Vino Vocab 101

Crush Course

Wines are like people, for good and ill. Think of tasting as discovering the richness (or the dullness) of a new acquaintance. Here are some wine terms to toss around at your next tasting.

August 18, 2009 Published in the September 2009 issue of Portland Monthly

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Acidity Like a wry sense of humor, acidity hits the mouth a little like pain: a sharpness on the tongue or the roof of the mouth, where the hard palate becomes soft. It’s a critical component of any wine, especially whites and low-tannin reds. Too much, and the wine brings on that puckering urge; too little, and it may as well be colored water.

Balance A well-rounded personality in which fruit, acidity, tannins, residual sugar, and alcohol all play together like a well-tuned orchestra, no single element overwhelming the others.

Black Fruit Wine flavors or aromas that hint of black currants, black cherries, blackberries, blueberries, or other dark-skinned fruits.

Cloying Just like the too-happy neighbor: too much residual sugar without enough acidity to offset it.

Complex A good thing: layer after layer of different flavors.

Grip Wines that are acidic (but still balanced) and that have strong tannins and a thickness often described as “texture” are said to have a firm grip.

Hot Means a wine has too much alcohol, which is determined by using the tactile sense of warmth in the mouth.

Intense Concentration of fruit flavors or of tannins or other aspects of flavor give a wine intensity.

Minerality The salt of the earth: mineral notes are derived from a special marriage of place and grape variety. Just the right dose of heat and soil fertility gives the wine a laser focus of flavor called minerality.

Palate Persistence (aka “length”) Just like that other kind of crush, the flavors and aromas of the best wines linger, especially on the back of the palate, rather than disappear when you swallow. A wine with palate persistence is said to be “long”; one without it, “short.”

Quality High-quality wines are well balanced, long, intense, and complex. The more subtle aspects of quality include expression of typicity (the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins), of the vintage, and of the place of origin—also called “terroir.”

Red Fruit Wine flavors or aromas that suggest red fruits such as strawberries, red cherries, and raspberries.

Tannins Compounds found in the skins, stalks, and seeds of grapes and in the oak barrels in which wines are aged, tannins are sensed by astringency on the inside of the cheeks and on the other exposed skin in the mouth. For the most part, only the supple and finely grained tannins found in the skin of the grape are desirable.

Tartness High acidity, usually felt in the form of pain, like biting directly into a tart lemon.

Terroir A French word that refers to all the characteristics of a vineyard that translate into the style and even the quality of a wine. Too much direct sun from a western exposure can produce an unbalanced wine, while moderately fertile vineyards on gentle easterly slopes can produce well-balanced wines with the right amount of acidity, alcohol, and concentration of flavors. 

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