Top Wine Tasting Terms and How to Use Them

Top Wine Tasting Terms and How to Use Them

People's Choice Judges - 3rd Annual Cabernet France Competition

People's Choice Judges - 3rd Annual Cabernet Franc Competition


Have you ever wondered how a wine can be chewy, or have backbone? Terms like these are on code for wine pros to use only. Rather, you will find that by gasping a few commonly used wine tasting terms you can not only sound like a pro but enjoy your wine tasting experience even more as these terms help you in describing the flavors and aromas of various wines. Let's start with the most commonly used wine terms starting with the A,B,C’s and beyond.

 - A -

Acidic- Used to describe wines having high acidity. They taste zesty or sour and have a sharp edge on the palate. Think of acidity like a squirt of lemon. Also see Astringent.

Aeration- It is the addition of oxygen or letting the wine breathe in the open air. Aeration softens young tannic wines; it can also have a negative result on older wines. 

Aftertaste- The taste that lingers in the mouth or which is left on the palate after a wine is tasted or spit. Its synonym is Finish

Aging- Keeping wines in barrels, tanks, and bottles to improve the taste and flavor of wine over time as well as the wines texture and aromas.

Astringent- It refers to dry, puckering, or rough feeling in the mouth. Astringency is usually due to high acidity or high tannin levels found in some red wines (and a few white wines).

 - B -

Barrel- The oak container used for aging wine and fermentation.

Balance- A wine that consolidates all its main components- acid, alcohol, sugars and tannins- in a manner that no single element dominates.

Body- The impression of weight and fullness of wine on the palate. Commonly a wine is expressed as full bodied, medium bodied and light bodied

“Light-bodied” Wine

When a wine is considered a “Light Bodied” wine what does that mean? A Light bodied wines sit in your mouth more like a delicate unsweetened iced green tea or a refreshing lemonade. They may still have a long aftertaste that tingles on your tongue, but they don’t fill your mouth like a taste from a glass of whole milk does. Most light bodied wines have lower alcohol levels, lower tannin, and higher acidity.

Light Bodied – Red Wine Terms

Subtle, Delicate, Elegant, Crisp, Bright, Floral.

Light Bodied – White Wine Terms

Light, Zesty, Airy, Lean, Racy, Crisp, Zippy, Austere, Long Tingly Finish, Brilliant, Lively

“Medium Bodied”

This term doesn’t really need to be applied to white wines. Red wines, however, benefit from this 3rd category. Medium bodied red wines are midrange and between a light red with lower tannin and a full-bodied red with high tannin. Medium bodied red wines are usually called “food wines.”

It's an odd term, sure – shouldn't all wine be designed to go with food? – but there is reason behind labelling certain wines as 'food wines ‘But surely most wines are designed to go with food, you might reasonably ask? The answer is yes, and no. A lot of wines seem to be designed to win awards or points or stand out in a tasting line-up, rather than to act as a pairing for food. Others need food to show at their best. Food wines tend to be underestimated, but they can be the most enjoyable kind of bottle to on hand and to pair up with some of your favorite dishes.

They tend to have more moderate levels of alcohol and more pronounced levels of acidity than many contemporary wines.

Some terms used for a Medium Bodied – Red Wine Terms

Food Friendly (surprise), Elegant, Juicy, Spicy, Tart, Mellow, Soft

“Full Bodied”

Full bodied wines fill your palate with their texture and intensity. Generally full bodied red will have high tannin and usually also have heightened alcohol levels above 14% ABV.

Alcohol and tannin act more like textures on our palate which is why they are key components of full-bodied red wines. Some full-bodied wines stand on their own and are better not matched with food. Conversely, a few red wines are so bold with bitter tannin that they almost need a rich fatty food (like steak) to smooth out the tannin.

Full Bodied – Red Wine Terms

Rich, Lush, Opulent, Rigid, Intense, Bold, Extracted, High Alcohol, High Tannin, Firm, Structured, Concentrated

Full Bodied – White Wine Terms

Rich, Lush, Oily, Buttery - A Chardonnay can be fit here as it can go from crisp to creamy and on to buttery feel in your mouth as you enjoy your glass of wine.

Blend- A wine made of more than one varietal.

Backbone- Wines that are full-bodied, well-structured, and balanced by a   proportionate amount of acidity.

Bright- Used for lively, young, fresh wines. They make your mouth water with focused flavor.

Big- A wine with intense flavor, that takes up all parts of your mouth and tongue. It can also mean that it has big tannins.

Bouquet- Complex aromas that are perceived in wine after it has been bottled and aged.

Burnt- Used to describe wines that have an overdone, toasty edge.

Buttery- A wine with buttery characteristics is generally rich and with less acidity. It has a creamy texture and hits the middle of your tongue with the feel of butter.

 - C -

Closed- Underdeveloped wines that do not display aroma or flavor.

Chewy- Refers to a full-bodied wine, both in texture and flavor. The tannin structure runs high exhibiting a thick texture that you almost feel like chewing the wine before swallowing.

Corked- A wine that has suffered cork taint. Wines that are corked have an off-putting and musty flavor and odor with a dry aftertaste.

Cuvee- It refers to the batch of a special selection of wine that is made from vineyards highest quality grapes and processes.

Concentrated- Refers to the taste, with intense flavors.

Cigar box- Flavors that hints toward sweetness and cedar wood aroma not so much tobacco.

 - D -

Dense- Attributed for bold red wines with concentrated aromas on the nose and flavors on the palate. It is often used to describe the aroma of a young wine that shows the potential of various descriptors but is too closed to note each separately.

Depth- A wine with several layers of flavor. Describes the complexity and concentration of flavors in a wine that are discernible as you sip.

Dry- A wine which has no sensation of sugar.

“Bone Dry”

When a wine is described as bone dry it implies extreme dryness with no residual sugar. The wine usually is accompanied by the presence of astringency. Red wines get astringency from tannin and/or their savory or bitter fruit flavors.

With a White wine the astringency from a quality that winemakers often refer to as phenolic bitterness, which is often described like the taste of grapefruit pith or quince fruit.


Most still wines fall into the dry category, even though our taste buds might tell us differently. Why? This is because a dry wine can range from no residual sugar to 1 gram per 5 oz serving.

FYI - most super premium red wine producers rarely have more than 1/3 gram of sugar per glass. A quick method of comparison: a packet of Sugar in the Raw contains 5 grams of sugar and a 5 oz serving of your favorite Cola has around 16 grams of sugar.

“Off Dry”

This is a popular term to describe wines with a touch of residual sugar, which can be anywhere from 2–3 grams of residual sugar per 5 oz pour. Most off dry wines are white wine. On our palate a wine that I higher in acidity such as a Riesling will taste drier than a lower acidity wine, say perhaps a Viognier even though both wines are of the same actual sweetness level.

Decanting- The process of slowly and carefully pouring the wine from its bottle into another container.

Dirty- Off-putting smell and flavor that occurs in wine that is a result of poor winemaking usually by bad barrels or corks.

 - E -

Elegant- Wines that possess grace and subtle flavors that are all in balance.

Earthy- A term used to describe both positive and negative traits of wine. Used to describe an unpleasant and drying finish of the wine. Or on the positive side a wine with aroma and flavor resembling earth.

Enology- The study of wine and winemaking.

 - F -

Fermentation- The process of converting grape sugars into alcohol by yeast.

Finish- The sense of texture and flavor that linger in mouth after the wine is tasted. The key to judge wine's quality is its finish.

Fruity- Having a strong taste and smell of fresh fruit.

Fat- A full-bodied, high in alcohol, low in acidity wine that gives a fat impression on the palate. Since it is flabby, it is the least desirable of them all.

Flabby- Lacking a sense of acidity.

Flat- A wine that lacks balance in its structure, particularly in its acidity on the finish.

Full-bodied- A wine with high alcohol and flavor, also described as "big".

 - G -

Green- Used to describe the taste of wines made from unripe grapes. Usually negative, this can apply to white wine with vegetal notes.

 - H -

Herbaceous- A tasting term which denotes herbal and vegetal aromas.

Hot- High in alcohol, tends to burn with heat on the finish.

 - L -

Legs- The sticky droplets that are formed and ease down on the sides of the glass when the wine is swirled.

Length- The amount of time the flavors stay in the mouth after swallowing, the longer the better.

Lees- This term describes the dead bits of yeast particles, pulp, seed, and other grape matter that sink to the bottom of wine. Lees are stirred up once in a day (depending on the winemakers discretion and goals with the wine) to make wine have a thicker texture.

Lean- This word can be used as a positive or negative tasting term. When used positively it means a wine is slim and yet enjoyable, the negative term describes a wine that lacks a perception of fruit.

Lingering- If the persistence of flavor in a wine stays on the palate for several seconds, it is said to be lingering. (See Finish)

 - M -

Mature- Ready to drink wine.

Mouth-Feel- The texture of wine on the palate; it can be smooth, rough or velvety.

 - N - 

Nose- This term describes the aroma and bouquet of a wine.

Nutty- Most often used to describe oxidized wines. But it can also be a plus for wines due to their oaky flavor.

Noble Rot- Grapes that have been attacked by Botrytis (a type of fungus), which is needed to produce many sweet wines like Sauternes from Bordeaux, German Riesling etc.

 - O -

Oxidized- A wine that has experienced too much exposure to air. They become brick-like in color, may appear around the rim.

Oaky- A wine that imparts a noticeable perception of oak barrels when it is aged. The term denotes the smell of vanilla, baking spices, a creamy body and a toasted flavor.

Open- This tasting term signifies a wine that is ready to drink.

Opulent- This word describes the style of wine with a sensuous texture that is rich, bold and smooth. These wines are highly desirable.

 - P -

Pruny- Wines with a flavor of overripe, dried out grapes and may remind one of prunes or stewed prunes.

Plonk- Refers to an inexpensive wine.

Perfumed- Wine that has matured to develop complex aromas like that of perfume. Applicable to white wines and some rose wines. Perfumed wines possess a sweet and floral aroma.

 - R - 

Rich- Rich wines display ample texture, body, and flavor along with a long finish.

Raisiny- Wine with a slight taste of raisins which occurs from overripe grapes.

Rough- A young tannic wine with a coarse texture.

Round- Describes a wine with a smooth texture, not coarse or tannic.

Robust- Full-bodied and intense wine.

Ripe- A wine produced from grapes that have reached optimum level of maturity.

 - S -

Savory - Savory, earthy, or herbaceous wines are the opposite of fruit-forward wines. While these terms don’t really do this wine profile justice, they help describe dominant flavors of a wine that is not of a sweet fruit category.

It’s not that these wines aren’t without a fruitiness. In fact, most wines are loaded with fruit flavors that are tart/sour/bitter spectrum. For example, imagine biting into a bunch of raw black currants (cassis), Asian pear, or a cranberry.

Let’s consider what we should be looking of as to “savory” in both a Red Wine and a White wine. What Savory traits can you look for in a Red Wine?

When tasting a red wine think, or look for Cranberry, Rhubarb, Black Currant, Green Bell Pepper, Green Peppercorn, Olive, Wild Strawberry, Sour Cherry, Mulberry, Bilberry, Peony, Wild Blueberry, Dried Herbs, Sage, Leather, Tobacco, Charcoal, Tar, and Woodsmoke are among a few. For example, a Cabernet Franc will often display the hint of green bell pepper due to the pyrazines found in the wine. The compound is found in higher proportions in the “Bordeaux-family” grapes:

•             Sauvignon Blanc

•             Cabernet Franc

•             Cabernet Sauvignon

•             Merlot

•             Carménère

•             Malbec

Savory – White Wine Terms could include:

Lime, Lemon, Pith, Quince, Bitter Almond, Green Apple, Apple Skin, Gooseberry, Jalapeño, Grapefruit, Green Papaya, Thyme, Chervil, Grass, Flint, Chalk, Petrichor, Minerally.

Smooth- A wine with soft tannins and pleasing texture.

Silky- Creamy and velvety wines.

Spicy- A wine with flavor and aroma of different spices such as cloves, thyme, black pepper, bay leaf, paprika etc.

Structured- The relationship or blend of alcohol, tannins, residual sugars, acidity, and fruit in a wine.

Supple- Not overly tannic wine.

Sweet- A wine having a noticeable sense of sugar contents on the nose and in the mouth.

 - T - 

Tannins- A compound in wine that leaves a dry, bitter, and puckery feeling in the mouth. The drying sensation is felt on the cheeks, tongue, and gums. It is derived from grape skin and seeds. It also acts as a natural preservative that helps the wine age and develop.

Toasty- Most used to describe the flavor of wine derived from oak barrels in which wine is aged.

Tight- A tight wine, hard-to-identify fruit characteristic.

Texture- How a wine feels on the palate.

Tart- A wine with a high level of acidity.

 - V -

Vintage- It refers to the year the grapes were harvest and the wine was bottled.

Vegetal- used to describe characteristics of cooked vegetables detected on the nose and in the flavor. An undesirable quality noted produced from unripe grapes.

Velvety- Synonyms for silky, smooth wine.

Vinification- the process of winemaking

 - Y -

Young- an immature wine that is usually bottled and sold within a year of its production. Young wines are noted for their crisp flavors.


With this list you are now ready to tackle wine talk with the best of them. For more tips see "WIne Tasting: 16 Tips to Remember" or "Why are There So Many Different Types of Wine Glasses."