Often at a wine tasting, terms like “earthy” and “off-dry” are tossed about casually. It can be intimidating to pause the conversation in order to ask, “What exactly do you mean by tannins?” Or, “How can I tell that this wine is full-bodied?” We’re here to help, enlisting the aid of Sommelier Scott Zoccolillo to share his knowledge and demystify some of the most common tasting terms.
When it comes to wine, “dry” means not sweet. “Off-dry” means a little bit sweet. And “sweet,” well, that one’s easy.
These words describe “the residual sugar in the wine,” explains Zoccolillo. “Dry wines are typically going to be your Chardonnays, your Sauvignon Blancs. Off-dry is more Pinot Grigio and Riesling — just a little bit of sugar, which often balances out the acid. Sweet is just that. If you’re having to think if the wine is sweet or not, then it’s not sweet. It’s refreshing, it’s easy to drink. You don’t notice the alcohol as much. A lot of our hybrid grapes like Niagara and Vidal Blanc, along with dessert wines, fall into this category.”
“Fruit forward is very different from sweet,” explains Zoccolillo. “Sweetness is the sugar level of wine and it’s an immediate perception. With a fruit-forward wine, the first four or five flavors I’m talking about are probably fruit. Think Lemberger or Merlot. Like with Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s blackberry, plum, and fig. The fruit components are what’s driving that wine. ”
You might wonder how wine can exude such a dynamic range of flavors when it’s made solely from grapes. During the complex process of fermentation, chemical compounds are created that are identical to chemical compounds found in other fruits, vegetables, and minerals. It’s what makes wine so fascinating and ripe for conversation. The most common taste sensations tend to recall fruits, in particular berries and citrus.
As mentioned above, chemical compounds are responsible for these non-food flavors in wine. While they might not sound appealing — or edible — at first glance, these notes provide balance, intricacy, and excitement to the finished product. It’s another reason wine is much more than just alcoholic grape juice.
“Savory is almost more of a sensation, but it does go along with a little bit of a meaty feel,” explains Zoccolillo. “Think of words like charcuterie, barnyard, smokiness. You get that smokiness in Cabernet Franc for sure, but also in a lot of red blends.”
These tasting terms describe the feeling on the wine in your mouth. Think whole milk (full-body) versus skim milk (lean or light-body).
“Light-bodied or lean wines are just a little bit lighter on the palate,” explains Zoccolillo. “That includes Pinot Noir and a lot of your unoaked whites. Riesling is very lean. Pinot Grigio is very lean. Albariño is moderate. Fuller-bodied wines are Merlot, Cabernet [Franc or Sauvignon] — think your big red wines.”
Another note from our somm: Oak and butter notes will often read as full-body.
“Buttery is that yellow apple, popcorn butter, almost yogurty kind of texture and taste,” he says. “Buttery notes are a byproduct of malolactic fermentation. [That process] turns malic acid in wine, which is very ‘green apple’ driven, into lactic acid, which is more ‘yellow apple.’ They’re very different textures on your palate.
“You’ll often find [buttery flavors] in Chardonnay,” he continues. “And almost every fuller red wine goes through malolactic fermentation, but you don’t pick up buttery notes in red wine because the red flavors tend to overpower the delicacy of that buttery note”
Most red wines and some white wines spend time aging in oak barrels before being bottled and offered to consumers. There are two main reasons for this practice. Time “on oak” will mellow out a wine’s tannins (see below). It will also yield a new set of secondary flavors.
“Aging in oak imparts tannins and vanillins,” says Zoccolillo. “[That means notes of] vanilla, cinnamon, baking spices such as nutmeg and clove.”
Finish is just that: How long does that wine sit on your palate? How long does it take for the taste to fade away?
“Long finish wines can be white or red,” says our somm. “Some of the longer finish wines I find in Pennsylvania are your bigger reds, your Cabernets Francs and Merlots. And whites like Chardonnay. While something with a short finish would be like a dry Riesling or Grüner Veltliner. Those wines are absolutely amazing on your palate, but then kind of fade away pretty quickly. And they have that mouthwatering crispness.”
High acidity is a calling card for many of the world’s most popular and refreshing white wines. The elevated acid levels create a sensation of brightness and crispness.
“The wine invites you back,” says Zoccolillo. “When you drink something with really high acid, your body creates saliva to balance that acid out. When your mouth is watering, the perception is, ‘I’m really enjoying this and I want more of it.’ You’ll find that quality in higher acid wines like Grüner Veltliner, Pinot Grigio, and some Chardonnays that haven’t gone through malolactic fermentation. Riesling is also really high acid; so is Sauvignon Blanc.”
When you drink a tannic wine, your mouth feels sticky, like when you taste black tea that’s been steeped too long. While that might not sound like a desirable thing, it’s an essential element in the tricky mix of flavors and experiences that come with tasting wine. Many people go nuts for tannic wines.
“Tannins are the opposite of mouth-watering,” he explains. “Where acid makes your body create saliva, tannins [are astringent] so they disperse water. Your tongue just seems to have lost all its moisture.
“You’re not typically going to find tannins in white wines,” he continues. “You’re gonna find [tannins] more in your big reds: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Petite Syrah. Usually those tannic wines are balanced out by fruit [see fruit-forward]. Those wines are meant to be aged because tannins become less aggressive over time.”
“If somebody tells me they want a spicy wine, they want something really flavorful,” says Zoccolillo. “It hits all parts of the palate — front, back, side — all your taste receptors.”
“Spice” is exactly what it sounds like. You’re talking about flavors that you’d expect to find in the spice cabinet or as an ingredient in a hot sauce.
“There are different spice notes out there,” he explains. “If it’s baking spices — nutmeg, clove, Asian five spice, cinnamon — then it’s probably related more to oak-aging. If it’s black pepper, it’s probably chemical. Or you can get green pepper and jalapeno, which you’ll find not only in Cabernet Franc and Merlots, but also Sauvignon Blanc and that whole Bordeaux family of wine.”
“Balance in a wine means the whole orchestra is playing together,” muses Zoccolillo. “The acid is not so high that you don’t taste any of the alcohol. The sweetness isn’t so high that you’re not picking up on the acid. It’s not so fruity that you miss out on the earthy components or vice versa. It’s not overly oaked so you don’t pick up any of the fruit. If an orchestra is just tuba and trombone, that’s not as good of a show. You really want everything in harmony. When a wine is in balance, it’s typically tasting at its best.”