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Know the wine code words

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

To help you quickly find artisan wines you’ll love, we’re going to start with a shortcut. The way to do that is to understand how others interpret flavors, so you can more easily and quickly spot wines you’ll love.

There are lots of different approaches to describing wine aromas and flavors. And wine tasting is very personal, there isn’t really a right answer. It’s a bit like horseshoes, close scores points. Where you might smell tart strawberries, I might get raspberries. Wine aromas are simply compounds created through fermentation and aging that resemble those in other fruits, foods or elements. So there is an interpretation factor to consider.

But there are some important code words that good wine reviewers generally use to describe a wine. Crack that code and you’re way ahead of the curve. So in this first wine hack, we’re going to focus on understanding those code words and wine reviews a little better.

Fruit: Who's in the spotlight?

Grapes varietals have certain flavor profiles, but many factors can influence that profile. Was it a hot year? Were the grapes harvested early or late? What was the winemaker trying to achieve? The beauty of artisan wines is that you can actually taste these factors in a wine, instead of the formulaic recipes used for mass produced wines. A good clue to predict what you might be getting is the code word used to describe a wine’s overall character. Look for these clues:

Fruit Forward, Fruity, Juicy, Jammy -

These are code words for wines that feature the fruit as the major component of the aroma and flavor profile. That’s not to say there are no other aspects to the wine, but they play a bit part. The fruit is the diva here. Fruit forward whites tend to feature stone and tropical fruits, and in the reds, the sweeter fruits like strawberry, cherry, raisins and cooked fruit like blueberry pie. This does not mean the wine is sweet, just that the fruit dominates the aromas and flavors.

Earthy, Savory, Herbal, Elegant -

These code words are used with wines in which the fruit is an ensemble player. You’re likely to get a more toned down fruit profile. Other aromas from the wine may actually be the most pronounced, showing off specific aspects of the winemaker’s approach or certain characteristic elements of local terroir.

Acid: Couch potato or sprinter?

All wines have acid compounds, that’s not a bad thing. It’s the acidity in combination with alcohol that keeps the wines from spoiling. Acidity is also desirable for food pairing, and gives the wine a lively taste profile you feel at the front of your tongue. Levels of acidity vary by the type of grape. Acidity in a wine also often goes in lockstep with certain aromas and flavors.

Bright, fresh, crisp, racy -

When you hear these words, it’s a code for higher acidity. Aside from telling you that the wine has acidity, it’s also telling you something about the aromas and flavors. Expect that fruit will smell and taste more like freshly sliced raw fruit. Generally, look for green fruit aromas like apple, pear or citrus in whites like Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Albarino and Chenin Blanc. In reds you’ll also get a bit of herbal green notes in wines like Nebbiolo, Valpolicella, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Carmenere and Sangiovese.

But beware sweet wines like riesling, tokaji and sauternes. They have high acidity balanced by sweetness and often show riper aromas like stone fruit and tropical fruit.

Soft, Flat, Fat -

Because acidity protects the wine and heightens the brightness of fruit flavors, winemakers try to ensure the appropriate acidity in a wine. Soft as a descriptor might appeal to you if you don’t like wines with higher acidity and it’s not necessarily a red flag. Check out whites like Viognier, Fiano, Pinot Gris, but be careful with the Italian style of Pinot Gris - Pinot Grigio - which is typically crisp. (See you already understand the code). For reds you might seek out Grenache, Malbec and Montepulciano.

When you hear words like flat or fat, it tends to mean that the fruit flavors are less bright, more cooked and that the wine seems heavier. These words are usually not complementary and sometimes indicate the taster found the wine unbalanced.

Tannin: Batman or Superman?

Tannin is a natural component of wine that comes from grape skins, seeds and stems, and sometimes barrel aging. Although white wines can have some tannin due to skin contact, it is mostly a red wine thing. Tannins are good because they lend structure to a wine and they are a natural antioxidant that allows wines to age. But tannins can also impart bitterness and a drying sensation to a wine that you generally taste at the back of your tongue.

Different grapes have differing natural levels of tannin and winemaking also plays a big part. But if you know the code words for tannin, you’ll be better prepared for tasting and for spotting wines that suit your style.

Rounded, Silky, Powdery -

You’re about to taste a wine with a lighter level of tannin. Expect the wine not to have any harsh edges from tannin and to coat the mouth smoothly and evenly. Dryness will be less pronounced. You might hear these descriptors often associated with lower tannin grape varietals like Pinot Noir, Gamay, Frappato from Sicily, Dolcetto from Piedmont, and Grenache.

Velvety, Fine, Firm -

Now you’re entering the world of medium to higher tannin. These wines have definitive tannin characteristics, but in the nice nextdoor neighbor way. You’ll feel the wine coating your mouth and teeth, and you’ll experience a drying sensation. Velvety, like the material, is still nice and smooth, but heavier. Fine being more pronounced than powdery, and firm basically means that tannin is a notable aspect of the taste profile - so don’t kid yourself. These descriptors are closely tied to winemaking and aging decisions, but some varietals that are generally associated with medium tannins include Malbec, cool-climate Grenache, Carrignan, Cabernet Franc and non-oaked Merlot.

Chewy, Grippy, Muscular -

Put on your big girl or big boy pants for this wine. The tannin is going to be pronounced and inextricably linked to the character of the wine. You’ll feel it on your teeth, tongue and all around your gums in a grainy, puckering and lean-in-to-it way. This will dry out your mouth like a run through the Sahara - in a nice way though. Varietals that typically have higher tannin include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Tannat, Carmenere and cool-climate Syrah.

Hopefully, now you’ll be able to decipher those wine reviews a little easier. Continuing our journey, we’ll take a closer look at the important clues you can get from wine labels and wine technical specifications. Check out the article. Cheers!

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