John Brown has been a wine and food columnist in West Virginia since the 1980’s. His regular columns appear in the Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail under the title Vines & Vittles and in The State Journal - a statewide business weekly
WineSpeak: sorting the wheat from the chaff
The wine lexicon is full of more cryptic and confusing words than a software “Terms of Agreement” statement. You know, the one with the electronic box we’re all required to check before using the software (even though no one who reads the fine print, understands it).
Winespeak can be full of bombastic, hyperbolic, thesaurus-busting synonyms, as well as bizarre and outrageous phrases that are not only confusing, but also many times inappropriate. I’ve read words like flamboyant, ethereal or orgasmic to describe a wine. Or, incongruous phrases like “liquefied charcoal,” “wet dog,” or “mesmerizing texture” used to define the characteristics of a particular bottle. Descriptions like these do more to discourage folks from drinking wine than any fire and brimstone spouting, snake-handling preacher ever could.
So, brothers and sisters of the vine, I’m going to help you “sort the wheat from the chaff” when it comes to the language of wine. Below is a list of some of the most commonly used (and appropriate) words and phrases to describe the various attributes of the beverage we all love.
Common Wine Descriptors
Acid – Refers to the sharpness in the taste of wine. Good acid is balanced by alcohol, sweetness or both.
Balance – A wine is balanced when the sugar or alcohol and the acid are in harmony with no one element overwhelming the other.
Complex – Layers of flavor components that combine to achieve harmony.
Crisp – Refers to the acidity in the wine as in a “crisp” white wine.
Corked – A wine that has an unpleasant “wet cardboard” taste or smell. Reason is thought to be chemical changes in the wine caused by inadequately sterilized corks.
Creamy- Refers to the “silk-like” feel in the mouth of wines as opposed to the “tart/crisp” taste component.
Finish – Describes a wine that has a pleasant aftertaste and feel.
Flabby – A wine which is overly-full bodied, has too much alcohol and is out of balance. (Could also be descriptive of the image I see in the mirror every day)
Fruity – Wines which exhibit fruitiness either in the aroma or in the taste. Wine is sometimes described as tasting like a specific fruit (i.e., apples, apricots, etc.).
Mellow – An absence of harshness or tannin and a smooth wine.
Nose – A general term that describes the aroma and bouquet of the wine.
Oak – A wine is correctly “oaked” when the “nose” carries a whiff of vanilla from being aged in oak barrels. Oak flavors can overpower some wines though.
Rich – Wine is rich when it is mouth–filling, smooth and luscious.
Robust – Describes a full-bodied or possibly heavy wine.
Tannin – A naturally occurring chemical substance in grapes, particularly noticeable in red wine. Tannin can allow wine to age gracefully.
Terroir – French term for all the characteristics of the vineyard site thought to be imparted to a particular wine. It includes the vineyard site, the soil, climate and other attributes that can affect the vineyard and resulting wine.
I hope some of the words and phrases above will increase your understanding and enjoyment of wine. You might even be able to come up with a few new descriptors of your own. And hopefully, my summaries of the two wines below are understandable, appropriate and encourage you to give them a try.
2019 J. Lohr Arroyo Seco Chardonnay ($18) – This Monterey County chardonnay has aromas of just baked bread and ripe green apples. It is a creamy, but well balanced wine with flavors of ripe peaches and citrus followed by nuances of vanilla from this lightly oaked wine. Would be a lovely pairing with Chilean sea bass or chicken cordon bleu.
2017 Markham Napa Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) – Juicy and rich with chewy tannins, this full bodied cabernet from Napa is a wine you’ll want to decant an hour or two before consuming. Dark fruit like plumbs and black cherries, along with cola and tea flavors highlight this wine that would make a great accompaniment to grilled beef or lamb chops. It’s also a wine that will benefit from aging for a decade or more.
John Brown is also a novelist. His latest book is “Augie’s World” which is a sequel to his debut novel, Augie’s War. You can find out more about his novels at wordsbyjohnbrown.com