losing color and flavor. The term is used to describe wines that are considered past their prime.

Fat: A well-balanced and complex wine with a relatively low acid content. The term fat is generally a positive description.

Finish: How long the flavors of the wine linger on the tongue and in the mouth after it is swallowed.

Flabby: A wine lacking in acidity and structure, causing the flavors of the wine to taste heavy and flat.

Flat: For sparkling wine and Champagne, flat simply means the wines have lost their bubbles or effervescence. For all other wines, the term is used to describe a wine that is boring and dull, lacking in flavor and aroma characteristics.

Fleshy: A wine that displays smooth and rich flavor characteristics with a velvety mouth feel.

Flinty: A stony or mineral taste in wine.

Floral: A wine with flavors and aromas reminiscent of fresh or dried flowers.

Flowers in champagne

Forward: A wine that displays its characteristics at the fist sip and does not leave any lingering flavors.

Fresh: A light wine with refreshing characteristics; usually a dry and acidic wine with bright, clean flavors.

Fruity: A wine that displays flavors and aromas of fresh fruit (other than grapes), such as blackberries or dark cherries.

G

Grassy: Herbal or green flavors, such as those found in Sauvignon Blanc.

Green: High acid wines with unbalanced flavors. This term is usually reserved for white wines.

H

Harsh: Wines with high alcohol content and astringent flavors. Harsh wines are often aged in order for the wine to mellow.

Hearty: Full-bodied and flavorful; often used to describe big reds.

Heavy: Wines described as heavy are too high in tannins. Heavy wines are considered unbalanced.

Herbaceous/Herbal: Wine that has flavors and aromas of fresh herbs. This term is generally used as a positive descriptive quality in a wine's flavor and aromas.

Hollow: A wine lacking in overall body and flavor characteristics. Hollow wines often have good flavor characteristics in the beginning and a decent finish, but lack in flavor characteristics in between the first sip and the finish.

Hot: The alcohol burn or warm feeling you get in your mouth and throat when drinking wine high in alcohol content

J

Jammy: Red wines that display flavor characteristics of stewed fruits similar to berry jam.

Picnic with jam and wine

L

Lean: Wines are lacking in fruit flavor characteristics.

Length: How long the flavors of the wine stay in your mouth after it has been swallowed. The longer the length, the better the wine. Length is sometimes used in conjunction with finish.

Light Bodied: A wine that is light in mouthfeel.

Lush: Wines that are rich and velvety.

M

Masculine: Red wines that are big, full-bodied, complex, and well-rounded.

Meaty: Containing hearty, meat-like flavors.

Medicinal: Wine with aromatic and flavor overtones of chemicals usually found in liquor such as single malt scotch.

Medium Bodied: Wine with a medium mouthfeel

Metallic: Flint or steel characteristics that flavor some wines.

Moelleux: Moelleux is a French term (pronounced mwah-luh) used to describe white wines that have silky, soft, and mellow flavor characteristics. It's also a type of sparkling French wine.

Mouthfeel: How wine feels on the palate.

N

Nutty: Flavors of toasted nuts in the wine. Often, older, oxidized wines develop slightly nutty flavors.

Almonds and wine

O

Oaky: Wine with flavor notes of oak, often from being aged in oak barrels. Oak notes often incorporate vanilla and sweet spices or a toasty flavor.

Off-dry: Wine that is slightly sweet, usually containing residual sugar of around 10 to 35 grams per liter.

P

Peppery: Wines that have nuanced spiced flavors. Shiraz often presents peppery flavor characteristics.

Perfumed: Fragrant; often containing aromatic grape varieties.

Plummy: Soft and plush. Flavors of plums. Merlot is a plummy wine.

Pruney: Tasting of dried prunes.

R

Racy: Wine that is high in acid content. It is generally used to describe young white wines.

Raisiny: Tasting of raisins.

Rich: Sweet but not cloying.

Robust: Big and full-bodied wines with strong flavors and aromas. Robust is a positive descriptive term.

Rustic: Unrefined and hearty.

S

Savory: Not fruity or sweet.

Short: Wine in which the flavors disappear off your palate as soon as it's swallowed. These wines have virtually no finish or aftertaste.

Silky: Wine that has a very smooth and silky texture.

Smoky: Wine that displays flavors and aromas of smoked or charred wood.

Soft: Easy to drink; not highly tannic or acidic. Merlot is a characteristically soft wine.

Spicy: Zippy flavors of spices. Spiciness can occur in either white or red wines. Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel are all examples of spicy red wines. Spicy whites include Gewürztraminer and Riesling.

Steely: A flavor characteristic used to described wines that are aged in vats (usually stainless steel) as opposed to wood barrels.

Straw: A descriptive term that is generally used to describe the color of white wine as opposed to the flavor or aromas.

Structured: Containing tannin and acidity as well as aging potential; wines with higher tannins are considered structured.

Supple: Wine that is well balanced with a soft mouthfeel.

Sweet: Sweet can be good in wine when balanced. If a wine is so sweet it masks its flavors, it may be called cloying, which is a winemaker's flaw. Sweet wines are usually reserved for dessert, however any wine can have nuances of sweet flavor.

T

Tannic: Wine with a dry mouth-feel. The tannin level in a wine is caused by the seeds, stems and skins of the grape. Tannins soften as the wine ages.

Tart: Acidic or pleasantly sour on the palate.

Tight: A wine in which the fruit flavors have not emerged from behind big tannins yet. It's another named for "closed" and is often used to describe young tannic wines.

Toasty: Flavors of toast coming from oak.

Oak wine barrels

U

Umami: One of the five basic tastes, savory. Meaty flavors in wines add umami.

V

Vegetal: Wines that portray vegetable characteristics in aromas and flavors.

Velvety: A wine well balanced in fruit, acidity, and tannic structure.

Vigorous: A wine with strong, forward fruit flavors.

Viscous: A full-bodied and dense wine. Wines described as viscous are also well balanced with very intense flavors.

Volatile: A negative characteristic used to describe wine that has an off-scent like vinegar.

Z

Zesty: A wine with lively flavor characteristics with balanced fruit and acid.

Speaking Wine-ese

The world of wine has its own terminology. Understanding what wine critics mean when they describe a wine can help you determine whether its flavor profiles are likely to match with your personal palate.

Wine Characteristics Glossary From A to Z