Wine Descriptors: A Guide

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Do you love wine? Does it feel hard to talk about it with other people? What about when you know what kind of wine you want but don’t know the name or how to describe it? Wine descriptors are a great way to solve any issues you may have when it comes to talking about a bottle of wine.

First, you need to know what they are. Then, when and why to use them. After we explain that, we’ll tell you the 20 most common descriptors you should learn!

What is a wine descriptor?

Wine descriptors are terms used by wine enthusiasts to describe different aspects of a bottle of wine, such as aroma, flavor, and texture. Common descriptors are pretty straightforward while others may feel open to interpretation from to time.

As we’ll explain down below, descriptors are a great way to talk to other wine lovers about what they’re drinking. They’re also an efficient way to know what kind of wine do you want to buy. At the same time, descriptors will also help you find alternatives when you want to try a new bottle but don’t know which one.

When do people use wine descriptors?

People use wine descriptors when assessing the quality of a glass of wine. Most descriptors refer to aroma and taste. A few of them are useful to describe texture and looks. These wine-related terms usually develop over time for wine enthusiasts to better communicate with each other.

You may find people who don’t care about wine descriptors – and that’s okay. When that happens, that means you’re drinking wine with people who are not passionate about it. You can try to bring wine descriptors into the conversation if you want to or simply enjoy a glass of wine with friends.

Why should I use a wine descriptor?

Wine descriptors are a great way to talk about wine. Instead of trying to guess what’s the right word for certain aromas or different flavors, you can use terms wine enthusiasts everywhere know about.

You’ll find a time and a place for different descriptors as well as room for nuance every now and then.

Simply put, wine descriptors make it easier for everyone involved to talk about the important aspects of a bottle of wine. You can use everyday language if you want to – but it’d be better if you talked about body, length, and primary aroma when drinking wine. That way, everyone will understand – or, at least, wine enthusiasts will.

How many wine descriptors are there?

There are one too many wine descriptors to mention. You will usually hear different ones all the time – and may learn new ones every day. We’re going to talk about the most important ones down below.

Although there are countless descriptors, some are fairly common and well-known. For example, there’s no room for interpretation when it comes to light-bodied and full-bodied wines. The same thing happens with bitterness or sweetness.

Don’t try to learn hundreds of descriptors. There’s no point in doing that. Instead, focus on the ones you usually have to use. More importantly, use descriptors you can: some people find it easier to sense the aroma; other people, the body. Make the best of your wine tasting abilities.

20 wine descriptors you should know

For aroma

  • Primary Aromas: Anything related to fruits, herbs, and floral notes fall under primary aromas. They all come from the grape (or grapes) used to make the wine. They are usually the dominant aromas in your glass of wine – but far from the only ones you will smell.
  • Secondary Aromas: Secondary aromas are lingering in the background of your glass of wine. They come from one of the most important parts of winemaking, the fermentation process. Fermentation is a long process that will leave its mark on a glass of wine.
  • Tertiary Aromas: Last but not least, tertiary aromas are a result of aging. Right after fermentation, aging is the most important process in winemaking. Tertiary aromas include coconut, tobacco, vanilla, and many more.

For content

  • Blend: Most people tend to use this descriptor wrong. When you talk about blend, you talk about a wine made from a mixture of other wines. Don’t use this descriptor to talk about the different elements in your glass. That’s balance – and we’ll talk about that down below.
  • Fermentation: This crucial process is how wine gets made. Talking about the fermentation process is important – but you have to do it right. When it happens, sugars turn into alcohol due to yeast. A good fermentation process is a must for high-quality wine.
  • Terroir: This descriptor is the French word for soil. You can guess why that’s important: excellent soil grows quality grapes. That’s a must for a bottle of good wine. There are a lot of factors that come into play when talking about soil, such as location, climate, farming techniques, and more.
  • Variety: You can use this descriptor in two ways. For wine made with a single kind of grape, you can talk about variety. For a wine made with several kinds of grapes, you can talk about varietal. Variety may sound like a minor detail but far from it. Grapes are the essence of wine, and what kind and how many kinds you use is important.

For elements

  • Acidity: Beginners will find it easy to sense acidity but hard to describe accurately. The right amount of acidity feels the same way as eating something lemony. On the other hand, too much acidity is a terrible indicator for the wine – and usually feels the same way as eating a lemon.
  • Alcohol: You can probably guess what’s the point of this descriptor. Do you know how to account for it? The higher the alcohol content, the warmer you’ll feel it in your throat. A full-body wine usually has more alcohol content than a light-body. You have to taste it to be sure, though.
  • Bitterness: Some people find a bitter wine as something good; other people, not so much. Bitterness levels come from the grape or barrel used to make the wine. Wine tasters tend to feel the right amount of bitterness provides a certain quality to a wine you cannot get in any other way.
  • Body: Weight and viscosity are the main factors that’ll concern you when you want to talk about a wine’s body. Viscosity sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. Good wine needs to have certain viscosity levels. You may have an appreciation of the body from sight, but the only way to know for sure is by tasting it.
  • Complexity: A complex wine has different aromas and flavors you can distinguish as well as different nuances that will surprise you. Most people interpret complexity as a sign of good wine. Don’t mistake invasive overtones as something positive, though. Balance is important too.
  • Length: Certain flavors tend to linger on your tongue after you swallow the wine. When you talk about length, you talk about how long that flavor tends to linger. You can also speak of length when you refer to texture. Good wine does not overstay its welcome.
  • Sweetness: There are two types of sweetness, and that often leads to confusion. You have to learn the difference between sweet wine (that comes from residual sugar) and sweet wine (that comes from fruity tones). The former isn’t as positive as the latter. It takes time to learn the difference, though.

Other common descriptors

  • Balanced: A balanced wine is usually a good wine. We’re talking about a harmonious glass of wine where every element plays together – and nothing stands out. Instead, everything mixes perfectly. It’s hard to find a balanced wine – a drink with the perfect acid, alcohol, and sugar content. A balanced wine is great – but don’t confuse it with a bland one.
  • Full-bodied: Wines with an intense aroma or flavor are full-bodied ones. You will usually note this kind of wine is usually darker. They also have more alcohol than their light-bodied counterparts. People describe full-bodied wines as intense or rich but seldom as strong. There’s a time and a place for full-bodied wines.
  • Light-Bodied: This term is the go-to descriptor for a wine with a lighter body than usual. You will usually find these types of wine have less alcohol content and more acidity levels than usual. Light doesn’t mean weak – it means delicate, lean, and subtle. It’s far from a negative descriptor. Sometimes, you need a light-bodied wine.
  • Toasty: Every wine enthusiast knows you have to age your wine in a barrel for years. That leaves certain notes you can clearly smell and sometimes taste. When someone describes a wine as toasty, they’re conveying something related to the wood and how it impacts the wine.
  • Vegetal: People use this descriptor to talk about the vegetable scent or aroma you may find in a wine. For example, you may smell hints of peppers or grass in your glass. Don’t confuse them with fruit-related descriptors (for example, fruity) because that’s another thing. Most sommeliers consider strong vegetal notes as a flaw.

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