10 Important Wine Words That Make Talking About Wine Easier

10 Important Wine Words That Make Talking About Wine Easier

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Laura Burgess
Apr 29, 2016
(Image credit: mcherevan/Shutterstock)

Some people say timing is everything, but I'd argue language is everything — especially when it comes to wine. We've all been there — standing in the wine aisle, paralyzed by the wealth of choices and dumbfounded by confusing language describing every bottle. Wine-speak can be intimidating, but it need not be.

Here are 10 critical wine words that make talking about wine, whether for Taco Tuesday or a fancy dinner out, a little bit easier — i.e., the pivotal wine glossary we wish had come with our 21st birthdays.

And remember that when talking about wine, taste and smell are subjective. If you've had a wine that tasted like jelly beans, it's always okay to say so. Candied tones on one palate are grapefruit on another — and there's definitely a wine for that.

1. Dry

This is one of the most confusing words out there — for wine drinkers and wine professionals alike. "It is really hard for wine professionals to determine what customers mean when they say 'dry' because the technical meaning is completely different from the taste perceptions of the customer," says Talitha Whidbee, owner of Brooklyn's Wine Vine.

So what does it mean? Technically speaking, "dry" refers to a wine without residual sugar. You may be surprised to know that the overwhelming majority of wine is dry.

Tip: Say "dry" when you want to make sure a white or sparkling wine isn't a dessert wine.

2. Sweet

Just as a wine without residual sugar is dry, a wine that contains residual sugar is "sweet." Sweet wines are often dessert wines.

Tip: Say "sweet" when you're looking for a wine that is sweet like honey fruit juice; avoid saying "sweet" when you're looking for a wine with fruity flavors (see: fruit-forward).

3. Off-Dry

"Off-dry" is used to describe a wine with some residual sugar, but less than you would find in a true dessert wine. Prosecco and Moscato are often referred to as "off-dry" because they contain a hint of residual sugar.

4. Tannin

Tannins are compounds found in grape skins that add complexity and structure to a wine. They create that puckering sensation in the back of the mouth. High-tannin, or tannic, wines will leave your mouth literally dry, without saliva. Low- or medium-tannin wines like Pinot Noir offer a more gentle sensation.

5. Acid

This is the tart or sour element of a wine. Often citrusy, acids (unlike tannins) leave your mouth salivating, the same way orange juice or lemonade does. Phrases like "high acid" refer to mouthwatering wines, like Riesling, while "low acid" might be used to describe richer varietals like Chardonnay or Viognier.

Tip: It can take some time to get familiar with these wine words. Until you do, use the words you know. "It always helps if you can identify any commonality between a wine and a food you enjoy," says Whidbee. "Words like strawberry or peaches or grapefruit let us know exactly what you want."

6. Body

We use body to talk about the weight of a wine on the palate (how it feels in your mouth). "Full-bodied" wines richly coat the palate like cream, while "light-bodied" wines feel like skim milk or water on the tongue.

7. Oak

A wine's oak or oakiness refers to the flavors and aromas a wine gets from oak aging, usually in barrels. These include vanilla, toast, caramel, smoke, chocolate, coffee, and tobacco.

More on Oak: American Oak vs. French Oak

8. Fruit-Forward

Often confused with the word "sweet," a fruit-forward wine is dominated by fruit or "fruity" flavors. Say "fruit-forward" when looking for a wine that's bright, lush, and dominated by fruitiness, as opposed to oak or herbal qualities.

9. Earthy

Use earthy if you like the dirt or barnyard aromas found in many wines. Think fresh-cut grass, moss, or a pine forest.

10. Minerality

The rocky or saline quality inherent in some wines, minerality encompasses non-fruit, non-spice elements of a wine. Recall the smell of a hot driveway in summer, or a wet sidewalk, and you'll get the idea.

Tip: Because the same wine — a full-bodied Zinfandel, for example — will express its tannins and acid differently paired with BBQ sauce-covered chicken or a light steak salad, it's always a good idea to let your wine professional know if and what you're eating with the wine.

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