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How to Decipher Wine Tasting Terms

Erin O'Reilly - Certified Specialist of Wine

If you’ve ever found yourself asking the question ‘how do you actually taste the adjectives used in wine tasting notes?’ you’re not alone.

Juicy strawberry?
Racy acidity?
Grippy tannins?

Adjectives to describe wines may seem fanciful at first, but they offer a window into the bottle and something of a tease for the potential drinker. Anyone can improve their wine tasting skills and identify the colorful wine tasting terms so often found on tasting menus, wine bottles, or online. Doing so requires shifting from the hedonistic indulgence of drinking wine to the thoughtful practice of tasting wine.

Here are a few tips on how to decipher wine tasting notes.

Wine Tasting for Beginners

The tasting notes might not offer much to someone just starting out — or so it may seem. However, being aware of the various wine tasting steps, or elements that make up the tasting notes can be a helpful place to start when attempting to understand the wine in front of you.

Overall, you can think of these descriptions as a wine tasting guide. And the professional who wrote it is walking you through your sensory experience with a particular bottle of wine.

You’ll notice that the notes often start with the visual color of the wine, then lead you into the smell, the taste, and concluding with the wine’s ‘finish’, or lingering impressions after swallowing.

You can follow along with each descriptive sentence at home by taking multiple sips and focusing on each of the individual elements described (typically in order) below.

a glass of red wine being swirled in someone's hand

Visual Wine Tasting

Start with your eyes.

The color can give you a lot of information without even introducing your other senses. Different grapes can lend themselves to different color intensity, but in general, you can expect a light-colored wine to be light-tasting, more ‘refreshing’ and ‘bright’. Oftentimes these wines can also have a lower ABV.

Alternatively if you find yourself enjoying a glass of red wine, so deep-purple that it’s almost opaque, you can expect the wine to be ‘heavy’, ‘rich’, and even referred to as a ‘big’ wine. These wines will likely (but not always) have a higher alcohol content.

Try it at home:

Pour yourself a glass.

Give it a few swirls and inspect the color by holding it up to a light source, or over a white table or piece of paper. By doing this, you’ll better see the hue of the wine.

What do you see?

For white wines, is it crystal clear almost like water? Does it have a rich yellow-straw hue? Or somewhere in between? For red wines, is it a pale strawberry-red, or is it so dense you can hardly see through it?

The color along with other visuals, such as if there’s sediment settling to the bottom, or even eyeing the ‘wine legs’ (or alcohol trailing down the sides of your wine glass), all give clues as to what to expect in the next steps of wine tasting.

three people smelling glasses of red wine

Wine Tasting Terms Related to Smell

Dip your nose into your glass.

A wine’s aroma is, in reality, a combination of what you can detect with your nose and the influence of what you can taste with your tongue.

These two factors play into each other, so being able to describe what you are smelling in a wine, is only part of the experience. After taking a sip, those adjectives might change slightly, or you might even discover new aromas — ones that your nose alone could not pick up on. After all, what you smell influences what you taste and vice versa.

Try it at home:

Swirl the wine in your glass while breathing in deeply with your mouth slightly open. This will open up and aerate the wine’s aroma compounds, making it easier for you to define what you are smelling, sending them up to your nose for it to translate.

What can you smell?

Start with the basics: If you’re tasting a red wine, is it red fruit or black fruit? Is it fresh? Stewed? Dried? The most obvious fruits are typically listed first as descriptors on wine tasting notes. Use the tasting note as your guide towards specifics, whether cherry, citrus, or maybe even grass.

a cluster of ripe cabernet grapes on a vine

Wine Tasting Terms Related to Structure and Tannins

Tannins, extracted from grape stems, seeds, and skins, are typically reserved for red wines and create that drying sensation in your mouth, coating your teeth and tongue with an almost velvet-like feeling. Some people enjoy highly tannic wine, like Tannat, while others prefer softer wines, like a Beaujolais Nouveau.

Tasting notes describe tannins by using wine tasting terms like structure, soft, firmly built, dense, or muscular.

Try it at home:

Taste your wine.

  • How does it act in your mouth?

  • Do the tannins blanket your palate and leave you reaching for a piece of cheese?

  • Or is there an absence of that tactile drying reaction?

  • Perhaps somewhere in between?

These physical reactions your mouth has to the wine is a key part of picking up on a wine’s mouthfeel. Tannins and structure play a huge part in this experience.

two people sharing a cheers with red wine glasses

Wine Tasting Notes Related to Acidity

Acid gives wine life.

It brings out freshness in the fruit flavors, balances out any residual sugar, and makes wine a great food companion. Acidity is also a major factor for the longevity of wine and its ability to age gracefully. As time goes on, the acidity lessens, which can either help or hinder the overall taste. Higher levels of acid can impose a 'sharp' or 'tart' mouthfeel, something that is more prevalent in "young wines", or wines that have just been released and have not had time to age. As the wine matures, the acidity (along with other elements such as tannins) soften and become more palatable. Whether you enjoy the sharp characteristics of a wine or lean towards the ones with a velvety texture is often a personal preference. And another great example of how a wine can change and evolve over time!

Movement and light-related wine adjectives tend to describe acid:

  • zippy

  • energetic

  • fresh

  • juicy

  • filigreed

  • energetic

  • lively

  • bright

Try it at home:

Take another sip of your wine. Pay attention to the area around the bottom back of your mouth. How much does the wine cause you to salivate?

A lot? Then it’s probably a high-acid wine.

A little? Most likely, it’s a low-acid wine.

Compare this to the tasting notes. Can you see where the original taster came up with the descriptor? It might take a few tries to pick up on the acid specifically, but since white wines tend to show acidity more clearly, tasting a red wine vs. white wine is often a great place to start.

red wine being poured into a decanter

Wine Tasting Notes Related to Alcohol

Wine alcohol, or more specifically ethanol, makes up about 12%-13% of the wine’s total volume. A tasting note with phrases such as ‘well-integrated’ and ‘balanced’ means that you probably aren’t tasting the alcohol. Whereas, if a wine has a high level of alcohol, or doesn’t have enough other balanced elements to integrate well enough with the alcohol, it’s much more noticeable. This is when you will come across wine tasting descriptors such as ‘hot’ or 'bitter', both of which allude to the alcohol content.

To Summarize:

Remember, tasting notes in wine are carefully written to communicate the wine’s sensory experience. While some notes embellish, wine reviewers want you to know what you’re getting and will attempt to describe the wine as accurately as possible. And while you may be unable to pick out every detail that the professional who wrote the notes describes, with a little thoughtful sipping, you, too, should be able to taste the main elements in any wine tasting note.

Put your skills to the test and see how well you can do! There are plenty of award-winning wines to practice on at our wine store or in any of our 6 Wine of the Month clubs. With this much opportunity to practice, you'll be a wine tasting expert in no time!

Erin O'Reilly Author Bio Image Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators and a long-time lover of all things fermented grape. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.