When wine drinkers get together, the conversation often turns to the language of wine, which is a pretty interesting topic in and of itself. For example, when I asked a group of winemakers what they thought about the term “dense” wine, I got some interesting answers. “It means it’s cheap and it doesn’t go down too easy”, said Mike O’Cain from O’Cain Wine Cellars. “Riper is the opposite of “dense” and means it’s more concentrated”, said wine consultant Amy Lerman.

Wine can be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Follow these simple guidelines from wine pros to learn the “hows” and “whys” of wine tasting.

Many wine experts have their own terms for tasting the way they do. In this post, the pros reveal the terms that describe their tastes, and explain why the terms that they use are important to them.. Read more about best wine for beginners and let us know what you think.

Gabriela Davogustto, masked and a few feet away from the guests’ tables, has never been more eager to convey the character of the wine quickly and clearly.

I’m three feet away from them and I’m yelling: Fresh berries, and that’s what they are: What? says Davogustto, director of the winery and co-owner of Clay’s restaurant in New York. I try not to go into too much detail. You really need to understand what people want to know.

There has long been a linguistic dance between guests and wine professionals, each trying their best to understand what the other is actually saying. A large part of the sommelier’s job is to ask the right questions, interpret what the customer knows about the wine and adjust the language accordingly. Usually this means abandoning the official vocabulary of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) tasting grid in favour of more expressive language.

The language of wine is different for everyone, says Tonya Pitts, director of winemaking at One Market restaurant in San Francisco. When you sit down at the negotiating table, you have to listen first.

But this exchange has become increasingly rapid and even bizarre, according to Arthur Khan, beverage manager at Momofuku Ko. Measures to mitigate the potential impact of Covid-19 have led the Khan team to limit the time spent at the table.

 

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Even before the pandemic, Khan preferred to avoid unnecessary and subjective tasting notes. My lemon can be your orange, he says.

Like Davogustto, he prefers not to give his guests too much information, lest certain words put them off a wine they might like.

Wine lovers come with baggage, convinced that they don’t like certain varieties, regions, styles or producers. Many people are embarrassed to ask questions. Instead, they nod their heads and pretend to understand the meaning of terms like grasping, nervous or tense.

I feel like wine is my misunderstood friend that everyone knows, says Mara Rudzinski, a partner in the soon-to-open restaurant Contento in New York City. But everyone is always skeptical of what is around them.

In an effort to improve communication, 15 wine professionals discuss their favorite words and their true meaning.

All things in balance / Illustration by Suzanne Harrison

Balanced: Balanced wines are like hugs, says Davogustto. The fruit, acids and tannins are harmonious and no single characteristic stands out. This is the opposite of linear or angular wines that attack the palate before their full character emerges.

Brilliant: Brilliant usually means spicy and acidic, Rudzinski says, which often means it’s easy to drink. Pitts considers clear wines to be laser beams. They are clean and focused, she says. You can taste the wine and visualize it. You know exactly what’s going on in your palate.

Pitts cites Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Grüner Veltliner from the Finger Lakes as a good example of a living wine.

Fat: Fat wines are fruity wines with structure and backbone, says Brian Grandison, sommelier at the Surf Club in Miami.

When Khan thinks of powerful wines, Barolo and Brunello, with their pronounced tannins and dark fruit, come to mind. Khan says fat can mean higher alcohol content, but not necessarily heavy, a term he no longer uses.

Wanda Mann, founder of Wine With Wanda, prefers to describe these wines as va-va-voom.

Confident: According to Joshua Greiner, the winemaker at RdV Vineyards, a confident wine is one that exhibits excellent balance and poise, is not overly ripe or overly manipulated, and remains true to its origin and grape variety. To achieve this, it is necessary to increase the age of the vines, better understand the microclimate and maintain precision in the cellar.

In addition to RdV’s 2016 Lost Mountain Blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, Greiner also cites Opus One, particularly the 2014, as an example of a confident wine.

Creamy: Creamy wines are first and foremost mouth-watering, Khan says. They often have lower acidity, are older and have been in wooden barrels and/or aged for some time. He thinks of the oak wines of the Southern Rhine or the aged champagnes with soft bubbles in the mouth.

Oakland-based wine writer Nikki Goddard uses dairy and creamy qualities to help wine lovers understand her body. Light wines taste like water, medium wines like skim milk, and full wines like whole milk or even cream for some dessert wines, she says.

Elegant: When Pitts says the wine is elegant, she means the fruit has been nurtured and you can tell it was made with great care. She finds that some old and pumped-up wines taste elegant.

A heavenly image of Grace Kelly in a jar. It refers to the medium body, bright acidity and soft tannins of Joan D’Anguera’s 2017 Altaroses Garnacha in Montsant.

Angry: Jeff Segal, owner of Domestique Wine Shop in Washington, D.C., likes to talk about the energy of wine. He describes some of his favorite natural wines as frenetic.

They are unpredictable, uncontrollable, vibrant and exciting, says Segal. If a wine is frenetic, it is not a wine that can be defined by a simple tasting note. It constantly changes and makes you rethink everything.

Fun fact: When Davogustto notices that a customer is in an adventurous mood, she sells him a nice wine. It may be a product from the Canary Islands, a Virginia rose or another variety or region that customers have probably never seen elsewhere.

She seems to love this kind of wine because you don’t know what you’re getting. They are easy to drink, but they are also surprising.

Handle: When a wine’s tannins are slightly pronounced and almost too strong, as in a young Bordeaux, it becomes addictive, says Jeff Harding, director of winemaking at New York’s Waverly Inn. But just when you think it’s too much and too distracting, you say: No, that’s exactly what we need.

Aggressive, loud or just intoxicating? / Illustration by Suzanne Harrison

Vertigo: Pitts uses the words heady instead of aggressive or strong to describe wines with high alcohol content. She also uses the term figuratively, to refer to witty wines that are in her preferred region, such as the 2000 Château Margaux.

Juicy: For Rudzinski, the juicy wines that embody Beaujolais and its main grape variety, the gamet, are an explosion of fruit. This often means freshly picked, summer-ripened berries and red stone fruits whose juice drips down your chin.

Economy: Just the mention of Lenten wines makes Domestique saleswoman Rebecca Pineda sit up straight. The word conveys an idea and a feeling, more than a literal translation, she says. White skin tone is durable, like a marathon runner, or slightly edgy, like a broke college student trying to avoid dinner by spending almost nothing.

While a full-bodied wine has a rich, luscious flavor, a lean wine implies density and concentration.

For me, as a minimalist, austerity is the ultimate complement to a Riesling made from old grapes or an affordable Clos de Briords [Muscadet] Nursery, says Pineda.

Lush: Floaty wines have the body and concentrated flavor of a strong wine, but they are velvety and silky, with less tannin, Grandison says.

Nervous: Harding says there’s something about these crisp bottles that borders on too much acid, but they’re perfect and constantly grab your attention. Goddard prefers to call wines with high acidity, such as dry German Riesling, Muscadet, Loire Valley Chenin Blanc and Chablis, palatable.

Porch breaker (optional porch) / Illustration by Suzanne Harrison

Porch: Porch pounders are light, simple wines that should be chilled and drunk quickly, says Alexi Kashen, CEO of Elenteny Imports. Pitts calls these bottles patio wine or pool wine. They remind me of the sun, she said. Many rosé wines are suitable, as is Pinot Grigio.

Cleanliness: For Tim Elenty, owner of Elenty Imports, purity is the measure of the style in which wine is made. If the wine is concentrated and true to the grape variety or region, it is a pure expression.

Preparing to punch in the face with bronze / Illustration by Suzanne Harrison

Pervasive: Gillian Stern, of White Rock Vineyards Estates in Napa, calls the spicy wines big, young reds that slap you in the face with their tannins. Young Malbecs, Cabernets or Tanatas are examples.

Rustic : According to Pitts, rustic wines are everyday reds that pair best with food. Examples are the wines from the appellation Irancy in the Bourgogne, but also some Barbera, Syrah and Grenache from the Côte du Rhône. Harding says rustic wines often have a lingering finish, pleasant but not sharp acidity and sometimes cow flavors.

Snappy: Khan sells a lot of fresh, crisp white wines, so bottles like Chablis, dry Riesling and Albariño. Elenti also likes to use the term snappy to refer to dry, crisp, pure white wines.

Smooth: Stern hissed softly into his wine vocabulary. That’s my favorite thing to do, she says. All wines must be sweet. This designation refers to spirits, not wine.

Still, the soft taste appeals to customers looking for a light to medium-bodied red wine with soft tannins, says Iris Fabre, deputy general manager of London restaurant Real Drinks and founder of Wine Minute. Ms Rudzinski quotes a French phrase she learned from the late Jean-Luc Le Du to describe a good, supple wine: le petit Jésus en culottes de velours.

Tension: According to Greiner, tight wines have an elegant, age-worthy structure that is achieved when craftsmanship is seamlessly combined with the pedigree of the terroir, or the unique sense of place, where the wine is found.

According to Harding, tension lies at the intersection of grip and nervousness, as evidenced by wines like Fleur de Pinot Marsannay Rosé by Sylvain Pataille in Burgundy.

It vibrates with energy, whether it’s acidity or texture, fruitiness or weight, and it’s a constant dance of perfectly interconnected components all vying for your attention, he says. It’s like when a dancer jumps from a huge height and you think he’s going to fall, but he lands and continues on his way. You can’t take your eyes off him.

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