If you’ve ever spent any amount of time with a self-professed wine expert (we all have that one friend that takes it too far) it’s highly likely that you’ve heard words that you don’t have a clue about. No doubt you’ve nodded along as your friend gives his expert opinion that nobody’s actually asked for. Well fear not, here’s our guide to the world of wine words and what they really mean.
You might have heard something like “I’m finding this young Bordeaux a little tannic, I’m practically having to chew it”, but what are they actually talking about?
Tannins are found in the skins of grapes, so thick skinned grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, tend to have greater levels of tannin. This gives wine texture and makes them feel ‘chewy’ for want of a better word. Tannins are what leave your gums and teeth feeling dry after sipping.
Some people enjoy tannic wines, while others prefer lighter, smoother wines. Tannins are usually more prevalent in younger wines as they soften with ageing, they are also found in wines that go well with food as they give the wine structure and enable them to stand up to hearty dishes.
Have you ever heard someone discussing the body of a wine and wondered what they meant? When we talk about the body of a wine, it really just means how big or heavy it feels in your mouth. Imagine the feeling of drinking water as opposed to milk.
Tannic wines (as explained above) often feel full bodied, while others such as Zinfandel or Aussie Shiraz, although riper and less ‘chewy’ also feel heavy. In whites, lighter wines such as Pinot Grigio feel a lot lighter compared to a big, oaky Chardonnay.
Surely all wine is wet? What on earth does dryness refer to? When we decide whether a wine is sweet or dry, we’re technically talking about how much residual sugar is left after fermentation, but the dryness of a wine is often hard to pin down, and can be confused with fruitiness. If you’re in doubt, dip the tip of your tongue in the wine (really) as this is where we detect sweetness. The majority of wines will fall in the dry category.
Certain varieties are naturally sweeter (Muscat, for example), but winemaking styles and climate also affect how dry or sweet a wine is. For example, leaving the grapes on the vine for longer leads to a sweeter style, while early picking means a drier wine.
Acid doesn’t necessarily sound like something you want in your wine, but acidity is essentially how crisp a wine is. As grapes ripen, the sugar level rises and the acidity falls, so ripper grapes (for example those grown in warmer climates) will tend to have lower acidity than cooler climate wines. Acidity gives wine structure and allows the flavours to come through. It also gives many wines enough texture to stand up to food.
Some varieties are naturally higher in acidity than others, while as with dryness, the timing of the grape harvest and conditions will also determine the level of acidity. Crisp acidity means that the wine has a refreshing style and makes your mouth water.
When drinking wine there are certain things that are important and point towards quality. Firstly balance is crucial. All components, for example, acidity, oak, fruit and tannins must all be aligned, you don’t want one element standing out above the others.
The other important factor is the finish. Once again, it’s really not complicated. It basically means how long you can taste all the characteristics of a wine. A wine with a long finish, particularly if it develops as you’re tasting, is a good indicator of a top notch bottle.
Oak is a broad topic when it comes to wine, but it’s not actually that complicated.
Many wines, such as Bordeaux and some Chardonnays or most Riojas, spend a period of time ageing in oak barrels before being bottled. This imparts an oaky flavour to the wine, in reds this is often a vanilla or sweet spice character, while oaky whites often have a buttery or toasty flavour. When done well, oak ageing produces rich and balanced wines with an extra element of complexity.
The vast majority of wines have a strong fruit element. This can range from red berries to black fruit in reds, while white wines can taste of anything from apple and pear, to citrus and tropical fruit like mango or pineapple.
When a wine is described as fruity, it usually means that fruit is the overriding characteristic, as opposed to oak for example, so is often applied to simple, everyday wines that haven’t undergone further ageing (as this adds other flavour characteristics).
So you’re all set for the next dinner party, armed with a plethora of wine terms you can pull out of the bag at a moment's notice.