Many words are thrown around when it comes to wine. You might overhear someone say, “notes of leather and wood” or “loud” or “angular,” and think to yourself, “What in the world is that person drinking?” Wine terms are, in my opinion, a lot like Shakespearean words: specific, lovely and often made up. This is due to the diversity of wine and our inability to describe all of its subtleties with a limited vocabulary. When training a staff member who is new to wine, I most often hear that they are afraid to talk about wine because they don’t know the right words. I assure them that there are no “right words,” just like there aren’t “right words” when you are describing a piece of art. There are, however, words that you can learn and understand to create a foundation for your future wine discussions. Here are a few staples that will impress all your friends at your next dinner party.
When we talk about tannins, we are talking about the bitter or dry feeling in your mouth after drinking a red wine. This is caused by contact with the grape skins during the winemaking process. High tannins will leave your mouth feeling so dry that your lips stick to your teeth, we might also call these “chewy tannins,” since you have to “chew” to clean the tannins out of your mouth. (See Barolo.)
Wines might be more acidic if they come from a cooler climate or if the grapes were harvested at a young age. I know I’ve tasted a high acid wine when my mouth begins to water. Others have noted a puckering sensation as if they’ve eaten a lemon. This is very common in whites but surprisingly common in red wines as well.
A wine is complex if it has a lot going on at once. You might taste tannins, and acid, and good fruit, and lots of earthy notes, and it will make you think about it for longer than you thought you would. If I want to join a wine conversation with sophisticated wine drinkers and I’m not quite sure what to say, I use this word.
I think crisp when I think green apple. Crisp is usually used to describe white or rose wines, and are great wines to drink on sunny days.
You might have heard earthy terms such as mushroom or grass (very common term used to describe Sauvignon Blanc) or terms such as limestone and oak. These components can be found in many wines, and while at first they may sound undesirable, on the palate they can be very pleasing. After all, good wine starts with the soil.
Some wines just need a friend. If you are having a hard time drinking a wine on its own, you could call it a food-friendly wine.
This is a very common descriptor desired by many. It means exactly what you think it means, the fruit in the wine tastes like jam. Warmer climates might produce jammy grapes, and is a very popular quality in a Zinfandel.
During the wine making process, a winemaker may choose to age their wine in oak barrels. Different oak barrels impart different flavors at different intensities. Some flavors you might pick up from oak include vanilla, baking spices such as cinnamon or nutmeg, or sometimes even dill. Chardonnay is probably the most famous user of oak, with its drinkers divided between “oaked” or “unoaked” (which means that the wine was fermented in stainless steel barrels). A fun exercise is to taste the two side by side and see which you like better.
Talking about wine can be the most fun part of opening a bottle with friends. Feeling comfortable is half the battle, so don’t be afraid to be honest. Whether you feel that a wine is oaky or jammy or “tastes like forest floor,” know that you are not wrong!
For your next great bottle, visit the Raven Café in downtown Prescott on the corner of Willis and Cortez or visit ravencafe.com for menus and upcoming events. QCBN
By Valerye Jeffries
Valerye Jeffries is the wine manager at The Raven.