Jennifer is passionate about wine. She has worked in the wine industry for 2 years as well as the restaurant industry for over 10 years.
There are many wine descriptions and terms that wine experts and connoisseurs use when tasting wine. When you understand these terms you will be able to communicate what particular characteristics you enjoy in a wine. This can be especially helpful when buying or ordering wine in a restaurant. Besides the obvious terms like sweet or dry, oaked or unoaked, fruity or spicy, here are 10 terms to know and how to taste wine like an expert so you can enjoy a more meaningful wine tasting experience.
The vintage on a wine label is the year that the grapes were harvested. If there is no year on the label that means the wine was made from more than one vintage. A vintage wine just means that the grapes were all harvested from the same year. The vintage can also give you an idea of the quality of the wine. Some years may have better growing conditions based on the weather, producing a better yield. For example, a hot summer with a good amount of precipitation will produce riper and fruitier grapes, which will result in a more flavorful and full-bodied wine.
Wine tasting is not just about drinking. Smelling the wine before tasting is also important. Our sense of smell has an effect on the way our brain processes flavor. The nose or the bouquet of a wine is the aroma it gives off. Different varietals produce different aromas (like lychee in Gewürztraminer and black cherry in Merlot). Other factors like fermentation, aging, and exposure to oak can create new aromas in the wine.
The body refers to how the weight of the wine feels in your mouth. Certain factors will make the wine feel fuller-bodied like higher alcohol or sugar content. A good way to think of it is the way skim milk feels in your mouth compared to whole milk. Light-bodied wine might seem more watery and fuller-bodied wine will feel heavier and fuller in your mouth. Certain varietals tend to create full-bodied wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, while others create light to medium-bodied wines, like Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir.
Acidity refers to how sour a wine tastes. You can tell that a wine is acidic when it makes your mouth water. A wine with too much acidity can be considered too tart or sharp. A wine with not enough acidity will taste flat. But a wine with the right balance of acidity with other factors like fruitiness and tannins, are often referred to as crisp or lively.
The acidity will depend on the ripeness of the grapes. Grapes that are unripe will be too acidic. Have you ever tasted a grape before it was fully ripened? It’s very sour, and the same goes for many other fruits. A grape that is overripe will be very sweet and fruity but may not have enough acidity. It’s all about the right balance of acid to sugar to make the perfect wine.
Tannins are what create the drying sensation in the mouth. Depending on how dry your mouth feels after you take a sip of wine, you can determine how high or low the tannins are. A wine that is high in tannins is called tannic and may taste bitter or astringent. A wine with low tannins is usually referred to as soft or smooth.
Tannins are natural compounds that come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the grape. Since white wines are made without the skins and seeds, they don't usually contain tannins. Unless they are aged in an oak barrel, they may have absorbed some of the softer tannins from the wood. In red wines, tannins provide structure and add a bitter taste, which adds complexity and extends the wines finish.
When a wine is referred to as jammy, it means the wine has a taste of cooked fruit (specifically berries) similar to the taste of jam. Jammy wines are usually low in tannins and acidity and can be on the sweeter side, too. While wine professionals usually consider a jammy wine a negative thing, some wine lovers may consider it a positive. It depends on how you use the word, but it can be used to describe a good quality in a wine or a fault.
This is what they call it when the wine has been contaminated with cork taint. Cork taint happens when microorganisms and fungi grow inside the cork which creates a chemical compound called TCA. When TCA comes in contact with the wine, it contaminates the entire bottle and ruins the wine. You will be able to tell when a wine is corked because it will have an off-putting, musty, moldy-newspaper flavor and aroma and a dry aftertaste.
This means that the wine has aromas or flavors of the earth, such as soil, mushrooms, fall leaves, and hay. It is the opposite of a fruity wine and usually refers to a wine that is really dry. Some people do find earthy to be a positive element in a wine and that it adds to the wines complexity. However, too much of these flavors can cause a wine to taste corked (a wine fault that comes from contaminates in the cork). Earthy flavors tend to be found more often in red wines such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
A complex wine is one with a lot of depth. It is rich in flavors and intensity. A complex wine has a perfect balance of acidity, tannins, and sweetness and has many different flavors and aromas.
The finish is the lasting impression of the wine. It describes the flavors and textures left in your mouth after swallowing. The length of the wine indicates the quality. A longer finish (meaning the flavors stay on your palate for more than a few seconds) indicates a good quality wine.
How to Taste Wine Like an Expert
There is a 4 step method for wine tasting that wine experts and connoisseurs use. Anyone can learn how to taste wine like an expert with a few tools and a little bit of practice. This is a great way of becoming more familiar with the different styles of wine and learning how to describe them as the professionals do. Use these steps below along with the wine terms previously discussed, and you will be on your way to a more meaningful and enjoyable wine tasting experience.
First, you will need a notepad or some blank wine tasting note templates. I found a simple and free printable wine tasting template you can use. Or you can check out these wine tasting placemats by Wine Folly if you want something more detailed. Now all you need is the wine you will be tasting. Just follow these steps below.
First, use your eyes to observe the wine. Just looking at the wine can tell you a lot about its quality. Identify the color of the wine and make a note of it. Check out this wine color chart for a complete list of hues.
Now you will want to smell the wine. There are hundreds of different aromas that can be found in wine. The aromas may vary from person to person, and generally, there is no wrong answer. No one can tell you what you are smelling so just try to identify what aromas you smell and write them down. I love using the wine aroma wheel to help me identify the specific aromas. Sometimes it's hard to figure out exactly what you are smelling. The aroma wheel is very detailed and can help you narrow it down. You should also make a note of the intensity of the aroma. Is it light, medium, or intense?
Now for the fun part. You finally get to taste the wine. You will want to focus on the flavors and the mouthfeel of the wine. Make sure to swish the wine around in your mouth to allow the wine to reach every part of your tongue before you swallow. It also helps to take a second sip and allow some air into your mouth to help open up the wine. You will be trying to identify the sweetness, acidity, body, tannin, alcohol, as well as any specific flavors you can identify. Make a note of every characteristic on your tasting note pad.
To finish up, you will provide your opinion on the quality of the wine. Ask yourself these questions. Is the wine balanced? Does the wine have a good balance of sweetness, acidity, and tannins? Is the wine complex? As mentioned above, a complex wine will have a lot of depth and is rich in flavors and intensity. Also, give your overall opinion of the wine. Is it good, great, not so good?
Remember, these are your personal tasting notes for your own reference. There is no right or wrong. Just have fun and enjoy the journey of learning about wine. Happy tasting!
© 2018 Jennifer C
Jennifer C (author) on November 29, 2019:
I also want to add that when we are talking about the body of wine, we are not talking about its physical weight. We don't place the wine on a scale before we taste it so see how much it weighs. The body of a wine refers to the way it feels in your mouth. There are several factors that contribute to the body of a wine. Alcohol is just one of them. It's just one of the ways we categorize wine (light, medium, and full-bodied).
Jennifer C (author) on November 29, 2019:
When alcohol evaporates it becomes vapour in which case it would be weightless. However, when alcohol is in its liquid form it is not weightless. Alcohol actually has a higher viscosity than water. When wine contains more alcohol, it becomes more viscous. The wine becomes heavier and therefore feels fuller-bodied in our mouths.It is a little tricky to understand but as you experience tasting a variety of wine, you will find that the higher alcohol wines do seem a lot fuller-bodied.
I hope this answers your question. I will include a link below of a good article I found explaining the effect of alcohol on the body of wine.
Poulis on November 20, 2019:
Are you sure Alcohol can contribute to the body of wine? I think alcohol is a vapour substance which does not have weight.
Jennifer C (author) on November 12, 2018:
Thanks for your comment and thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it :)
FlourishAnyway from USA on November 12, 2018:
This was very helpful and your specific examples like the skim vs. whole milk were useful in understanding the concepts you were explaining. Well done.
Jennifer C (author) on November 11, 2018:
Thank you for your comment Louise. And you're welcome :)
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 11, 2018:
I know very little about wine, although I like drinking it. So this was very interesting to read, thankyou.