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Fragrances of Wine: A Wine Tasters Guide

Wine tasting is a sensory experience; it includes aspects of taste, texture and smell to culminate and mesh into one overall impression. There are thousands of different wines to enjoy, each with a distinct flavor and characteristics. To help communicate the characteristics of different wines, we use many different descriptors; some of which may seem unrelated to the wine, but are nonetheless important. To better understand the wine tasting process, it is important to recognize the different stages involved; the ‘in glass’, ‘in mouth’ and finish of the wine all work together to give the taster the full experience of the wine.

A wine’s appearance plays an important part in the tasting process. Different wines have different colors; the taster may form their opinion of the wine even before tasting, based on their experiences with wines of similar color. In general, lighter wines are, likewise, light in color. Heavier wines have a deeper color. Heavier wines also have more definitive viscous steaks, or legs, when swirled in the glass. The legs of a wine are an indicator of the sugar content of the wine. These generalities are true for most varietals. To help tasters maintain an unbiased view, some wines are tasted blindly; meaning that the taster is not permitted to see the wine’s label or bottle beforehand. In some cases, the wine may also be served in black glasses to further deter any preexisting opinions to influence the tasting experience.

The ‘in glass’ characteristics of a wine are equally as important as the appearance of the wine. This pertains to the aroma of the wine and the sense that can be detected in the glass. Since it is through scent that the wine is first tasted, it is important that tasters have an open mind and palate. The aroma of wine uses many different and colorful descriptors to convey one’s interpretation of the wine. It is important to recognize that each taster’s palate is unique; two tasters may sample the same wine, but use completely different descriptors to define their experience. Tasting is not a definitive science, but an art that can be interpreted in countlessly different ways and is very much dependent on the palate of the taster.

A wine’s ‘in mouth’ interpretation addresses the acidity, texture and body of the wine. It is more involved than just tasting and characterizing the wine with a single flavor; a good wine’s characteristics work to create a multi-level tasting experience. As the wine settles in the mouth, the taster may experience different flavors, one after another, to finally arrive at the finish of the wine. The finish of a wine describes the final impressions of the wine as it is swallowed. Note that when tasting different wines, tasters may spit out the wine, instead of experiencing the finish; this helps to keep the palate clean. The finish of a wine includes how long the taste lingers and the texture of the wine in the mouth.

Wine Tasting Glossary

The following are some popular descriptors used to characterize wine during a tasting. Please note that each palate is different and will receive the wine differently. These descriptive are used to convey the aroma and taste of a wine in a way that can be widely understood.

  • Accessible (synonymous with easy)– The wine is not overwhelming, there is not a strong tannic or acidic scent/taste
  • Aggressive – describes a wine with very poignant and defined senses and tastes. This is the opposite of a smooth wine
  • Balanced – a balanced wine combines acid, alcohol, sweetness and tannins to create a single overall experience; no single element stands out, they work together.
  • Bitter – bitter wine has a strong presence of tannins. This is not necessarily a negative attribute and may be countered with other elements in the wine to offset the bitterness.
  • Body – The feeling of the wine in the mouth and the sense of alcohol. Wines with more body typically have a higher percentage of alcohol.
  • Bouquet – this is the term used to convey the layers of aromas the taster perceives when tasting a wine.
  • Bright – a term used to describe wines with a higher level of clarity. It can also be used when describing the perception of fruitiness or acidity in wine.
  • Chocolaty – a popular term used when describing darker, richer red wines, including Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, that may connote a chocolate aroma or taste in the wine.
  • Citrous – a descriptive term used to indicate a citrusy aroma or taste.
  • Clean – a common term used to describe wines free of any unwanted tastes or aromas.
  • Coarse – the result of overpowering tannins, coarseness can be used to describe the mouthfeel or texture of a wine.
  • Complex – a term used to convey the multi-levels or layers of a wine.
  • Creamy – wine that has a warm, thick texture that is noticeable in the back of the throat when finished.
  • Depth – similar to complexity, depth refers to wines with multiple layers of flavor.
  • Dry – A term commonly used to describe wines that are less sweet. Dry wines typically have increased amounts of tannins.
  • Expansive – if a wine is expansive, it is both accessible and ‘big’, intense flavors and a higher concentration of alcohol.
  • Edgy – describes wine with pronounced acidity that increases the flavors detected by the palate.
  • Finish – A term used to define the ending taste of the wine in the mouth upon swallowing.
  • Flabby – a wine that lacks pronounced acidity.
  • Full – Used to convey the overall flavor of a wine, or to describe the body of a wine in connection with its alcohol content.
  • Grapey – A wine with strong notes of grape flavor. This term is commonly used to discuss the Muscat grape family.
  • Hard – wine that is overly developed tannins.
  • Heavy – a wine with too much body and alcohol.
  • Hollow – A negative term used to describe wine that is lacks fruitiness or a strong flavor.
  • Lean – A wine the features a noticeable acidity, but lacks the accompanying fruitiness.
  • Legs – Traces of liquid that attaches to the sides of a glass when the wine is swirled.
  • Liveliness – a wine characterized by a light and fresh acidic carbonation.
  • Mature – Wines that have reach their peak of their quality.
  • Mellow – A less aggressive, softer wine that is still nearing maturity.
  • Midpalate – used to describe the taste and texture of the wine when held or swilled in the mouth before finishing or spitting.
  • Oily – A term used to describe a well-rounded wine that has a viscous, oily, feel in the mouth.
  • Oxidized – A wine that has been over exposed to oxygen.
  • Perfume – a synonym for aroma, this is another way to talk about the scent of the wine.
  • Polished – A smooth, drinkable wine that has a soft and balanced mouthfeel.
  • Rich – a wine with a strong, but not overpowering sweetness.
  • Round – a term used to characterize wine that is full bodied and an even amount of tannins.
  • Sharp – used to discuss a strong acidity in wine that is verging on bitterness, due to an increased amount of tannins in the wine.
  • Short – a well-rounded wine with a shorter finish that leaves the mouth once swallowed.
  • Smooth – A pleasing mouthfeel or texture resulting from lighter tannins in the wine.
  • Soft – wine that has less tannin, typically without the bight of stronger wines.
  • Structure – the noticeable stronger elements within the wine, including sugar, acidity, density and tannins that contribute to the overall body of the wine.
  • Sweet – wines that have a higher sugar level.
  • Tannic – A strong wine with an aggressive flavor resulting from tannins.
  • Tart – used to describe wine with a strong acidity.
  • Transparency – a wine with easy to interpret characteristics. The flavors stand out on their own, instead of fusing into an integrated experience.
  • Undertone – Subtle, less noticeable flavors in the wine that maybe more difficult to detect.
  • Unoaked – wine that has reached maturity with the use of wooden, commonly oak, aging barrels.
  • Watery – Thin wine that lacks body and strong flavor.
  • Yeasty – a doughy flavor synonymous with biscuits or bread.
  • Young – Wine that has not yet reached maturity, typically consumed within a year of bottling.

Tasting Resources

  • Introduction to Wine Tasting – Learn to appreciate the complexities and intricacies of wine tasting with this easy-to-follow tasting introduction.
  • Wine Tasting Terminology – Before wine tasting, get a bit more familiar with common tasting terms you might hear and use to describe the aroma of the wine.
  • Wine Tasting Q & A – Learn more about the art of wine tasting through this Q&A from Food & Wine.
  • Basic Wine Tasting Tips – A collection of wine tasting tips for beginners to help learn the basic concepts and the process of wine tasting.
  • Dos and Don’ts of Wine Tasting (PDF) – Information to help beginning wine tasters to learn the ropes and get the most out of their tasting experience.

Additional Wine Related Resources

  • Wine Making – Learn more about the wine making process and how it differs depending on the wine that is being made and the desired characteristics.
  • Food and Wine Pairing Tips – An overview of wine and food pairing that can be used to bring out the flavors of the wine and compliment the meal.
  • NY Finger Lakes Wine Trail – Experience some of New York’s best wineries in the fertile Finger Lakes Region.
  • California Wine Country – California is well-respected for their wine regions and is nationally recognized for producing some of the best wines and varietals in the country.
  • Wine Grapes – There are many different varieties of grapes used to make wine. Learn more about popular types and the wines they produce.
  • Wine of the Month Club – Wine enthusiasts can join the Wine of the Month Club and enjoy a different wine every month.
  • The History of Viticulture and Wine – Learn about the origins and development of wines, and how they have evolved as a part of contemporary culture.
  • Wine Fact Sheets – A comprehensive list of different wines and detailed information about each.
  • Types of Wine – a resource with general information about different types of one and their characteristics.
  • Wine Intro – A website including wine basics, pairing tips, review, and recipes.
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