Discussing your favorite wines can be as exciting as sharing your impressions of books, movies, or music. However, more than these terms are needed to describe wine’s qualities. If you are a novice wine lover, perhaps you’ve had trouble putting words into your sensations during wine tastings. No worries, as your tasting vocabulary, will expand.

As you dive deeper into the world of wine, you will learn to “hear” wine, distinguish different wine varietals, and share your tasting experience based on what the drink “told” you. A day trip to a wine country and guided tours to wineries and vineyards will undoubtedly broaden your horizons and wine vocabulary.

To help you start your red wine-tasting journey, we’ll look through the basics of the wine-tasting process. Next, we’ll share the top ten wine-tasting terms to help you describe your tasting experiences like a pro.

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Tasting wine vs. drinking wine

First, you must understand that tasting wine is not the same as drinking wine. Why is that? 

The fundamental difference lies in the thinking process and purpose. For example, if you’ve had a rough day and want a glass of wine to help you relax, you will hardly think about the drink’s properties. On the other hand, tasting implies that you fully concentrate on the drink in your glass, its bouquet, taste, flavor, and appearance.

Stages of wine tasting

The wine-tasting process generally involves four stages, in which you evaluate the drink’s appearance, aroma, taste, and aftertaste. To assess these qualities, you will use your vision, olfaction, and taste buds to determine these qualities.

Visual assessment

For visual evaluation, wine tasters often use additional light sources. They estimate the density of color by looking into the middle of the wine glass at 45 degrees. Consider the color dense when seeing something through the liquid is difficult.

Young red wine often has rich shades of dark ruby, purple, garnet, or cherry — the more purple the shade, the younger the wine. Aged wine can be brown or red.

The color will also hint at the grape variety used: for example, Gamay and Pinot Noir are relatively light, while Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec are almost inky.

What about the intensity and transparency of the color in the center of the wine glass and along the rim? The darker center, the thicker skin of the grape used. If the wine is purple, it has gone through an extended maceration. In aged wines, the rim is distinguished by a slight orange tone.

During the tasting, sommeliers also look out for wine “legs,” also known as “wine tears,” — the clear liquid that runs down the inside of the glass as it spins. Wine legs indicate the level of alcohol content in wine. The narrower and more pointed the “legs,” the more robust the wine (or it has a lot of residual sugar). If the wine legs are wide, then the drink has low alcohol content, most likely. Or, its production occurred either in an incredible region or a cold year (or both).

Wine aroma assessment

“Hearing” the aroma of wine is the next step towards understanding it. The aroma can successfully complement the wine taste characteristics and completely cross them out. 

Have you ever wondered why sommeliers spin wine glasses? They do this to activate the vapors, which, in turn, enhances the aroma.

To assess the aromas of wine, hold the stem of the glass, bring the glass closer to your face, and take in the smell. How does it sound?

As a rule, floral and fruity notes are present in the bouquet of young wines. However, spicy tones may be displayed as well. Anything that causes unpleasant associations may indicate deterioration of the wine.

The aroma of old wine is always layered and complex. Unexpected notes of fallen leaves, earth, dressed leather, or mushrooms may appear in the bouquet of aged drinks.

During tastings, you will notice that wine aromas can be simple and light, as well as complex and multi-layered, with different notes replacing each other.

Primary wine aromas come from grape properties and may include fruit, floral, and herbal notes. For white wines, the common primary aromas include citrus and apple, while reds tend to veer toward berries. Secondary aromas come from winemaking techniques and may consist of nut husk, cheese rind, or stale beer. Finally, tertiary aromas are age-derivative and may include tobacco, roasted nuts, cedar, or vanilla.

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Evaluation of the mouthfeel

When the wine is in your mouth, you can distinguish its fruit, vegetable, floral, and spicy flavors. When evaluating the mouthfeel, tasters distribute wine to taste buds, trying to identify the taste they’ve sensed — sweetness, bitterness, astringency, acidity, or softness. 

For example, a metallic wine taste may indicate insufficient acidity, while too much viscosity may indicate an oversaturation of tannin.

In terms of wine body or density. Alcohol, acidity, tannins, and sugar are the key components of the wine body. When you feel like these components form a single and harmonious whole, you are most likely tasting a balanced wine.

If you notice astringency in wine, it’s because of the tannins in red wines. You can distinguish between soft, velvet, velvety, rough, tearing, or heavy wine tastes based on tannin levels.

Experienced wine lovers can also identify the wine texture that can be silky, creamy, rough, or grainy.

Evaluation of the aftertaste

Aftertaste refers to wine’s continued aromatic and gustatory impact and the feeling of balance and harmony after tasting. The aftertaste can be short — 2-3 seconds, medium — 4-7 seconds, and long — 8-15 seconds. The better the wine, the longer the aftertaste.

The disappearance of the taste of wine in the mouth can occur gradually, starting with unstable tasting notes and ending with strong ones.

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10 standard wine-tasting terms to be aware of

Now that you’ve figured out what the wine-tasting process looks like, it’s time to see how you can transform your wine observations and sensations into wine-tasting terms and red wine descriptions. Once you start mastering the wine language, you may notice the transformations in how you taste wine. 

Dense

Dense wines are those that have concentrated aromas on the nose and palate. These wines tend to be higher in tannins and alcohol, and their aromas and flavors are dominated by dark berries and fruits such as blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums. In addition, these wines contain a lot of pigment due to their high anthocyanin content. Density is a good sign in young wines.

You can also recognize dense wines by the length of the aftertaste. Conversely, a full-bodied wine becomes lighter at the end of the tasting.

The traditional representative of dense red wines is Cabernet Sauvignon, with black currant being the primary and easily recognizable aroma in wines from this grape variety. Other examples of dense wines are Syrah, Malbec, and Petite Sirah from California are other examples of dense wines.

Tannic

Tannic wines taste bitter on the front inside and along the side of your tongue, giving your mouth a “dry” feeling. The reason for these tasting sensations is the presence of tannins — polyphenols derived from grape skins, stems, and seeds. Quality tannins balance red wine and give it structure.

The tannins of different grape varieties differ from each other. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Pinot Noir from California’s Napa Valley are famous for their tight and refined tannins. On the other hand, Grenache and Merlot are characterized by oily and delicate tannins when tasting.

Velvety

Velvety is another characteristic revealed due to the presence of tannins in wine. As you roll such wine around on your palate, you may feel the softness in your mouth, and “velvety” is precisely the term to describe this sensation.

Velvety wines have very soft tannins and sometimes a good amount of oak. While tannin content is the key contributor to the velvety texture of the wine, specific winemaking or aging techniques can also add to the velvety traits of less tannic varieties.

Like velvet is a dense material, velvety red wines are often full-bodied. As a result, the mouthfeel of these wines indicates a rich, smooth, and silky texture.

If you are searching for velvety reds, consider Merlot, Grenache, Carmenère, or Chianti.

Balanced

Balanced wines are those in which alcohol, tannins, sugar, and acidity exist in the proper ratio. In a balanced wine, no component stands out above the rest. Well-balanced wines are enjoyable when you take a sip, as they are neither too sweet nor too acid or tannic.

Winemakers achieve balance in the resulting wine through the production techniques they apply. Well-balanced wines also have better aging potential.

Complex

The term “complex” describes wines with different aromas — primary, secondary, and tertiary — that change with every sip or sniff. If the wine you are tasting starts off one way and changes its flavor and aroma in the mid-palate and finish, you most likely have a complex wine in your glass. It’s also common for complex wines to have longer persistence in the mouth. 

Complex wines can surprise you. But, then, when you think you have that wine figured out, a complex wine can surprise you with tasting sensations you have not yet experienced.

The wine’s complexity is blending different grape varieties, barrel fermentation, and other winemaking techniques.

Complex reds from California that deserve your attention are Red Zinfandel with its flavors of black and red fruits, Pinot Noir with cherry, raspberry, mushroom, and soil notes, and Syrah with hints of dark berries, spices, and sometimes meaty notes.

Fruit-forward

As the name suggests, “fruit-forward” is a term to describe wines in which fruit flavors prevail. Winemakers can achieve a fruit-forward profile of the resulting wine in various ways, such as deciding when to pick the grapes or how to store the wine while aging.

Examples of fruit-forward reds from California include Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Beaujolais Nouveau, and Grenache. A great example of fruit-forward whites is CA Chardonnay, with apple, pineapple, and starfruit notes.

Herbaceous 

Herbaceous wines have the taste and aroma of herbs like basil, oregano, or rosemary. The presence of pronounced shades of spices in the wine may indicate its maturity or production in hot wine-growing regions.

When tasting certain Sauvignon Blanc varieties, you may notice they have grassy flavors. In addition, some Cabernets may have green pepper flavor.

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Oaky

Wines aged in oak barrels have a characteristic aroma that radically changes the taste and sensations of drinking wine. All this is due to the so-called “oak barrel effect.” Some oak barrels even give the wine aroma a slightly “smoky” taste through the process of heating the wood at the time of the creation of the barrel. In addition, oak barrels contribute to the gradual and slow penetration of oxygen into the wine, making it a smoother and more astringent product.

Red wines and white wines can spend time in oak, but red wines generally spend more time in oak than white wines.

If you’d like to taste oaky reds, consider Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, or Merlot.

Spicy

When tasting a spicy wine, you may feel a piquant or warming sensation. Red spiced wines have noticeable tasting notes of spices like pepper, spice, or ginger in their taste and aroma. These wines don’t contain any flavorings or spices, though.

Spicy aromas in wine may come from compounds like rotundone. This chemical found in grape skins gives wines like Syrah their peppery notes. Red Zinfandel from the Napa Valley is one more red variety with spicy notes.

Savory

Contrary to fruit-forward wines, the taste profile of savory wines isn’t built around fruity flavors. Instead, these wines may display flavors and aromas of herbs, olives, tobacco, mushrooms, or spices like coriander or pepper.

Savory wines make excellent pairings with different types of food. For example, Cabernet Franc’s pepper and tomato flavors complement Italian dishes perfectly. Likewise, herbaceous and spicy notes of Cabernet Franc accompanied by light tannins pair well with grilled sausages and food in tomato sauce. 

Final notes

If you want to master the science of red wine tasting, it’s well within your reach. Through regular practice, you will learn to hear the wine and express your sensations in the language of wine. Check our wine descriptions chart article if you want to dive deeper into the wine words and their meanings.

Armed with the wine-tasting terms, we’ve shared today. You won’t have trouble describing your preferences to a wine shop pro. And if you happen to visit wine tastings, you will feel much more confident. Perhaps, after gaining some wine-tasting experience, you will want to test yourself in a blind tasting.