Why Wine Descriptions?
How do you buy wine when you don’t know what it tastes like? A lot of folks (including me) rely on reading wine descriptions to get an idea of what a wine will taste like. Wine writing is a business and its job is to SELL wine, not to be honest or accurate. Below is a list of common wine descriptions and what they actually mean.
We rarely write about wine… unless it’s kickass! (or so bad that we can’t help ourselves)
Wine Descriptions Glossary
- Wines with high acidity taste tart and zesty. Red wines have more tart fruit characteristics (versus “sweet fruit”). White wines are often described with characteristics similar to lemon or lime juice.
- An angular wine is like putting a triangle in your mouth – it hits you in specific places with high impact and not elsewhere. It’s like getting punched in the arm in the same place over and over again. An angular wine also has high acidity.
- This is a very unfriendly wine. It hits your mouth and then turns it inside out. It usually means the wine has very high acidity and very little fruit flavors. An austere wine is not fruit-forward nor opulent.
- This means the wine smells like poo. It’s never used anymore describing a wine, unless the wine writer is attempting to dig that wine an early grave.
- Big describes a wine with massive flavor in your mouth that takes up all sections of your mouth and tongue. A big wine is not necessarily a fruit-forward wine, it can also mean that it has big tannins.
- Bright wines are higher in acidity and make your mouth water. GO TO ACIDITY
- A wine with buttery characteristics has been aged in oak and generally is rich and flat (less Acidity). A buttery wine often has a cream-like texture that hits the middle of your tongue almost like oil (or butter) and has a smooth finish.
- The least fruit-like of all dark fruits. When writers mention cassis, they are often thinking of the seedy and gritty character of actual black currants. Homework assignment: try a black currant and report back.
- A wine that is described as tasting like charcoal tastes gritty, it’s usually dry (with higher tannins) and has this rustic flavor. Charcoal is often associated with a similar characteristic: pencil lead (but less refined).
- CHEWY TANNINS
- When you take a sip of wine with chewy tannins, it dries out the interior of your mouth so that you “chew” or clean the tannins out of the insides of your mouth.
- CIGAR BOX
- Cigar box flavors are hinting toward sweetness and cedar-wood with an abundance of smoke. This is a super positive and desirable characteristic that wine writers love to use when they find a wine they wish they could just slowly sip on a leather chair.
- A complex wine simply means that when you taste it, the flavor changes from the moment you taste it to the moment you swallow. As much as I love complex wines, using the word “complex” to describe a wine is a cop-out unless you go on to describe how it’s complex.
- Creamy is a popular description for white wines and sparkling wines fermented or aged in oak. In Champagne, creamy is a favored characteristic that is associated with the famous bottles of bubbly…such as Krug. A creamy wine could be in part because of something called Malo-Lactic conversion. Look for creamy in chardonnay if you like buttery. Look for creamy in cabernet sauvignon if you like smooooth.
- The word Crisp with wine is more often used to describe a white wine. A crisp wine is most likely simple but goes really well with a porch swing on a hot day.
- When a wine writer pares down his lengthy description of flavors and characteristics of a wine into one word, he uses dense. Dense is favored for use in bold red wines such as cabernet sauvignon, Côtes du Rhône and Brunello di Montalcino but usually isn’t a positive characteristic in other wines because it implies that wine is handicapped.
- A classic go-to move for a wine writer trying to describe that awkward green and unpleasant finish on a wine. They don’t want to hate on the wine, they just want you to know that if you don’t like the wine it means you don’t like earthy and you’re a bad person.
- When a wine writer says elegant he means that the wine is NOT big, NOT fruity, NOT opulent and NOT bold. Off-vintages are often referred to as elegant vintages as they have higher acid and tend to have more ‘green’ characteristics. Elegant wines may taste like crap when they first release but they also tend to age better. Elegant is that retired ballerina who puts the fat-n-sassy retired cheerleaders to shame.
- Wide, Big, Massive, Opulent: These are all similar synonyms of fat. Turns out fat is the least desirable of all of them because it’s flabby. A fat wine comes in and takes up all the room in your mouth and hangs in awkward places.
- Flabby means the wine has no acidity. It’s a negative connotation so don’t say it to a wine maker! They will spear you with their forklift.
- A flamboyant wine is trying to get your attention with an abundance of fruit. The writer picks up on this and calls it out. No joke.
- Imagine the iron-laden sensation of having a piece of raw steak in your mouth that is fleshy.
- FOOD FRIENDLY
- This wine falls on its face unless you have it with food. It’s lacking something that eating something will fulfill. Keep in mind, wines that stand on their own are better drunk without food. doh!
- GRIP or GRIPPY TANNINS
- With each subsequent sip, your mouth dries up similar to how my mouth did in the Minerality Tastes Like Rocks? video. Wine with grip is hard to drink, better to sip.
- HINT OF..
- Hint of = This-Wine-Definitely-Has-This-Character-Especially-on-the-Finish. Expect things like oak, herbs, fruits, soil or gym socks in the flavor when there is a hint of it in the description.
- INTELLECTUALLY SATISFYING
- This is a rare but special occurring term used by one of the most famous wine critics, Robert Parker. Robert Parker is sure that if you are not satisfied by this wine on a hedonistic and intellectual level then you don’t deserve to drink it. This is probably true, because these words are reserved for the wines we can’t afford anyway…sadface.
- Sommeliers and wine experts cringe when they hear this term while the rest of us delight. Jam is delicious and it is part of the PB&J experience. In wine, jammy indicates a wine with a cooked berry sweetness that is syrupy and often is used to describe American wines like zinfandel, grenache, cabernet franc and Australian shiraz…don’t be a hater.
- Juicy like the wine was grape juice just a moment ago.
- Another one of Robert Parker’s idioms that we can’t help mentioning. pew! pew! GO TO DENSE
- Lees are an actual winemaking term describing the dead bits of yeast particles that generally sink to the bottom of a wine. Lees are stirred up once a day to make a wine have a thicker, more oily, creamy texture.
- Imagine that smell of fresh wet concrete; now imagine that flavor in your mouth. If you don’t have time to lick concrete, don’t worry we did.
- Oh oak! The ultimate non-grape influence to the flavors in wine. In white wine it adds butter, vanilla and sometimes coconut. In red wine it adds flavors often referred to as baking spices, vanilla and sometimes dill. There are a milieu of different countries that make oak wine barrels and wine geeks freak out over who makes the best (American v. France). We don’t vote.
- This word is a baseline word to a style of wine that is rich, smooth and bold. If you are a rich, smooth, bold wine guy, “Opulent” is your word.
- Refined is a subset of elegant wines. This term is often used while describing tannins in a wine. These wines have the “less is more” ideology about them. GO TO ELEGANT
- Silky is the red-wine equivalent word to creamy with white wines. If you like silky for bed sheets than you will most likely enjoy silky on your tongue. GO TO CREAMY, VELVETY
- A steely wine has higher acid and more sharp edges. It is the man-ballerina of wine.
- A structured wine has high tannin and acid and is hard to drink. People say “stuctured” because they think that if you give the wine a few years, it’ll soften up and be yummy. GO TO AUSTERE
- This wine is not ready to drink. When I taste a tight wine it usually has very high tannins, hard-to-identify fruit characteristics and is hard-to-drink. This wine could benefit from being decanted (see How to Decant Wine).
- Toasty is most commonly a reference to a wine that’s oak-aged in Medium Plus Toasted Oak. It doesn’t actually taste like toast (sorry to disappoint) it’s more like slightly burnt caramel on the finish.
- When a wine is unctuous it is oily.
- A wine that is unoaked doesn’t have vanilla, cream, butter or baking spices in it. An unoaked white wine is more zesty with lemony flavors (see Minerally), while an unoaked red wine tends to be more tart.
- Lush, smooth and silky are all synonyms of a velvety wine. To imagine velvety, visualize watching perfectly smooth chocolate pouring into a mold on a Dove chocolate commercial.
Complete Wine Descriptions Chart
120 common wine terms organized by basic wine characteristics including acidity, tannin and fruit level. Designed and printed in the USA.
Wine Learning Accessories
No matter your wine knowledge, we've got the accessories to improve your wine journey.Learn More
Wine 101 Guide
Get up to speed on wine knowledge faster! Check out the Wine Beginner’s Guide for more great articles and guides.