If you drink wine somewhat regularly, you’re probably familiar with the types of wine you like, say red wines vs. white wines. You’ve likely also determined your preferred varietal/s, such as cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, and perhaps you’ve even mastered your desired styles, such as dry white wines or bold, tannic red wines. But unless you are a serious enthusiast or taste wine for your profession, there’s a good chance you aren’t as comfortable describing wine as you’d like to be.
We get it; with all that talk of ‘terroir’ and ‘body’ and ‘fruit-forward notes,’ official wine lingo can seem a bit intimidating. But once you understand a few common wine descriptions and tasting terms, you’ll better grasp what’s in your glass and, ultimately, be able to describe what you like to drink. Even if you don’t feel the need to describe a wine while tasting, it’s great to be able to steer your friendly sommelier or wine shop pro in the right direction when choosing a wine, because, let’s be honest, paying for something you won’t enjoy drinking is never fun.
To help you take your wine terminology to the next level, we’ve compiled a list of 36 common wine terms and descriptors used in the wine world. No need to memorize them all; even just understanding a few will help you become a more confident wine taster and buyer, which tends to result in a more enjoyable wine experience. And isn’t finding pleasure in what you’re tasting really the main goal?
Terroir: Terroir is a French term that refers to the growing environment of the grapes, which influences the character of a wine. It includes geographic location, soil types, terrain (slope, orientation, elevation), climate (sunshine, rain, fog, temperatures), farming techniques, etc. Essentially, it encompasses the environmental factors that give a wine a sense of place.
Variety, Varietal: ‘Variety’ refers to the type of grape, while ‘varietal’ is a wine made from a single grape variety. Example: single-varietal chardonnay = a wine made from mostly or all chardonnay (legally it must be at least 75% of one grape to be labeled a varietal wine in the U.S.).
Fermentation: Fermentation is the conversion of grape sugars into alcohol through the addition of yeast. In simple terms, wine is fermented grape juice.
Malolactic Fermentation: This is a secondary fermentation in which naturally occurring malic acid (which is tart like tart apples) changes into lactic acid (which is smooth like butter). Many wines described as “buttery” or “creamy” have gone through the process of Malo.
Barrel Fermented: This means a wine has been fermented in oak barrels instead of stainless steel or concrete.
Blend: A wine made by blending several varietal wines together.
Field blend: Wine made with different varieties that are harvested and vinified together.
Vintage: Refers to the year the grapes were harvested.
Non-vintage: ‘NV’ wines are a blend of several vintages.
ABV: An abbreviation for alcohol by volume, which is listed as a percentage on the wine label.
Primary Aromas: Primary aromas are grape-derived aromas and include dominant fruity, herbal, and floral notes.
Secondary Aromas: These are considered background aromas, which come from the winemaking practices, such as fermentation techniques. These can smell of buttered brioche or cheese rind, have nutty characteristics, or even impart yeast-like aromas.
Tertiary Aromas: These aromas come from the aging process, such as oak barrel aging, and can include notes of vanilla, coconut, baking spices, toasted nuts, cigar box, tobacco, or leather.
Acidity: Acidity makes your mouth water, giving you that mouth-puckering sensation, like a tart lemon or cranberry, which can make a wine seem refreshing and zesty. Too much acidity can taste harsh, like your teeth are being stripped of enamel, while not enough acidity will make the wine seem flabby in the mouth. Both red wines and white wines have acid. Low pH = higher acid levels.
Bitterness (Tannin): If a wine seems astringent by drying out your mouth (like tea that has been steeping too long), that’s the result of tannins. Tannins can be derived from grape skins, seeds, and stems, or from extended aging in oak. Depending on the wine and your preferences, tannins can be a good thing, providing structure and shelf life.
Sweetness: Sweetness, and how it relates to sweet wine, is commonly misunderstood. If you think a wine is sweet, try to decipher between sweetness from residual sugar (RS) left after fermentation and that of which is just perceived sweetness from fruit-driven flavors.
Alcohol: Alcohol is a result of fermentation. When tasting, if a wine feels warm or hot in your throat, that’s a sign of a higher alcohol wine. Bolder, full-bodied wines, whether red or white wines, tend to have more alcohol than their leaner counterparts.
Body: Body is the general weight of the wine on the palate, otherwise known as viscosity — think skim milk versus whole milk when comparing light-bodied to full-bodied wine.
Length: Length is the amount of time a wine’s flavors and textures linger on your palate after swallowing. In some wines, that lingering sensation can last several seconds or more.
Complexity: The more aromas, flavors, and nuances you can decipher, the more complex the wine is. Typically this is an indicator of a quality wine.
Light-Bodied: This means the wine is lighter in overall body (weight, viscosity). It may seem delicate, subtle, lean, or racy in your mouth. Generally, light-bodied wines will have less alcohol and tannin, with higher acidity.
Full-bodied: Wines that fill your palate with texture and intensity are typically full-bodied. In many cases, these have higher tannin levels, more alcohol, and are darker in color. Common words for full-bodied wines include rich, opulent, intense, structured, and muscular.
Mouthfeel: This describes how the wine feels on the palate, such as smooth, velvety, dry, rough.
Fruit-forward: This common wine term is used when describing the dominant notes of fruit in the nose and mouth. It doesn’t necessarily mean the wine is sweet, just that there’s noticeable fruit characters. Think fresh strawberries, raspberry jam, baked apples, etc.
Earthy: This wine adjective indicates that the wine has “earthy” odors or flavors reminiscent of damp soil, forest floor, mushrooms, or wet leaves.
Savory: Also known as earthy, rustic, or Old World in style. Savory indicates there are more earthy or herbaceous notes with less dominant fruit characteristics. Think kalamata olives, dried herbs, leather, game, or tobacco.
Herbaceous: This term is used to describe aromas and flavors of oregano, mint, dried herbs, eucalyptus, etc.
Minerally / Minerality: Typically, this is used when a wine’s flavors and aromas impart earth/soil notes of slate, wet stone, crushed rocks, or chalk.
Toasty / Oaky: A descriptor used when a wine smells like toasty oak or any of the aromas that oak barrel aging can impart, such as vanilla, caramel, smoke, coconut, and nuts.
Spicy: This wine term is used to describe notes of black or white pepper, baking spices, curry spices, etc.
Vegetal: Vegetal describes the vegetable characteristics detected in a wine, such as bell peppers, asparagus, and grass. If too prominent it is typically considered a flaw, usually from too much skin contact, though there are some grapes, like cabernet franc, in which the vegetal notes are part of the typical profile. It’s all about balance.
Flabby: Flabby refers to when a wine doesn’t really have any acidity to balance it. Not a positive term.
Racy: A lively, lean wine with a lot of zesty acidity is often described as racy. It usually gets its brightness from high acid levels. Highly acidic wines like riesling and sparkling wine can be considered racy.
Supple: When a wine is soft and round in your mouth, or velvety in texture, it’s described as supple. Basically, the tannins are well integrated so it’s not drying or astringent.
Tannic: This term is used when a wine has high levels of tannins, from grape skins, stems, or oak, which could mean it’s more bitter or astringent in taste. While some white wines are tannic, red wines are more associated with tannins since the grape skins are left on during the fermentation process. Red wines with high tannins include cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and nebbiolo, to name a few.
Balanced: Wines that are balanced are considered harmonious in all its elements: alcohol, acids, tannins, sugars — meaning nothing stands out and all the components seamlessly blend together.
While this only scratches the surface on the great big world of wine descriptions, you can use this list to start putting words to the types of wines you like.
That said, even if you’re not quite ready to “talk the talk” with a wine professional, there are other ways you can advance your wine drinking experience. For example, if you’re a die-hard pinot noir fan or only drink sauvignon blanc, let us expand your wine horizons with these 9 Alternative Wines to Try. Or, let the stars be your guide with our official Wine Horoscope for choosing the best wines for your zodiac sign. And be sure to read our Guide to Wine Tasting Like A Pro, as well as our top Wine Storage Tips for keeping your wines fresh at home. Happy sipping.