The world of wine tasting comes with its own language, and for good reason: when you’re describing something as subjective as taste, you need to have clear vocabulary to describe texture, flavor, and appearance. Today, we wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of wine-speak, clarifying what we mean when we say a wine has “medium body,” “high structure,” and other terms.
Tannins & Structure
Tannins are a bitter, astringent chemical compound found in countless plants around the world. Biologists theorize that plants create these sour/acidic compounds to deter animals from eating them, but as a matter of fact, tannins are found in several of our most popular foods. When balanced well, tannins are part of what make tea, coffee, and dark chocolate delicious.
Tannins in wine come from grape seeds, stems, and skin, as well as from the oak barrels wine is aged in. Tannins affect a wine’s taste and texture, so when someone says their wine has a lot of “tannins,” they’re referring to flavor and body (more on that later).
When a wine has a lot of tannin, it is said to be “structured.” So if you see a wine described as structured, you can translate that as slightly bitter and “full-bodied.” As we noted in our blog on aging wine, tannins have a preservative quality and are what allow a wine to age and develop over time.
Wines are sometimes described as light-, medium-, or full-bodied. Body refers to how a wine feels, specifically as it coats your mouth. A useful way to compare “body” is to consider the difference between drinking water and drinking whole milk. If you’ve had whole milk, then you know how milk can coat your mouth for a few seconds after every sip.
Wine that is light-bodied has a thinner, less viscous texture. Wine that is full-bodied (usually one high in tannins) coats the mouth and can feel, in a sense, “thicker.” Medium-bodied is usually only applied to light red wines, which are sometimes called “food wines.”
Dry vs. Sweet
As wine ferments, the sugars in the juices and pulp of the grapes process into alcohol. The longer a wine ferments, the more alcoholic it becomes and the less sugar it contains. Once a wine is bottled, its residual sugar determines whether it is “dry” (0-1 gram of sugar per glass) or “sweet” (3-28 grams of sugar). Wines between “dry” and “sweet” are sometimes described as “off dry.”
Put simply, a dry wine is a wine that has very little sugar. 99% of wines are dry and the range from vegetal to fruity. It's important to remember that just because a wine is fruity, does not mean it is sweet. Fruitiness has more to do with the varietal.
Fruit Forward vs. Savory
When someone describes a wine as “fruit forward,” what they’re describing is how much a wine is dominated by ripe fruit flavors. Note that this doesn’t mean the wine itself is sweet. Any wine, dry or sweet, light- or full-bodied, can be described as fruit forward. It means the aroma contains the smell of ripe fruits.
If you’re drinking a fruit forward wine, you are looking for ripe, rich fruit flavors that can run the gamut between blueberries all the way to stewed plums. The exact fruits you get will be determined by the varietal.
When someone describes a wine as “savory,” on the other hand, they mean a wine that is the opposite of fruit forward. If you’re drinking savory red wine, try to spot flavors like tart fruits, peppercorn, herbs, tobacco, or wood. For white wines, look for almond, sour apple, grapefruit, pith, lime, or “mineral” flavors. The specific flavors you’ll find will depend on the varietal.
Good wines are often defined by their finish—those final few seconds of lingering flavor that the wine leaves on your palate. The finish is usually categorized into three kinds: short, medium, and long. A short finish is usually a sign of a poorly made or cheap wine, where the best wines in the world are known for their long, extended finishes. How long the finish lasts is an indicator of quality.
There you have it! With these terms, you’ll have the vocabulary to describe your wines like a professional, allowing you to keep track of the wine traits you like, the ones you don’t, and what wines are worth ordering on your next night out.