How to Describe a Wine
Describing wine can be daunting.
Often, we instinctively know the differences and how it tastes, but describing it to others can leave us fumbling. This is further complicated that the people we try and communicate our wine tasting to might have different phrases, words, standards, or views on taste.
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust has therefore helpfully constructed guidelines so that we are all speaking the same wine language. With such a vast and diverse amount of wines, and with so many wine drinkers and students of wine, it is important the language used is systematic in its approach.
There are five areas to consider when describing a wine, listed below.
A good practice is to gain the habit of putting every wine you drink through these steps.
Aroma and flavour
Aroma and flavour
These aromas and flavours are those of the grape itself,
or formed in the process of alcoholic fermentation early on in the wine making.
As a general rule of thumb, the more red, ripe and sweet the smell or taste, the more sun the grapes have received, and this can then provide clues as to the geography of the wine origin.
Blossom, rose, violet
Apple, gooseberry, grape
Grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange
Peach, apricot, nectarine
Blackcurrant, blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, black plum
Green pepper, grass, tomato leaf, asparagus
Eucalyptus, mint, fennel, dill, dried herbs
Banana, lychee, mango, melon, passionfruit, pineapple
Redcurrant, cranberry, raspberry, strawberry, red cherry, red plum
and others tastes
Unripe fruit, ripe fruit, dried fruit, cooked fruit
Wet stones, candy
Secondary aromas and flavours
These are aromas and flavours that occur post fermentation. Malolactic conversion creates dairy tastes and smells, and autolysis in sparkling wines creates the bread and biscuit aromas and tastes.
Yeast, lees, autolysis, flor,
Biscuit, pastry, bread, toast, dough, cheese, yogurt
Butter, cream, vanilla, cloves, coconut, cedar, charred wood, smoke, chocolate, coffee
Tertiary aromas and flavours
These are aromas and flavours that occur during maturation. Whether maturation involves significant oxidation or not is key. If oxidised, it tends to add aromas and tastes such as coffee and caramel. If relatively unoxidised over a long maturation period, the wine can develop petrol, honey and mushroom aromas and tastes.
Mushrooms, forest floor, wet leaves, leather, dried fruits, caramel, tobacco
Dried fruit, marmalade, petrol, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, almond, hazelnut, caramel.
Deliberately oxidised wine
Chocolate, coffee, almond, hazelnut, walnut, caramel.
How much colour is there in the glass. Place the wine glass on a white background, and a finger on each side of the glass stem, then slowly lower your fingers to the glass base - for how long can you see your fingers for? Another trick to assessing this is to tilt the glass at 45 degrees and see how the colour intensity changes with depth, again, try and use a white background and be consistent between wines.
The terms used to describe colour are, perhaps obviously, different depending on whether one is describing a red, a white, or a rosé wine.
Lemon, gold, amber.
Pink, pink-orange, orange.
Ruby, purple, garnet, tawny.
How to nose and identify flavours.
The pleasure from the smell of a wine is often too little appreciated, yet the aromatic experience is often the dividing line between excellent wine, and the merely acceptable.
There is also a great deal of information to be gleaned from the aromas.
The types of aroma to be expected have already been described above.
To capture very subtle flavours, take a few gentle sniffs before disturbing the wine, then swill the wine in your glass and put your nose over the rim and sniff some more.
Try to describe not just the specific aroma, such as apple for example, but also its intensity. If you can smell aromas before the swirling then they should be described as pronounced, followed by medium and light as descriptors.
Palate is not simply recognising the flavours described above and adding flavour intensity, but includes describing acidity levels, sweetness, tannins, alcohol and body.
For me, this is judged on how much it makes my mouth waters with saliva. A tongue tingle can also be present. Some wines dry the mouth out, others cause it to fill. The length of time your mouth waters for after a sip can also be used as a gauge. The sweetness, or sugar, of a wine can sometimes mask the acidity by being a counterbalance, and only practice lets one tell the difference. The tongue tingle can also be confused for alcohol.
Trying to describe as many wines with different characteristics as possible will help hone these skills.
Dry - Off-dry - Medium - Sweet
Dry wine can be defined as no sugar that the mouth can taste. Many white wines fall into this category.
Off-dry wine is when the tongue can only just about taste a minimum amount of sugar.
Medium wine covers the whole range in-between the 'barely detectable sugar' of the off-dry, to the very sweet dessert wine. Most red wines fall into this medium category.
Sweet wine is reserved for the dessert wines such as Sauternes or Tokaj, and certainly Port.
A tannoid is a highly astringent polyphenolic biomolecule that comes from the grape skins.
In your mouth when drinking wine, tannins feel rough and sometimes even bitter, drying the mouth out and making everything feel a little furry. Low, medium and high is the only scale needed.
Saint-Émilion wine is famous for its tannins, and it is far from being a bad quality in a wine if done right.
Alcohol and body
Alcohol and body are two paired qualities in a wine. A lot of alcohol makes a drink feel heavy in the mouth, little alcohol and a drink feels thin, and a great lot of alcohol burns like a shot of vodka!
Use low, medium and high to describe alcohol content. For unfortified wines low is less than 11%, medium is 11 to 13.5% and high is anything above this.
The concept of body is about weight in the mouth. Guinness has body, water does not.
In wine, body can be affected by alcohol, yes, but also sugar, acidity and tannin, and as such body should be given a separate high, medium and low rating to alcohol.
This is simply how long the taste of the wine lasts for.
Think of the flavours and mouth feels as a musical note.... how long does the note play for?
A bit of potentially confusing wine language here is that finish only should be used for positive tastes such as fruit, or anything that makes the wine taste good. Put anything negative down as a separate note in the record.
Short, medium, long, are the best descriptors to use.
Balance can be thought of as a question of harmony. If all the various aspects discussed above fit together in a harmonious way that makes the wine sing in your mouth, then the wine is in balance. If one element stands out too much, even if it is a positive element, it can bring the wine out of overall balance. The same can be said for lacking elements. The Goldilocks. The tight rope walk of flavours. Balance.
Finish was described above and nothing else need be said, but use the quality of the finish in your conclusions about a wine. The finish really matters, as any great classical composer would vouch for.
Flavour intensity or identifiable characteristics has already been mentioned a few times. It is about precision of flavour, can you just taste a melange of fruit or a loud and clear note of apple or grapefruit? Does the wine taste like you might expect for, say, a Merlot, or an oak staved produced wine? Put simply, does the wine contents and how the wine was made sing out of the glass at you and within your mouth? Can you hear and identify all the different notes clearly or is it an indistinguishable cacophony?
Complexity is about whether a wine goes further than the primary flavours and aromas and into the secondary and tertiary ones. Not all wines need to be complex though, and this criteria is somewhat flexible. Good wines can also be simple ones.
Conclude your wine using the following, poor fails on all of the above four headings and outstanding does well in all four, good will do well in two and so forth.
Poor - Acceptable - Good - Very good - Outstanding
I hope this guide helps you narrate and give words to your wine experience,
but also remember that the wine experience can be joyful without words and thoughts.