Pondering Wine Terms
Several weeks ago, we spent a delightful evening over ribs with great friends. During dinner, the conversation drifted to wine (as it often does) and some of the wacky terms that seem to be in overabundance concerning wine. What do they mean!!? Time for a new blog!.
So here’s my list of some of the most common and some of the more weird wine terms (at least what I think) to chew over. To give the following some additional context, I added a couple of icons to promote understanding. And, thanks, Laurie and Andrew, for the inspiration.
A Wine glass icon means the term deals with the internal workings of the wine;
A Nose icon means the term deals with aromas ;
A Tongue icon means the term relates to tastes or palate.
So, I hope this clears up some burning questions you might have had.
Awkward: Wine that is out of balance with the other flavor components, i.e., a wine that you can only taste the alcohol and not anything else.
Barnyard: An aroma in wine that is earthy, reminiscent of horses (or manure) or your basic farm animal, and not entirely unpleasant. Oddly enough, barnyard essences can be prized because they can add complexity to wine (which is a good thing). Brettanomyces or "brett," a spoilage yeast usually present in beer, is typically the culprit for these types of aromas.
Body: Refers to the mouthfeel of a wine. Here's where the terms light, medium, and full come into the picture. The body is the level of alcohol and tannins in a wine. Light-bodied wines have less tannins and less alcohol; full-body wines have more tannins and more alcohol; think pinot noir versus cabernet sauvignon, and you get my drift.
Brooding: Wines that are dark in color with concentrated flavors are said to be brooding (it's a good thing).
Cat Pee: A green, herbaceous (kind of like unripe green pepper) aroma usually associated with certain types of Sauvignon Blanc and no cats allowed,
Chewy: Refers to a wine's texture, usually used as a descriptor for a full-bodied red wine. It is often used in combination to describe bold flavors and characteristics paired with a wine's prominent tannin structure. Depending on the wine drinker, it can be a good or bad thing.
Clone: Clones are genetically identical grapevines that are propagated from a single mother plant. What this means is that a cutting is made from one grapevine and grafted onto rootstock to create more of the same vines. Unlike a cross, clones are still the same grape type.
Cork or Corked: No, this isn’t a term used to describe wine where someone did a lousy job opening the bottle. Corked wines have a damp, soggy wet cardboard taste and odor. (If you’ve had a corked wine, you’ll know it). It means that a chemical contaminant called TCA (2,4,6 – trichloroanisole to be exact) found its way into your bottle somewhere in production, usually by way of the cork, hence the corked name. TCA can be present in oak barrels or the processing lines at the winery as well, which leads to entire batches being ruined rather than just single bottles,
Cross: When two varieties from the same vine "cross" to make a new variety. So, a cross is achieved by fertilizing the flower of one type with the pollen of another type to create a new type. Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between Sauvingon Blanc and Cabernet Franc.
Dumb: A wine that has lost the plot; in other words, wines that have lost their flavor, aroma and/or structure. This condition may be due to a number of different factors.
Flabby: Wine that has no acidity (it's a bad thing).
Flamboyant: Wine that has too much fruit (not kidding) or wine that has very showy fruit flavors.
Fleshy: A term for how a wine feels in the mouth. When wine is "fleshy," it feels thick in the mouth and is described as beefy, chewy, or meaty. High levels of glycerin (sugar alcohol), fruit, and extract are responsible for this meaty sensation. It's desirable because it indicates that the wine has good body, structure, and fruit. (A different way to understand the concept is to think of the alternative – angular)
Forest Floor: Traditionally a tertiary aroma (that's the third level of aroma. The first level is the aroma of fruit and flowers; secondary aromas are wine-making processes with notes of mushroom and leather). The best descriptor for this aroma is wet mushrooms or dirt Mmmm. Red wines can have this component, and it's a good thing; predominant in Burgundy (Pinot Noir). If you want to get fancy, you can use the French term "sous bois."
Foxy: A musky, strong grapey aroma and flavor found in Vitis labrusca grapes, which are native to North America. Vitus labrusca grape types include Concord, Catawba, Niagara, and Delaware, located throughout the United States.
Gasoline: Or petrol or kerosene or vinyl. The gasoline aroma (mostly found in Rieslings) results from a chemical compound known as TDN petrol (1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene) and is desirable, particularly in German Rieslings.
Grapey: Common descriptive word used to note the unique musky character attached to native American Vitis labrusca grapes such as the Concord or Catawba varieties. See our old friend Foxy term.
Grippy or Grip: Term used to describe wines with pronounced tannins or acid components. (Remember, you can perceive tannins in a wine by the drying sensation that affects the roof of your mouth; extreme acid in wines causes your salivary glands to work overtime. Grip or grippy are considered good things because they indicate that the wine has good structure. In red wine, the term applies to the tannin level; it refers to the acid level in white wine.
Hot: A wine is considered “hot” when it has too much alcohol for the style of wine. This term can also be applied to highly alcoholic wines. (Note: Alcohol is perceived as heat and or sweetness on the palate. That's why chowing down on your favorite spicy meal with a big, hot wine can be challenging).
Legs (or Tears): Droplets of wine that form on the inside of a wine glass and an example of the scientific phenomenon Gibbs-Marangoni Effect, which results from fluid surface tension caused by the evaporation of alcohol. It’s a measurement of how much alcohol is in wine so that high alcohol wines will collect more droplets than low alcohol wines. Also, more viscous wines (dessert) will cause tears to flow slowly down the sides of a glass.
Racy: Refers to a style, not a smell or taste. A racy wine has lively acidity. It's not going to be thick or heavy; it's going to be juicy and light. To give you some non-wine context, a mouth-puckering lemonade is racy compared to a thick, creamy milkshake.
Rustic: Usually used to describe a hearty, rough-edged wine. Rustic can either be a positive or negative term, depending on the context. It usually means a robust, rough-edged wine with tannins that are coarse, chewy, or drying. The opposite of a rustic wine would be "elegant," with refined or smooth tannins.
Salami/Meaty: This is more of an aroma than taste. A term used to describe a wine that has meat characteristics. A meaty wine may smell or have the nuance of game meats such as venison, pepper-steak, sausage, cured beef, pork, and salami. The meaty component may be present from its terroir or occur in its production or the aging process.
Stemmy: Used to describe wines that taste green or woody. Stemmy wines may be a result of wine that may have spent too much time macerating and or fermenting with grape stems.
Structure: Term to describe the relationship of tannins, acid, and alcohol in a wine. Wine that is said to have good structure will display a good balance between these components. In other words, you won't get smacked in the palate with acid over alcohol versus tannins, etc.
Tight: This term usually refers to a young wine that hasn’t developed its full aromas or flavors or is muted. .A wine that is inexpressive or closed is considered “tight.” Being tight isn't always a bad thing; it may be that the condition can be remediated through age or time (putting the wine in a decanter to oxidize).
Toasty: Toasty is an adjective used to describe a wine with toast-like aromas and on the finish. (The finish of a wine is a measurement of how long the taste of the wine lingers on the palate and in the back of the throat after the wine is swallowed. The longer you can still taste the wine, the better the finish.) Usually, the toast aromas and taste result from the wine aging in oak barrels, barrels explicitly with a medium toast.
Vegetal: Characteristics that develop when unripe grapes are used in wine production. During the wine-making process, fruit with vegetal characteristics lacks color development due to the immature nature of the grapes. The wine will also have an undesirable tannic quality. Therefore, you want vegetables with Coq Au Vin and not in your wine.
Wet Bandage; Wet Dirt; Wet Dog: These aromas and tastes develop in a wine due to our old friend, Cork. As noted previously, Cork tainted wines have a dank odor that smells almost exactly like wet newspaper, moldy cardboard, or wet dog. These off-flavors dominate the corked wine, and there's minimal fruit flavor. The good news is that you can fix it! Amaze your friends and neighbors by placing a piece of Saran Wrap over the glass or container. If that doesn't work, the only other option is to return the bottle, and you should, as it is a fault.