Uncork the World of Wine: 4 Wine Vocab Words to Order like a Pro
Charcoal. Angular. Barnyard. No doubt about it, people describe wine in some pretty weird ways. But you shouldn’t need a pocket dictionary to sound like a wine sophisticate and order a glass you’ll enjoy. Luckily, knowing a few choice pieces of wine vocab can go a long way.
Find out if a full-bodied red, crisp refreshing white or somewhere in between is right for you with this guide to the basics of wine. Below we break down the four main descriptors of wine to help you order your next perfect glass: fruit, sweetness, body and finish.
Wine Vocab: How to Speak Wine
If wine is made from grapes, why do we often hear wine described with words like cherry, lemon or pear? These associations actually come from the aromas found in wine. Each variety of wine grape carries its own aromas but other factors also affect your wine’s aroma, including how the wine was made, the age of the bottle and where the grapes were grown. (Italy, France and Spain are the top three wine producing regions in the world, while the United States is the fourth major player, with 90% of production occurring in California.) The grapes release various aromatic compounds through the fermentation process that affect how your senses perceive the overall flavor of the wine.
Red wines are typically have either blackfruit or red fruit flavors.
Black fruits include blackberries, figs, blueberries and black currants; these aromas are often found in wines like cabernet sauvignons, malbecs and syrahs.
Red fruits include cranberry, pomegranate, cherry, raspberry and red plum. Pinot noir, sangiovese and merlot are known to possess red fruit aromas.
White wines have fruit flavors that are categorized as tree fruits or citrus.
Tree fruits include apricot, peach, apple, pear and nectarine, and these flavors are present in wines like moscato, sauvignon blanc and viognier.
Citrus fruits include lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit and are common notes in chardonnay, riesling and pinot grigio.
Many of us have heard or used the word “dry” to describe wine, and while a common assumption is that dryness refers to texture, it actually describes the relative sweetness of the wine. Sweetness in wine is determined by the amount of residual sugar left from the grapes as the juice ferments and changes into wine. Winemakers choose when to end fermentation and how much residual sugar to leave in the wine. If they fully complete the process, no residual sugar (or sweetness) is left, thus making the wine “dry.”
A wine can be classified anywhere from dry (not sweet) to very sweet based on sugar content. When you’re in the mood for something that’s not as sweet, feel free to ask for something on the dryer side. Factors such as acidity and tannins, which are textural compounds that make wines taste more dry, also affect the perceived sweetness of wine. These components help categorize wine from dry to sweet. Here’s a scale of sweetness levels for red and white wine:
Very dry: Bordeaux, Chianti
Off dry: Burgundy, Sangiovese
Medium: Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, SyrahSweet: Port
Very dry: Chablis, Muscadet
Off dry: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio
Medium: Moscato, Riesling
Body is used to describe the heaviness or fullness of wine when tasting it in your mouth. Based primarily on alcohol content, a wine can be light-bodied, medium or heavy or depending on the weightiness when you drink it. A simple analogy to understand wine body is to think of the difference you feel when drinking skim (light), two percent (medium) and whole (heavy) milk.
Red wines tend to be fuller bodied and are often described as rich, while white wines are generally lighter bodied and known as more crisp and refreshing. Heavier wines tend to be higher in alcohol content than lighter ones, too. So when it comes to pairing, it makes sense to pair fuller bodied wines with heavier, richer dishes and lighter-bodied wines with food that is also on the lighter side.
Light-bodied wines (under 12.5% alcohol), like rieslings and Italian prosecco, pair well with seafood, poultry, risottos and vegetables.
Medium-bodied wines(12.5-13.5% alcohol), including pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and pinot noir, are considered the most food-friendly and go well with pastas, roasted meats and tomato-based sauces.
Heavy-bodied wines(over 13.5% alcohol), like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and syrah, are typically paired with bold flavors and complement steaks, barbecue and rich pasta dishes.
Finish is a final descriptor of wine and refers to the last flavor or texture remaining after you swallow a sip. The most common types of finishes are smooth, spicy and bitter.
Photo provided by Oro in San Francisco. Photo by Nader Khouri.
Smooth finishes are the most popular and are characterized by words like lush, round and silky. A smooth finish is common in oak-aged red wines and wine grown in cool climates. Foods that pair well with a smooth finish include roasted meats, red sauces and crème brûlée.
A spicy finish can be described as sharp, peppery or edgy and pair well with grilled meats and aged cheeses. This more intense finish is attributed to the type of grape and type of acid found in the wine. Cabernet sauvignon is the most common wine known for a spicy finish.
Bitter finishes pair well with rich fatty foods and strong cheeses. A bitter finish derives from the tannins and other compounds found in wine. Terms that indicate a bitter finish include dense, structured and austere.