Cliff-Notes to Speaking Like a Sommelier

You have proudly labeled yourself a wine-o for years. You pick wine over any other beverage. You’ve shared funny memes on Facebook claiming wine-o status. You even went so far as to snicker during happy hour last weekend when an acquaintance so ignorantly asked, "Pinot Grigio is white, right?" So you fearlessly accept an invitation to meet your friend and her wine enthusiast co-workers at the trendy new wine bar down the street. You collect your things and scamper past that two-buck-chuck on your kitchen counter. You show up just in time to see them all swirling wine around their glasses before loudly considering the legs and clarity of the wine. Oh boy, you think, suddenly feeling out of your element. You stare blankly at the menu hoping to recognize anything. With no Cabernet or Merlot in sight you’re lost. As everyone around you comments on the aromas and tannin structure, you quietly ask the server to “just bring me something red.”

As with any trade, there is an extensive amount of vocabulary that comes with enology. The more time you spend around wine and connoisseurs who can truly talk the talk, your knowledge and vocabulary will expand. In the meantime, you do not have to sound like a total novice! I've compiled a list of common language used to order, interpret, and discuss wine to provide you with some basic tools in sounding and acting like a pro!

Acid – Acidity refers to the freshness, tartness, and sourness of the wine. It is there to liven up the wine and prolong the aftertaste. Acid also helps to preserve wine. (Bonus info: There are four main types of acid found in wine: citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid.)

Aftertaste – This refers to the flavor that lingers in the mouth once the wine has been swallowed.

Aroma - how the wine smells.

Balance – This term describes how the components of the wine work together. (So, for example, a nice Sauvignon Blanc might have a lovely balance of acidity and fruitiness).

Body – This refers to the overall residual sugars (alcohol content) and how long the taste of the wine lingers once it has been completely consumed. There are three main body types: light-bodied, medium-bodied, and full-bodied. Certain white wines, such as Rieslings or Italian Prosecco, tend to be light-bodied. Medium wines would typically be heavy white wines and lighter red wines, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. Full-bodied would be a Cabernet, Malbec, Red Zinfandel and occasionally Chardonnay.

Bold - The wine is A LOT. Some typical characteristics are high alcohol content, more tannins, and less acidic.

Buttery – The wine smells and/or tastes like butter. This is a characteristic often found in Chardonnay.

Complexity – This term is a bit abstract, but it is generally used to describe a wine that has a lot going on with the flavor, fullness, balance, etc.

Crisp – The wine is acidic, It has fruity notes and does not linger on the palate.

Decanting – Wine is poured in a decanter (a cool looking pitcher specially designed to make wine taste better-see pic below). This allows the wine to “breathe” (or, be exposed to the air so that the necessary chemical reactions can take place to bring the wine to the intended flavor by the winemaker) before drinking.

Dry - The wine is not sweet. The producer allows the yeast to consume all of the sugar during the fermentation process.

Earthy – The wine may taste or have a slight scent, or aroma, of soil. This characteristic is often found in Pinot Noir, Cabernet, and other complex reds.

 

Floral – The wine smells and/or tastes somewhat like flowers. This is typically found in soft white wines, though I personally love a good, floral red. Both Petite Syrah and Red Zinn can be incredibly floral and delicious.

Fruity – The wine smells and/or tastes like fruit. In white wines this may be more like peach, grapefruit, or apple and in red wine it may be more berries, cherries, or plums.

Grassy – The wine smells and/or tastes like grass. This is usually a more subtle flavor, but is often a characteristic of Sauvignon Blanc.

Legs – After wine is poured, swirl the glass around a few times allowing the wine to move in a circular motion. Once the wine has settled back into the glass, the droplets of wine that can be seen moving down the glass back towards the bulk of the wine (it does often seem like they are actually moving the opposite direction towards the rim of the glass) are called legs. The legs offer some insight into the wines alcohol content. Thicker and slower moving legs are an indication of higher alcohol content.

Nose – This term refers to the way the wine smells. Though wine is made from grapes there are often many other aromas that come with wine.

Oaky – The wine tastes and/or smells like oak. This is typical of wine aged in oak barrels such as oak Chardonnay.

Oxidized – This means the wine has been exposed to too much air and it does not taste good anymore. This is why wines do not last long after being opened, especially is they are not stored properly. 

Palate – This is where the wine is tasted. This is influenced by the way the wine enters the mouth. There are different sections of the tongue that receive different flavors. Past the tip of the tongue on both sides picks up salty flavors, close to the tip of the tongue identifies sweeter flavors, along the backside of the tongue detects more sour flavors, and the the back-most part of the tongue recognizes bitterness.

Round – This term refers to wine that is very smooth.

Smooth - This term is actually hard to define (seriously, try and look it up in the context of wine- nobody will give you a straight answer). I think of it as “doesn’t really taste like alcohol.” Though, a more proper definition would be: very low tannin levels.

Soft – This typically refers to wine with low acidity with low tannin levels.

Sweet – The wine tastes sweet. This is not to be confused with aromas and tastes that are often associated with sweeter flavors. For example, a wine can have a chocolate or marshmallow flavor without being a sweet wine.

Tannins – Tannins are not just a characteristic of wine, but also teas and chocolates. They are found in grape stems and seeds. They create a slight puckering or almost dryness in the mouth.

Varietal – This refers to the type of grape that the wine is produced from. For example, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, etc. are all types of grapes and therefore, varietals.

Vintage – The vintage refers to the year the grapes were grown and harvested. Just because it has the same label does not mean it will taste the same! The vintage matters!!

I would love to inspire everyone to develop a true appreciation of wine. This is a long and involved process that certainly does not happen over night. I hope you find these cliff-notes of wine related vocabulary helpful in guiding you towards a deeper understanding and appreciation for wine! Cheers!