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It’s helpful to become familiar with wine lingo
By Heather Stober Fleming
April 08, 2010 12:00 AM
I recently found myself in a conversation with someone who very confidently stated that —¦ all wine tastes the same and descriptions are simply a bunch of nonsense.”
When I am questioned (or in this case, told) about the language of wine, I like to put it into perspective by using a car industry metaphor. If you are shopping for a car, how does a salesperson explain the difference between a Chrysler PT Cruiser and a VW Bug or the difference between a VW Jetta and a VW Passat?
Imagine how difficult it would be if you did not know the meaning of common car lingo. Domestic or foreign? Two or four door? Standard or automatic? SUV or sedan? The options are endless. The goal is to understand what each car has to offer, and select one that meets your needs. This can only be done if one understands the basic car language.
There are words and descriptors used in all industries to help the consumer understand the difference between products within the same category, and wine is no different. The language is not used to sound sophisticated or snobby, but to describe the differences between varietals, styles, regions, and flavor profiles in order to help the consumer make the right selection for any particular occasion. The following are terms and their definitions that are commonly used to describe wine.
Tannin is a term that is often used to describe red wine. It is a substance that is found in the skins, stems and pits of grapes. Red wine has higher level of tannin due to the winemaking process. When making a red wine, the grapes are usually left in contact with the skins during fermentation so the juice can pull the color out of the skins. When making white wine, the color from the skin is not needed, so the grapes are pressed and the skins are discarded, leaving only the juice.
The best way to explain tannins is to think of the flavor of tea if you leave the bag in too long. The tea becomes bitter and astringent because the tannins have been pulled out of the leaves. Technically, tannins aren’t a taste, but more of a sensation on the palate. The higher the tannin level, the drier your mouth will feel. If a wine is very smooth or silky on the palate, it probably has a very low tannin level.
Dry is a term that is used often in the wine world to describe wines that are not sweet. When something is sweet, the sugar coats your palate and causes salivation, which makes your mouth feel wet. If there is no sweetness in a wine, your mouth will not water and your palate remains dry. There are some wines that will use the term semi-dry, which in everyday language means semi-sweet.
Many people confuse fruity and sweet because we think of fruit as being sweet. To differentiate the two, think of cranberries, lemons, limes, Granny Smith apples, and grapefruit. All of these are fruity, but not necessarily sweet. The same philosophy applies to wine. A wine can be very fruity, but still be dry.
I often use the texture of milk to explain the body of wine. Think of how different whole milk, two percent, and skim milk feels in your mouth. Skim milk would be described as light in body, two percent would be medium bodied, and whole milk would be full bodied. Luscious, fat, and rich are some other terms that can be used to describe a wine that is medium to full body.
The nose of the wine is simply the smell. This is a very important aspect of tasting wine that sometimes gets skipped. We can only perceive four tastes — sweet, sour, bitter and salt — but we can identify more than 2,000 different scents, 200 of which can be found in wine. We have all had a cold at some point where our nose was stuffed up and we couldn’t taste a thing. Or as children if we were forced to eat something we did not like, we would pinch our nose and then eat the food. This would mask most of the flavor. I know many of us have seen a wine drinker swirling and sniffing a glass of wine in a manner that seemed a bit animated or over the top, but it really is the most important part of tasting wine.
The finish is the aftertaste. If the aftertaste of the wine lasts for a minute or longer, this would be considered a long finish. If the aftertaste disappears almost immediately after your last sip, this would be considered a short or nonexistent finish.
This word is often used to describe un-oaked, dry, white wines. I like to compare Granny Smith apples and grapefruit when discussing the acidic profile of white wine. I love Granny Smith apples, but I strongly dislike grapefruit. They are both acidic, but most would agree that grapefruit is far more acidic than Granny Smith apples. If I am asked to suggest a Sauvignon Blanc, that is always my first question, “Do you prefer the acidic flavor of Granny Smith Apple or Grapefruit?” Other words that will often be used to describe acid in a wine are tart, crisp, citrusy, refreshing, zippy, and mouth puckering.
Chardonnay aged in oak is often described as buttery. If you think of a stick of butter, the flavors are subtle and there isn’t much of an aroma. However, if you think of melted butter, whether it is on movie theater popcorn or being used to dip lobster, it brings a whole different flavor profile to mind and it is much easier to identify in a wine. Other words used to describe this style of wine are oaky and creamy.
Heather Stober Fleming is a wine professional who lives in Fairhaven. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published on ‘South Coast Today.com’, (permission granted via email Ms. Stober)