When you taste a wine you are not only enjoying the wine in your glass, you are developing your palate and starting to put the different elements of viniculture and winemaking together. Wine tasting teaches you to understand the characteristics a wine has in the glass and also how they got there. While enjoyment of taste is subjective to personal preference, many characteristics of wine are clearly defined by the winemaking process such as where the grapes were harvested, how they were fermented, as well as the residual sugars and alcohol content of the wine. Understanding wine tasting lingo will give you a way to describe the characteristics of wines while also teaching you what to expect to taste in a wine when you read a label or are told a description of a wine.
Before you start to taste wine, make sure you understand the basics about varietals as well as aroma, nose and bouquet and how to sniff, slurp, and slosh wine. Once you have an understanding of these fundamental elements of wine tasting, you can begin to expand your knowledge and palate in wine tasting. Wine tasting terminology aids the learning process by highlighting characteristics in the structure of the wine you are tasting and lead you to draw conclusions about where the wine was made.
What is Minerality?
Minerality is the term used to describe the aroma and flavor of wet stones, salinity, flintiness even chalkiness in a wine. While we know that there are many different mineral compounds in soil (magnesium, calcium, iron, potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur) there is no definitive ruling on how these compounds transfer to the flesh of the grape.
Minerality is present in both red and white wines, although it’s typically experienced in wines with a higher acidity, which indicates that wines with minerality come from growing regions with cooler climates.
What Does Dry Mean?
The dry characteristic of a wine is not a sensory characteristic, but a measure of the amount of residual sugar in the wine. Dry, off-dry, medium sweet, sweet and dessert are the terms used to measure the residual sugar in a wine after fermentation.
During fermentation, the yeasts are activated and fueled by the natural sugars in the grapes. When the winemaker stops the fermentation process determines how much sugar the wine will contain and how dry the wine will be. A wine that has been fully fermented will have no residual sugar left, resulting in a dry wine, while off-dry, medium-sweet, sweet and dessert wines are used to describe wines that have escalating levels of residual sugar.
What is Acidity in Wine?
Acidity refers to the amount of tartaric, malic and lactic acid in the wine. Table wines have an acidity of 0.6 to 0.7 % while dessert wines that need to balance their high sugar content, have an acidity of 1%. If a wine has too much acid, it can taste sour while wines with too little acid can taste flabby. Acidity in a wine can tell you about the climate the wine was grown in, as grapes from a warm climate have high sugar and low acid while grapes from a cold climate have low sugar and high acid.
Legs on the Wine Glass
After you have swirled the wine in the glass, notice how the wine runs down the sides of the glass. The way the wine runs down the side of the glass can tell you about the alcohol and sugar content of the wine. Sweet wines with a high sugar content will form thick, slow-moving legs while wines with a high alcohol content will form many faster moving legs.
How's the Finish?
The way a wine finishes refers to how long the flavors of the wine linger on your palate and can tell you about the quality and balance of a wine. After you swallow or spit the wine out, the wine will leave taste and texture impressions in your mouth, and depending on how long those flavors stay, the finish is described as short (0-10 seconds), medium (10-20 seconds), and long (20-30+ seconds). A longer and more balanced finish indicates a higher quality wine.
Old World & New World
Wines are often classified as New World and Old World. These terms refer both to the geographic region and the style of the wine. Regionally, Old World wines refer to wines from Europe (Spain, Italy and France....) while wines that are from Australia, Central and South America (Argentina, Chile), and the United States (California, Washington) are considered New World.
Wine styles vary between Old World and New World specifically due to the characteristics of the grapes (due to climate) and due to winemaking styles and processes. While there are exceptions, generally speaking, Old World wines tend to have higher acidity and feature more delicate flavors and are naturally very balanced. New World wines have higher alcohol and mid-to-light acidity due to warmer climates and feature bolder flavors. Old world wines are typically made using traditional wine making techniques while New World wines can be made using both traditional and modern techniques. (Read on in "The Difference Between Old World and New World Wines.")
Vintage refers to the year the grapes were grown and fermented into wine. Due to the great weather and optimal growing conditions of certain years some, vintages are well known to have produced exceptional wines, likewise, some vintages may not be as highly regarded if the weather was not conducive or if there were pests or a disease prevalent on the vineyard in that year that affected the crop.
In large wine growing regions, micro-climates can affect different vineyards so it is possible that just because one vineyard had a stellar vintage, it doesn’t mean that all the vineyards did. Most of the wines that you drink will come from a single vintage, however, some wines can be made using a blend of vintages. Blending vintages can help vintners make a consistent wine from year to year.