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Navigating the Confusion Over Wine Descriptors

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GrapevineSeveral readers have told me that they are confused by descriptive terms used to characterize wines. This week’s column will take you down the path of understanding, and developing, a wine glossary.

Now you can dazzle each other with a wine syntax that will help you better appreciate the true nuances of wine tasting.

First, the biology lesson. (So you thought ninth-grade science would never be relevant in later life!) One of the reasons that experiencing wines is so complex and yet so simple is that we are able to employ several of our five senses in a singular, focused moment. Of these senses, taste and smell are the critical components.

For taste, think flavor. It is our taste buds that distinguish the overall experience of the wine at hand. The tongue is where the five elements of taste reside: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami.

As we sip our wine, there are specific areas on the surface of the tongue and the side of the mouth that impact our perception of wine. Sweet receptors reside on the front of the tongue, salty on the front sides, umami in the middle, sour on the rear sides and bitter on the rear. The next time you sip a wine, or taste any food for that matter, take special note of this road map in your mouth.

Let’s translate several of these senses of taste. If your tongue senses sweetness, the term “residual sugar” is usually applied. Sour is often described in terms such as flinty, citrus, lemon grass, musty and is primarily dependent on the level of acidity in a wine. Low acidity may be described as fruity, buttery, soft or flabby (not much structure) whereas high acidity may evoke terms like crisp or pineapple. Bitter has many connotations, from soft to astringent, which relate mainly to acidic elements, including tannin, finish, peppery, spicy, earthy, green and minerally.

On to our sense of smell. Think elements of fragrance, bouquet and aroma. This is where our senses are most refined and complex – and unique to each individual. Whereas there are five elements of our sense of taste, our olfactory receptors number over 10,000. By far, our experience of wines comes from the sense of smell. This is predominantly why we each have different preferences, likes and dislikes, in wine. One person’s “chocolatey” may be the next person’s “barnyard.”

Typical nuanced expressions include:

  1. Fruit terms like apple, lemon, grapefruit, melon (white wine) to blackberries, cherries, strawberries, currants, jammy (red wine).
  2. Floral terms like violets, roses, honeysuckle.
  3. Vegetative/herbal terms like licorice, black pepper, woody, grassy.
  4. Terms associated with processed products like chocolate, coffee, molasses, vanilla, honey.

Of course, the combination of the senses of taste and smell result in the total wine experience. Here are two examples of pairing taste (flavor) and smell (fragrance/bouquet): First, the charred taste and the earthy aroma of steak pair well with an oaky, earthy, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, and second, the fresh taste and muted flavor of a white fish pair well with a crisp, grassy Sauvignon Blanc.

The counterpoint to the conventional wisdom in pairing fish is that many fish dishes are served with sauces that are in direct contrast to the underlying sensory elements of the fish. Serving a Sauvignon Blanc with an unadorned white fish may be a perfect pairing, but the same fish embraced by mango and papaya chutney will overwhelm any traditional wine paired with it.

Instead try the fruity flavors and tropical bouquet of a lightly oaked Chardonnay or the soft, low-acid, slightly jammy bouquet of a warm climate Pinot Noir. Memorize two simple rules: first, seek balance between wine and food and second, match the wine to the sauce, not to the protein.

So there you have it. Now it’s up to you to refine your palate. Soon, not only will you appreciate the descriptive terms of wine aficionados, but you will be well on your way to becoming a confident oenophile yourself.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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