Wine People and their Lexicon: a Condensed Dictionary

wine vocabulary words

Wine vocabulary is less subjective than it sounds. This glossary is start to understanding the words used to describe wine.

On your first splash or two into the realm of wine raters, tasters and writers, you might wonder aloud about the planet from which they have come. The vocabulary of wine sure didn’t sound like my native tongue at first! Several such “wine people” have become my close friends over the years and I’ve been known to pull out a wine glossary between courses at dinner parties. Sure, I still wonder about what planet they are from, but I’ve learned enough of their language to engage them in conversation.

One must indulge the more advanced of their kind; their noses and tongues are supersensitive. Their senses of olfaction, gustation and tactition are so sharp they have difficulty explaining their sensations in ordinary terms, leading “wine people” to flail about for words. 

You might hear one of the wine people say, for example, that a wine’s “nearly quizzical notes of melon defy its scandalously baroque vanilla rose petal June afternoons.” In the event that you do, it is entirely appropriate to ask for clarification. Asking, “You mean it’s fruity and refreshing?” would help, for example, to clear up potential misunderstandings.

Not all of the vocabulary of the “wine people” is so singular, however. Many of their linguistic excursions share points of reference, including the following definitions.

Wine Vocabulary

When a wine is acidic, tastes sour or tart. Think citrus or green apples.
Dry and acidic. Sometimes wine people will note that a wine is austere, or hollow, particularly when sampling wine made from an early harvest of grapes grown in a cool climate. An austere wine will give your inner cheeks a slight pinch or pucker.
A misleadingly simple word when uttered by the wine people. Big has nothing to do with the size of the bottle; big means bold, full, rich, robust, thick. Big is a term most commonly ascribed to full-bodied reds, although the occasional oaky Chardonnay might be described as big, too.
Buttery wines feel and even look creamy. A creamy white such as Chardonnay seems to hug the sides of the glass. Calling a white buttery is roughly equivalent to calling a red big. Buttery wines feel thicker, silkier than an austere wine.
Finish refers to flavors that linger. Water has little if any finish; wine can leave an aftertaste for over half a minute. A wine that leaves a prolonged aftertaste has a big finish; if little flavor lingers, the finish is poor.
A taste and scent that reminds wine people of rocks and minerals. Believe it or not, this is not necessarily a negative term. In fact, it is entirely appropriate for numerous white wines such as White Bordeaux, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chablis, provided it is kept in check, and balanced by more appealing flavors and scents. Flinty notes in a wine can make it seem more crisp.
Green wines either exhibit a faint green tone, such as you find in Rieslings, or have been produced from grapes harvested prior to full maturity.
Hollow is roughly the opposite of big. Wine people note that a hollow wine feels empty in the middle of your palate. The wine might seem to promise more flavor at first sip, and may even have a strong finish, but seem dull in the middle.
Nose (also Aroma)
Nose plays an enormous role in the enjoyment of wine, as wine people love the pinpoint aromas you would never think could be derived from grapes.
Tannin is most often cited in reference to red wines. Tannin is a component of the wine skin. Red wine gets most of its color from prolonged contact with the grape skins. Tannins make your mouth pucker, and they add astringency and even bitterness to the wine to balance out its fruitier, sweeter flavors. Tannins break down and soften as a wine matures.

Developing your understanding of the fundamental lexicon of wine people is actually quite a lot of fun. As you taste more and more wines, and compare your experience to tasting notes, you begin to see exactly what the wine people mean.

Just be careful. Wine people are like zombies. The more you associate with them, the closer you are to becoming one yourself!

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