Wine Characteristics

Those who love wine are often referred to as snobs, but a more accurate term would be geeks, and like all good geek subcultures the wonderful world of wine appreciation has its own specific jargon. Here are some of the terms most commonly used when describing the taste of a wine.

Aroma: Sometimes still referred to by the older term bouquet, the aroma is the way a wine smells, and due to the close connection between the sense of smell and the sense of taste it is strongly associated with the flavour of a wine.

Red wine has flavours of dark stonefruit and berries.
Red wine has flavours of dark stonefruit and berries.

Flavour: Wines typically have a complex flavour composed of various fruits and other substances. Observation has taught me that the only ‘wrong’ answer to the question ‘what does this wine taste/smell of?’ is ‘grapes.’ Typically, red wines have flavours and aromas associated with purple and red fruits – think plum, cherry, berries and the like. White wines can have flavours and aromas of almost any other fruit – common examples are apples, pears, citrus and peaches. In addition, other flavours will be present, ranging from spices and minerals to odd flavours like earth and tobacco. Due to their tannins, red wines will often have a woody component of oak or cedar. Flavour and aroma are hugely subjective, so if you think it tastes like a particular thing, then you’re probably right (unless it’s grapes. Grapes always seems to be the wrong answer). Related to flavour is fruitiness, which refers to how strong those fruit flavours are.

White wine may taste of lighter-coloured fruits such as peaches and nectarines.
White wine may taste of lighter-coloured fruits such as peaches and nectarines.

Sweetness: In the world of wine, wine is assessed on a sliding scale from ‘sweet’ to ‘dry’. If it’s somewhere in the middle it’s ‘medium’. Sweetness typically registers as a tingle on the tip of the tongue. When looking at the wine in the glass, sweeter wines are often more viscous, so when swirled around in the glass they will leave long, clearly-defined ‘legs’ (streaks) down the side of the glass.

Acidity: This is often registered as a tingling sensation along the sides of the tongue and can cause the mouth to water in response. ‘Lighter’ wines are typically more acidic.

Tannin: Caused by the phenolic compounds in the skin and seeds of grapes (which are removed in the production of white wines, but not reds), and in the wood of the barrels in which wine is aged, tannin is actually a specific type of acidity, but one which registers over the entire mouth ‘drying’ it out (this should not be confused with level of sweetness/dryness). Phenolic compounds contribute to a wine’s ability to age and are the reason why reds usually age better than whites.

Wine barrels impart tannins into the wine.
Wine barrels impart tannins into the wine.

Body: This describes how ‘heavy’ the wine feels in your mouth. Wines are described as being ‘light-’, ‘medium-’ or ‘full-’ bodied, with the term ‘big’ sometimes used in place of ‘full-bodied’.

Texture: The texture of a wine is composed of its sweetness, acidity, tannins and body. A wine may have the light texture of water from a stream or the oily texture of olive oil. Note that this is a sensation created by the wine in the mouth: wines do not, in reality, contain oils and the ‘legs’ you may observe on the side of the glass relate to the viscosity, not the presence of oil.

Length: Does the flavour and texture of this wine dissipate quickly or does it linger on the palate? To put it another way, is it ‘wham, bam, thank you ma’am’, or ‘me love you long time’? A ‘short’ wine is the former, a ‘long’ wine the latter.

Different shaped wine glasses

Mouthfeel: Another trait which is a combination of several of the preceding factors. How does the wine ‘feel’ in your mouth? Heavy or light (body)? Acidic? Tannic? Oily or fresh (texture)? Lingering or dissipating (length)?

Clean: A ‘clean’ wine is one which clearly displays the typical traits of its variety, and as such is related to the modern preference for varietal (rather than blended) wines.

Closed: A wine that has little aroma or flavour may be referred to as ‘closed’. As wine is essentially a living thing (due to the yeasts and bacteria which produce it), exposing wine to oxygen (allowing it to ‘breathe’) can help it to ‘open up.’

"It tastes of grapes" is always the wrong answer.
“It tastes of grapes” is always the wrong answer.

Always drink responsibly. One standard drink of wine is approximately 100ml (3.3 fl oz). The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women consume no more than 2 standard drinks a day, and no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and that men consume no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week (note that this is slightly lower than the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation). The World Health Organisation recommends that women abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. In New Zealand the legal drinking age is 18. Do not drink alcohol if you are under the legal age to do so in your country. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol.


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