Wine savage

Descriptive Words

by Stephen Reiss, Ph.D., C.W.E.

Now that you have learned the concepts, it is time to learn the words you will use.

The language of wine can be rich and varied.  While this adds poetry and excitement to discussions of wine, it does not always lend itself to the complex task of conveying something as subjective as how a wine tastes.  The trick to communicating is to use a few choice words rather than to use as many as you can conjure up.

For each of the aspects of wine you will be given just a few words to remember.  Aroma and taste have many words associated with them, and so, many words will be listed in the next section.  Most are so familiar you will not have to worry about remembering them.

The words will be broken down into the various aspects of wine we discussed above.



Color – From youngest to oldest, although some young wines may start anywhere on the scale.

     Red wine:
          Purple     Violet red     Garnet     True red     Bright red     Brick red     Orange red     Tawny

     White wine:
          Clear     Pale green     Straw     Yellow     Pale gold     Golden     Amber     Maderized

Opacity – From letting a lot of light through, to letting no light through.
          Transparent     Light     Translucent     Dark     Opaque

Brilliance – From not at all, to very.
          Dull     Bright     Brilliant

Odor (Aroma / Bouquet)

Degree of Fruit – From not at all, to very
          Closed     Tight     Fruity     Purfumey

Hot or not – Does it burn your nose hairs? If so it is high in alcohol.

Aromas – In the next section is a list of smells/flavors commonly found in wines.  Some are pleasant, some not so.  You may not find any of these in wine, or you may find something completely different.  This is the most subjective part of wine.

Off odors – Sometimes when you smell a wine, it seems somehow wrong.  It may be subtle, or it may be overwhelming.  The moldy smell of a corked wine is one of the most common.  There are many other smells and flavors that are considered “off” and are mostly due to spoilage or some sort of mistake in the wine making.


Flavor – Here are a few words to use to describe each of the three components in a wine: fruit, acidity, and tannin.  The first word relates to wine that has too little of the taste in the balance, and the final word is for too much of that taste.

     For fruit:
          Dry wines:  Sour     Tart     Balanced     Fruity     Jammy
          Sweet wines (for sugar):  Sour     Tart     Balanced     Sweet     Cloying

          For acidity:  Flat     Thin     Balanced     Tart     Sour
          For tannin:  Thin     Light     Balanced     Hard     Rough

Notice that there is overlap with the words that relate to acidity.  Acidity is the most readily recognized aspect of taste, and one of the most important in wine.  You will almost always have something to say about the acidity of a wine.

A note about balance: When a wine is in perfect balance it is very hard to talk about, since no one aspect of it stands out from the others.  Should you find the rare wine that seems perfectly in balance, simply say so and move on.  When it comes time for you to give your overall impression of the wine, look back at more than the balance.  It if was complex (had many different aromas and flavors) as well as balanced, it is a great wine.  If it is balanced and has nothing else going for it, it may simply be boring. I have a special term for boring wines: No Vice – No Virtue.



Aftertaste – The most important aspect of a wine’s aftertaste is simply to ask yourself “Is it pleasant?” Some chemical flavors or other less pleasant flavors tend to show up in the aftertaste, so a wine that has been good up to this point may not finish as well as you would like.  Bitter is one of those tastes that tends to show up at the end.  Bitterness should be rare in wine, and since many people have grown used to the bitter taste of coffee and tea, they may miss it.  That true bitter flavor (as opposed to the roughness of tannin) is a sign that something went wrong in the wine making process (usually the maceration period was too long) and the wine may suffer for it over time.

Linger – The best wines have an incredible long, lingering taste.  It remains after you have swallowed or spit.  The flavor is almost always pleasant, and is more a shadow of all that has come before, rather than a new taste.  When you taste a wine that has a long linger, you feel compelled to enjoy the taste until it fades, and then you want to try the wine again, just for the sensation of that long linger.  Most wines do not linger so long as to be memorable, so make a point of mentioning it when you do find a wine that lingers forever.  Low quality wines almost always have a short linger, or even no linger at all.  Sweet dessert wines linger longer than dry wines, so expect more from them.

Overall Impression

Like or dislike – When someone asks you what you think of a wine, they expect you to jump right to this point.  Fortunately, it is usually pretty easy to tell if you do or don’t like a wine, just from a sip or two.  If you are not speaking with someone that expects a detailed reply, just answer this question with a simple yes or no.  If you are speaking to the wine maker, or you are at a wine tasting, expect to have to add why you like or dislike the wine. When you justify your preference, it will help to be able to mention each aspect of the wine, as a way to bolster your opinion.  The more you taste wine, and the more comfortable you are talking about it, the more detailed your “why” will become.

When good wines turn bad: As you taste more wines, and become quite familiar with one or more types of wine, you are certain to run into a favorite wine that is not “showing well”.  Usually it is a shock to find a familiar wines that tastes completely different than you remember.  Before you blame your palate, keep in mind that some wine is subjected to environments that may alter, or even ruin, the wine.

The most common culprit are the twin plagues of shipping and storage.  Not all wine is treated as well as it should be before you get it.  If you are a serious wine lover you will eventually create a wine cellar of some sort.  You will coddle your wines, and do everything you can to protect them.  Unfortunately, you do not always have control over what has happened to the wine before it came into your possession.  Chances are, the wine was not so lovingly cared for before you got it.

Rather ironically, wine tastings are a place where a wine may not show well.  It may have been shipped to the tasting that day, and it may even have come to the tasting in the trunk of a car.  If you taste a wine that you know, and it tastes odd, especially if it tastes as if the acid, tannin, and alcohol have all been separated, it is likely to be suffering from “bottle shock” due to the move.  The good news is that wine is incredibly resilient, and given time, usually a month or two, it will be back to its own self.

Finally, a word about a “corked wine”.  If you taste a wine and it has been a suspicious moldy smell, open another bottle and compare.  If the smell is not in the second bottle, the first was corked, and was just subjected to bad luck.  You don’t have to write off the wine entirely.  If the second bottle smells the same as the first, the barrels used to age the wine were likely old and moldy, and you should avoid the wine from now on.  In a restaurant or a wine tasting there should never be an issue with opening a new bottle when it is suspected the first was corked.  If they do give you a hard time, do not give them your business in the future.

Typicity – Typicity is a measure of how typical a wine (or other subject of scrutiny) is for its class.

As you taste more wines, and become familiar with regions, grape varieties, or even wine makers, you can determine how typical this wine is compared to others.  The important part of this is to make the decision of how typical the wine is, without judging its overall quality, or how much you like it.

In Europe, many wines must be tasted by a panel of experts to decide if the wine is typical of wines that would bear similar labels.  In Italy, where new wine making trends and techniques have created many wines that are not typical of the region, the Italians have instituted a new designation for those wines which are not typical, but are still of high quality.

If you have tasted enough wines to determine if this wine is typical for wines of its class, say so.  Sometimes being atypical is a bonus, often times it is not, since the consumer may be getting something other than what they expect.

Value – The ultimate pronouncement for any critic.  Sure the wine was good, but was it worth it?  This is in many ways the most subjective part of talking about wine.  If you earn millions a year, and the greatest bottle of wine you ever tasted cost an hour’s salary, you may consider it a bargain.  If you earn a more modest wage, and that same bottle of wine cost you a week’s, or even a month’s salary, you are not likely to consider it a bargain, no matter how good it was.

As with typicity, determining the value of a wine is made easier if you have tasted a great number of wines.  You can then tell by tasting it approximately how much a similar wine would cost.  Compare the wine you are tasting, against the ideal price, and see how it fares.

For those just learning about wine, keep this step simple.  When it comes to value, just decide if you would pay the same amount for the wine again.  If so, it is a decent value.


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