The Only 8 Words You Need To Describe A Wine
Just like North Face jackets and Claudia Winkleman, wine is everywhere. It’s in pubs, it’s in delis. It even comes in cans now. However, although there’s certainly been an uptick amongst our generation, words to describe exactly what we’re tasting often fall short.
Language is one of the biggest barriers between young people and the wine they want to drink. For those of us who have drunk the Kool-Aid, there are a great deal of adjectives and nouns to describe what we’re experiencing when we take a sip of good (and not so good) wine. But to the uninitiated, wine-speak is a foreign language, with myriad verbal bear traps to dodge, underpinned by the creeping feeling that you’re making a total twat of yourself at the work Christmas party.
But things needn’t be complex. In reality, you only need a few words to basically describe and critically taste a wine. They’re the same ones that sommeliers and wine critics were taught when they first started learning, and now I’m going to share them with you. Thank me later, guests of WeWork Christmas Do 2024.
When I worked as a somm, I would always have guests ask for a ‘dry’ wine. My eyes would roll. Thing is, nearly every wine is ‘dry’, it just means that there’s no detectable residual sugar in it. No sugar = dry. A wee bit of sugar lingering on the palate = off-dry. Feels like it’s going to melt your teeth off = sweet.
Say: This Provençal rosé is incredibly dry and refreshing, there’s nothing better to drink on your second husband’s yacht. Pour me another glass.
A key component to wine (and probably my favourite) is acidity. Generally, wines that have more acidity are those grown in cooler climates, where lower temperatures help preserve acidity. It’s crucial to provide balance to a wine (more on that later) and it’s also a key component in wines that have serious ageing ability.
Say: Wow, the acidity in that 20-year-old Burgundy has kept it energetic in its old age. Go down to the cellar and fetch me another bottle, would you?
Usually, tannins are confused with acidity because they dry out the mouth, but they’re an altogether different beast. You’ll generally only find tannins in red wines, which are chemical compounds extracted from the pips, stems and skins of a grape. Tannins are more of a sensation than a flavour, and I can only compare it to the astringent, stemmy mouthfeel you get when you drink the last dregs of a green tea, but in a wine, they’re super pleasant.
Say: Wow, Colin Farrell, I don’t usually like wines with a lot of tannins, but the mouthfeel of that Malbec you ordered is so silky, with great grip on the palate. Thank you.
Whether you’re a novice or a budding wino, you’ll have likely heard the term ‘full-bodied’ before. This simply means that the wine has a big presence in the mouth. For red wines, it’s likely to have smooth tannins, high alcohol, and pronounced flavours. For white wines, it will all be in the bold fruit character and high alcohol content.
Say: What did I drink on my date with Colin Farrell? Well, we had the Chablis to start, but the Malbec was so full-bodied in contrast.
This is another pretentious-sounding word that’s frequently used among wine aficionados. It refers to how long a wine stays on the palate. So, a wine with length will linger on your taste buds for a few minutes after you take a sip. A ‘short’ wine will evaporate on the tongue, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Say: This Bordeaux has such a great length on the palate, it has notes of plum and damson that seems to go on for days.
A word that is used to describe a wine that’s truly harmonious on the nose and on the palate. Where acidity, tannin, alcohol, dryness and body all contribute to an overall feeling of completeness. Sounds pretentious, I know, but when you drink a truly balanced wine, you just know.
Say: This Riesling has a brilliant acidity, a hint of sugar, gorgeous round fruit and isn’t overpowered by alcohol – it’s perfectly balanced.
When people say they like a vanilla note in their wine, I know they like their wine oaked. Wine can be fermented in many different vessels, but oak barrels are one of the most ancient materials. Oak imparts flavours of vanilla, right the way up to espresso, depending on how intensely the wood is toasted prior to assembling the barrel. Also the older a barrel is, the less flavours it imparts, so it’s always worth finding out if a wine is ageing in old or new oak.
Say: I can taste a touch of vanilla and brioche in this wine, it’s very clearly oaked.
Now that we’ve learned how to describe brilliant wines, it’s only fair that I equip you with the possibility of encountering a faulty wine. Being corked is one of the most common faults you’ll encounter with a bottle of wine. The fruit tastes flat and sad and the nose gives you odours of soggy cardboard and wet dog. The little sample your somm will pour you before serving is your opportunity to look out for this, so stay alert, winos!
Say: I’m so sorry Colin, this bottle is, in fact, corked. Let’s get a pint instead.