Wine Tasting Terms
While we won’t be using any pretentious winespeak, we do need to use some basic wine tasting terms to describe our wines. This is our straightforward guide to the most popular terms, which will also come in handy when speaking to sommeliers and servers in restaurants and also when you are in your local wine shop.
The smell of the wine in the glass. The aroma can be floral, citrus, fruity, vegetal, earthy or any number of familiar scents depending on the grape variety used, the winemaking process implemented and the wine’s storage conditions.
The relationship between the four main taste dimensions of a wine – acidity, sweetness, tannins and alcohol.
A wine in which all four taste dimensions (above) combine equally and no one element stands out.
The feeling of weight that a wine gives in the mouth. While there are many factors that can contribute to a wine’s body, the main factor is alcohol since alcohol gives a wine its viscosity and is responsible for either the heavy or light mouthfeel we experience when we sip a wine. Wine body breaks down into three categories: light, medium-bodied and full-bodied. A good way to think about the difference between them is the way skim milk, whole milk and cream feel in your mouth.
The more complex smell of a wine that develops during the ageing process.
A wine with intense flavours.
A pleasant and refreshing level of acidity in a wine.
A difficult one. It partly concerns texture: how the wine feels in the mouth. But it connotes liveliness as well. An energetic wine snaps your senses awake, heightens your awareness and implores you to take another sip. Energetic wines generally have good acidity, otherwise they would be dull and flaccid.
The flavours that remain in the mouth after the wine has been swallowed, described as being a long or a short finish.
The flavour of wine (and any food and beverage) is based on the stimulus from two of our main senses: smell and taste.
A lively tasting wine due to a pleasant acidity level, usually a young wine.
A descriptor of flavour that resembles fruit or fruits which take precedence over the other flavour characteristics.
A full-flavoured wine whose flavours are easily discerned.
A wine that lacks fruit flavours but not acidity. It’s in the other direction to plush. The best require a sense of energy, which galvanizes the wine. Without energy, a lean wine can be thin and dull.
The amount of time the flavours of the wine linger in the mouth after swallowing (see finish).
Sometimes wines can feel alive in the glass. Life is a combination of energy and texture, with something more that is difficult to grasp.
A well-structured wine with flavours that arrive in a smooth procession.
Minerality is a general term that helps to convey the character of certain wines, which can seem stony, pebbly or rocky in aroma, flavour and texture. A Chablis from Burgundy would be a good example.
Literally how the wine feels in the mouth expressed as a texture, affected by the body of the wine and the amount of tannins.
The smell of a wine, expressed in terms of aroma and/or bouquet.
Refers to a combination of the four senses used to experience wine – through sight, smell, taste and mouthfeel.
A textural term that indicates, as the word suggests, a soft, luxuriant sort of richness. The word is applied almost entirely to red wines, which have the potential to be bigger and softer than whites. Other related words: opulent, fleshy, velvety.
This quality reflects a wine’s alcohol content, as well as the impact of its flavours and textures.
Precision goes beyond balance, indicating a wine taken along its path from grape to bottle with exceptional skill. Each quality in the wine is exactly as it should be. Nothing is overbearing or out of proportion.
A wine that retains the full flavour of the fruit, almost like eating a fresh grape straight from the vine.
A wine with generous, full, pleasant flavours.
A wine with good amounts of body and without excessive tannic flavours.
Wine is often assumed to be fruity since it is made from fruit, but many wines are instead savoury. A style of wine with herbal, smoky or floral aromas and flavours rather than fruitiness. Good examples of savoury wines include reds from the Northern Rhône Valley and Italian Chianti.
A wine with a pleasing texture. Typically refers to a wine with soft tannins.
A wine that is low in tannins and made for easy drinking.
The basic building blocks that make up the backbone of a wine (acidity, tannins, alcohol and sweetness) – a wine with good structure has a good balance between all elements.
A wine in which not all the sugar in the grape juice has been fermented into alcohol. Rieslings and Chenin Blancs are examples of white wines that can be wonderful either dry or with residual sugar, so long as the sweetness is balanced by acidity.
Wines, usually red, that have high levels of tannins characterised by a mouth puckering dryness.
A natural preservative found in red wines produced by the skins, seeds and stalks of the grape, helps with ageing and felt as a drying sensation in the mouth.
A tense wine feels as if it walks a tightrope between forces that threaten to pull it one way or the other, but are so well balanced that the wine never loses its footing. Tense wines can be thrilling — sweet German Rieslings are classic examples. They are pulled and pushed by both their sweetness and their acidity, yet never stumble or become cloying or harsh. Tense wines can be said to have energy, with a shiver of uncertainty stirred in.
The tactile sense of wine on the mouth.
A lively wine with vivid fruity flavours that could also be called juicy or bright, due to good acidity levels that sharpen and intensify flavours.
Wines not made in an organic or biodynamic way, that is, made using pesticides and fungicides to protect the vines, as well as additives to aid the winemaking process.
Wine made from grapes grown without the use of pesticides.
A holistic approach to organic winemaking, where planting and harvesting are carried out according to a lunar (biodynamic) calendar, based on the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner.
Wines are traditionally clarified and filtered using animal products (milk or egg proteins for example) – wines that do not use animal products to do this are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.
Wine is produced using vineyard and wine production practices that are not only ecologically sound but also economically viable and socially responsible. Sustainable farmers may be certified (organic or biodynamic) or non-certified.
Wines made without adding or subtracting anything in the cellar—no additives, no chemicals, no sulfur, no oak character from barrels, no filtering, no cultured yeasts, etc. All natural wines are farmed organically at a minimum and many growers are biodynamic in the vineyard as well.
Grown in Galicia on the north-western coast of Spain, Albariño is a white wine grape best known as the grape of Rias Baixas. It is high in acidity and can make wines both light in style and slightly fuller if aged. Look for flavours of citrus and peach, sometimes with salty notes, due to its proximity to the sea. Across the border in Portugal it is used to make Vinho Verde.
Originating in southeast Spain, Bobal is one of Spain’s most popular grapes, used mainly as a blending partner with other varieties and notably used to produce strong flavoured rosé wine. Some producers are starting to make pure Bobal wines, however, which are full bodied and full flavoured, often with intense red fruit flavours with good amounts of tannins.
Native to the northern Italian region of Piedmonte, Barbera grapes have been used for making wine for centuries. In the last two decades or so, it has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity. Barbera produces dark coloured yet light in style red wines, with cherry and red fruit flavours and aromas.
Cabernet Franc is an ancient grape variety originating in the Basque region and, together with Sauvignon Blanc, produced the incredibly versatile Cabernet Sauvignon grape. Historically, it has been most popular as a minority ingredient in classic Bordeaux blends, adding peppery, herbaceous flavours. Pure Cabernet Franc wines are experiencing an upturn in popularity and are typically herbaceous in style, having fresh-tasting flavours of cut grass.
The result of a cross between Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon grape varieties sometime in the 17th century, Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most popular red wine grape. It’s a robust grape with healthy levels of tannins that can, and is, grown almost anywhere, from Bordeaux to California. Typically dark in colour and full bodied, look out for dark fruit flavours, tobacco and vanilla from oak aging.
Originating the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, Caiño comes in both red and white varieties (tinto and blanco) and is used in many blends made in the region. In its white form it adds zesty citrus notes and in its red form, a deep ruby red colour and tannins.
Canaiolo is red wine grape grown in Tuscany and found in many Sangiovese based blends, like Chianti. Some single variety Canaiolo wines are made, which are typically aromatic, soft and mellow with gentle tannin levels.
Carignan was the most planted grape in France until the end of the 20th century, when it was overtaken by Merlot. It produces wines high in tannins and acidity and so is normally used as part of a blend. It adds dark fruit flavours, pepper, liquorice and spicy notes.
Carricante is an extremely old white wine grape originating in Sicily, said to have been growing on the slopes of Mount Etna for a thousand years. It’s known for its acidity and the best wines come from grapes grown in volcanic soil at high altitude. Look for refreshing citrus flavours, from lemon and lime to orange, as well as background mineral notes.
Chardonnay is the most popular white wine grape in the world, due to its ability to produce a variety of styles and flavours depending on where it is grown. The natural flavours of the grape range from rich tropical fruits, to peach and apricot, and on to citrus and apples. Climate plays a major role in the end flavours of wines – in temperate regions like Burgundy flavours are more at the peach and apricot end, while in warmer climate, like Australia and California, wines tend to have more tropical fruit notes.
Traditionally associated with the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc is a white wine grape that is also popular with New World wine producers and is the most widely planted grape in South Africa. Classic examples have good amounts of lively acidity, floral aromas and apple flavours. Some South African wines can develop more rounded pear and peachy notes.
Cinsaut is a perfect grape for the Rhone Valley as it thrives in the hot, windy weather. It is used primarily as a blending grape there, as it pairs well with Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre. At it’s best, Cinsaut delivers a low tannin wine with good acidity with floral and ripe strawberry and red cherry flavours.
Corvina originates in the Veneto region in the northeast of Italy around Venice, where most is still grown. You’ll find it as the principle grape variety in Valpolicella and Bardolino wines, which are light to medium bodied and full of bright, cherry, fruity flavours. On the other hand, Corvina grapes are also found in the heavy, port like wines Amarone and Recioto, which are full flavoured, complex wines matured in oak for several years.
Croatina is a light and lively Italian grape primarily found in the Lombardy region, but also in Veneto and Piedmont. It produces fruity, tannic wines with a deep red colour and also forms part of the Valpolicella blend.
Gamay is the grape of Beaujolais, which depends entirely on this grape. The wines produced are typically light in body and with good acidity, but with relatively low tannin, so they are easy to drink. Elsewhere in Burgundy, Gamay’s distant relative Pinot Noir dominates, but if you like the latter, then you should definitely try the former.
Garganega is an Italian white wine grape grown mostly in Northern Italy where it is usually used to make dry white wines, like Soave, but can also make sweet styles. It’s known for flowery, peach blossom flavours, as well as notes of almond and apricot.
Grenache is one of the most widely planted grape varieties, being planted all over Northern Spain and Southern France. Garnacha wines (especially from Spain) can be powerful, rich and spicy, while in France the grape finds fame as a fundamental part of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape blend.
Gros Manseng is one of the main white wine grapes grown in the Jurançon region of southwest France. In the past it was used mainly to make sweet wines, but nowadays it is also used for dry whites, with citrusy lemon flavours and a crisp, aromatic style.
Originally associated with the southwest of France, where it produces tannic wines that need to be blended with Merlot to soften the flavours, Malbec has found its place in South America. In Argentina especially, Malbec makes a soft and smooth style of red wine, with juicy red berry, plummy flavours and some earthy undertones.
Marsanne is a white wine grape principally grown in its native Burgundy, but has also become popular in Australia, New Zealand and California. Marsanne wines are generally full bodied, with earthy mineral notes and flavours of melon and honeysuckle.
Along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot is historically the grape of Bordeaux, but is softer, smoother and altogether a little more elegant. Merlot wines are soft in texture with mellow plummy flavours. They can also develop a blackberry, blueberry and spicy character too.
Known as Monastrell in its native Spain, Mourvèdre is another robust, thick skinned grape that has been cultivated for centuries. High in tannins and with strong meaty, herby flavours, it blends well with other varieties and is notably used in Cotes de Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It typically produces tannic wines with blackberry flavours.
Nebbiolo is, for many, Italy’s greatest red wine grape. It is as its best in northwest Italy, where it produces wines with good levels of acidity and tannin, like Barolo and Barbaresco. It’s known as an aromatic grape and produces flavours ranging from violet and rose, to smoke, fennel, liquorice and tar.
Most commonly found on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, Nerello Mascalese produces wines with great character and complexity. They are typically fresh tasting in style, with fruity and herbaceous flavours and often earthy notes.
A grape that once teetered on the edge of extinction but is now enjoying a comeback, Petit Corbu is native to southwest France. It’s mainly used in blends of both sweet and dry white wines, adding slightly honeyed citrus notes.
With smaller fruit than its big brother (Gros Manseng), Petit Manseng is another key grape of the Jurançon region of southwest France. It can be used to make both sweet and dry white wines, with peach and apricot flavours, citrus and sweet spice notes.
This small red wine grape is a cross pollination of several grape varieties, including Perloursin and Syrah. It’s known as Petite Sirah in North America and elsewhere as Durif. The high tannins and acidity make it a great wine for aging and its primary flavours include blackberry, chocolate and black pepper.
Petit Verdot is a red wine grape that has traditionally has been used as a minor partner in Bordeaux blends, adding a level of peppery spice. In the last few years, however, it has become more popular in southern Europe, but especially in Australia and California. Petit Verdot typically makes wine that is full bodied with strong tannins and black fruit flavours, like blackberry and blueberry.
The ancient Picpoul grape comes from the traditional and equally ancient Languedoc wine making region of southwestern France. The grape has renowned high acidity levels, making full bodied white wines with plenty of herbal and citrus flavours. Its most famous incarnation is in the wines of the Picpoul de Pinet AOC.
Pinot Blanc/Pinot Bianco
Pinot Blanc is a versatile grape that can used to make dry, sweet and sparkling white wines. It’s popular in northeast France around Alsace, where it typically makes wine with apple and almond flavours. It’s also popular in northwest Italy, where wines are light and crisp in style.
Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris
Known as Pinot Gris across much of Europe and Pinot Grigio in Italy, this versatile grape is most commonly grown in Alsace, northern Italy and also in New Zealand. In Alsace it produces mostly dry styles, but also sweet, with flavours of pears, apples and sweet spices. The Italian style is dry, typically light and crisp, with fresh flavours of citrus and apples.
Pinot Noir is the classic grape of Burgundy and probably one the most recognised grape varieties in the world. It’s a relatively difficult grape to grow but when it thrives, it produces red wine of superb quality. Pinot Noir makes fragrant wines with red fruit aromas, including raspberries, strawberries and cherries, often with a little spice.
Riesling is a classic white wine grape of German origin known for its versatility as it can produce wines that range from dry and aromatic to luscious and sweet. In Germany, Riesling wines tend to be rich and honeyed with crisp citrus and apple flavours. In Alsace it produces more floral and aromatic wines, while in Australia the wine is full of lemon and lime flavours, developing a mineral quality when aged.
Rondinella is an Italian grape variety grown in the Veneto region of northeast Italy. It’s one of the lesser grapes used in Valpolicella and Bardolino wines, known for bright, cherry, fruity flavours, although they are mostly due to the Corvina grape.
Roussanne is native to the Rhone region of France, where it is still mainly grown. It is often found as a blending partner for many northern Rhone white wines, but can also appear on its own. It typically has herbal aromas, accompanied by flavours of pear and honey.
Sauvignon Blanc is a white wine grape, originally from western France, known for its aromatic qualities that vary according to its growing location. Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire valley tends to be zesty, minerally and flinty with flavours of nettles, gooseberries and cut grass. While New Zealand style wines tend to be more pungent, with flavours that can include ripe tropical fruit like pineapple and passion fruit.
Sangiovese is Italy’s most planted grape and providing the strong backbone of many great Tuscan wines, like Chianti. Quality is notoriously variable, but good Sangiovese wines are prized for the high acidity, good amounts of tannins with red fruit flavours, or dark cherry flavours in warmer climates with more savoury spicy notes when left to age.
Syrah is the grape of the Rhone where it plays a big part in both northern and southern Rhone wines. It’s a robust grape that grows well in many climates, producing deep, dark red wines that are full bodied with a relatively high tannin content. Syrah is known for its peppery, spicy flavours but also look out for smoky, floral, tobacco and berry flavour notes too. When Syrah grapes arrived in Australia they became known as Shiraz, no one is entirely sure why.
Spain’s most important red wine grape, Tempranillo, is the main player in Rioja and many other Spanish red wines. It’s a versatile grape that can produce young wines full of juicy strawberry flavours, as well as more sophisticated oak aged wines that add layers of vanilla, liquorice and tobacco spice to the strawberry flavours.
Torrontés is the name given to three varieties of white grape found in Argentina. The most common is Torrontés Riojano, whose aroma has been compared to Muscat and typically produces wines that are full-bodied and crisp in style with a pronounced grapey flavour.
Trebbiano (di Soave)
The Trebbiano family of grapes is grown across Italy and France. It makes refreshing white wine but is most commonly used as part of a blend. This variety, grown in Northern Italy is used in Soave. In France the grape is mostly used to make Cognac and Armagnac.
Vermentino is widely grown in Italy, its native country, most commonly in Tuscany, Sardinia and Corsica, but also in the south of France too. It makes zesty, fresh tasting white wines, medium bodied in style, typically with flavours of lime and grapefruit.
Viognier is a white wine grape that had all but fallen into obscurity before being rediscovered by New World producers. It is now enjoying a resurgence in its native France too. A typical Viognier wine is quite powerful, rich and aromatic in style, with aromas of chamomile and jasmine and flavours of peach and apricot.
DNA testing has established this grape actually originated in Croatia, but it is in California where it made its name, notably as the grape behind the ‘blush’ White Zinfandel phenomenon of the 1980s. However, it is its red incarnation that most excites wine drinkers, producing powerful wines with blackberry and raspberry flavours with good amounts of tannins and spice.