How do you feel when reading wine description charts or listening to sommeliers’ recommendations? Perhaps you think that there is some special language spoken about wine. 

But here is the good news: wine vocabulary isn’t rocket science! So, to help you navigate the wine world, we will share the 5 most essential wine descriptions and wine-tasting terms.

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Why dive into wine descriptions and terms?

Before we get into the basic wine terminology and definitions, let’s consider why you need to understand them.

First, familiarity with the wine language will help you understand what the wine labels say about the drink. Understanding wine words and meanings will help you determine whether you like this wine and whether a bottle is worth buying. In addition, you won’t have trouble describing your preferences to a wine pro at a wine merchant location.

Second, armed with white and red wine descriptions, you will feel comfortable discussing the wine you’ve tasted and their properties with fellow wine enthusiasts. At world-class events, wine topics can even help overcome the language barrier.

Third, understanding wine characteristics will help you find your favorite varieties without even tasting them. Understanding the basic wine-tasting terms and descriptions will transform yourexperience. You will focus on your sensations, trying to articulate them into the wine vocabulary. With that knowledge, it will be easier for you to stock your favorite wine selection.

The 5 most common wine characteristics and terms to be aware of

Ready to start mastering the glossary of wine? Let’s dive into the list of the five most important wine terms.

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Acidity

We’ll start our wine terms overview with acidity — one of the core traits in wines. It’s the acidity that gives a drink its tart taste. But where does acidity come from?

Acidity is a natural property of grapes, thanks to which red wine excites the appetite while white and sparkling wines are refreshing. Primarily, the climate and soil in the vineyard influence the acidity level. For example, cooler temperatures often produce higher-acid grapes because of lower exposure to sunshine, which raises pH levels and sugar content. Potassium-rich soil, in turn, helps neutralize acidity and increase pH levels. 

In addition, winemakers can sometimes manipulate the acid profile of wine by adding extra acidity during the fermentation process. Along with that, a secondary fermentation like malolactic fermentation allows to replace tartness of malic acid with a smoother sensation. Experienced wine lovers often describe wines that have gone through malolactic fermentation as creamy and buttery.

Higher acidity gives the wine a sharp taste, while its lack makes it weak and sluggish. 

To measure the strength of acids in wine, experts use the pH scale marked from 0 to 14. Low pH levels indicate high acidity with this scale, while high pH levels mean low acidity. In most wines, pH levels are somewhere between 2.5 to about 4.5, while 7 is neutral. For red wines, the average pH levels are between 3.5 and 3.8, while for white wines, they are between 3.1 and 3.4.

But there is an easier way to determine your wine’s acidity. After sipping a wine, estimate the duration of its tart aftertaste: 

  • If it fades away in less than 15 seconds, you are dealing with a low-acid wine
  • If it lasts for 15-30 seconds, then a medium-acid wine is in front of you 
  • If it lasts for more than 30 seconds, then you are tasting a high-acid wine 

By keeping these sensations in your memory, you will be able to recognize wines with higher and lower acidity levels.

Now, let’s take a closer look at different wines regarding their acidity.

Low-acid wines

As a rule, a low-acid red is a wine produced in a warm climate. With greater exposure to sunshine, grapes in these regions ripen more fully than grapes growing in cooler temperatures. 

Less-acidic reds often have blue and purple hues. Sometimes, they may have a brown color because of their proneness to oxidation which develops quicker with higher pH levels.

Examples of low-acid wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Malbec, and Zinfandel.

High-acid wines

Due to pH levels below 3.4, high-acid reds usually have a bright ruby hue. In addition, high-acid wines taste tart on the palate; the standard terms to describe them are bright, crisp, and refreshing. High-acid white wines are California  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. High-acid reds are Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, and Grenache.

Are high-acid wines food-friendly? With the right food pairings, they are. The good idea is to balance acidity with cheese having a salty and creamy taste and texture, light low-acid salads, or pasta with a béchamel sauce.

Aging

Surely you have noticed that wine boutique consultants often draw your attention to aged wines. As they usually cost more, reasonable questions arise: 

  • What does aging do to wines? 
  • Are old wines better than young wines?
  • Does aging affect the taste of the drink?

Aimed to improve the wine quality, aging harmonizes and stabilizes the wine, making its aroma more diverse and the taste — more complex and balanced. A “mature wine” is a term to describe wines aged to their optimal condition. 

Winemakers age wines in barrels or bottles, which may last several months to decades. The choice of the aging method depends primarily on the desired wine style.

Aging is not an easy process; it is not suitable for every wine. For example, specialists prefer to age red wines rich in tannins. On the other hand, white wines can lose their delicate fruit flavors as they become rich. As a result, it is difficult to strike a balance when working with them, although such wine varieties as California  Chardonnay and Riesling are an exception.

With different red grape varieties, winemakers approach aging differently. For example, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese can be aged for up to 8 years, Merlot — for up to 10 years, and Cabernet Sauvignon — for up to 20 years. At the same time, experts note a significant improvement in taste characteristics in 10% of aged wine after a year of storage and only in 1% after 5-10 years of storage. Other types of wine are often bottled after 6-12 months of aging.

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What processes take place during maturation? The organic acids in the drink are transformed into esters and other substances, affecting the drink’s color and taste. As the level of tannins noticeably decreases, the wine becomes less tart and balanced. Pungent odors disappear while noble aromas of tropical fruits appear. At the same time, it is important not to overage the wine in barrels. If the oak aroma becomes predominant, this may negatively affect the perception of the drink.

If you are looking for wines with good aging potential, consider Cabernet Sauvignon, California Chardonnay, California  Syrah, Merlot, and Sangiovese. 

Alcohol content

The following essential trait of wines is the alcohol content expressed as a percentage of alcohol by volume or ABV. You can see the ABV specified on the wine labels. The alcohol in the wine represents fermented grape sugars consumed by the yeast. As for sugar, it appears in grapes as they ripen. Generally, higher sugar levels mean higher alcohol potential, although not all robust wines are sweet. 

So, what determines the degree of alcohol in this or that bottle? Like acidity, the primary factors are the climate and winemaking process specifics. Warmer climates contribute to higher sugar levels in grapes and, consequently, higher potential alcohol content. Leaving the grapes on the vines for a while after they have ripened may also contribute to higher ABV levels.

Along with natural ways to raise the alcohol content potential of the drink, wine producers sometimes apply fortification.

An average wine glass contains 11-13% alcohol, while a wine bottle may have up to 20% ABV. In mature wines, alcohol content varies from a minimum of 8% to 14.5% ABV, and it is even higher in fortified wine varieties like port.

Low-alcohol wines

Low alcohol is a term to describe wines having an ABV of 12.5% or less. As a rule, these wines are light in the body and often taste sweet because of the residual sugar.

If you are looking for something light-alcohol, consider California sparkling wines or Gamay.

Medium-alcohol wines

Medium-alcohol wines have ABV levels of 12.5%-13.5%. To produce these wines, less-sweet grapes work perfectly. By the way, wine with 10 to 14% ABV level is also referred to as a table wine. Simply put, a table wine is everyday decent quality wine. 

Great examples of medium-alcohol or table wines are Pinot Grigio, California  Chardonnay, California  Sauvignon Blanc, California Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Beaujolais. 

High-alcohol wines

High-alcohol wines are those that have 13.5% and higher ABV levels. When sipping such a wine, you may feel a burning sensation on your palate.

California Riesling, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel are high-alcohol wine varieties deserving your attention.

Tannins

Tannins are a group of plant-derived phenolic compounds with tannic properties found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. These are tannins that give a drink in your glass an astringent taste. When tannins are not too dominant in wine, they can give the drink some spicy character. Red wine varieties are typically more tannic than white ones.

Climate is one of the factors that impact tannins in wine. Grapes growing in warm wine regions usually produce wines with smooth and rounded tannins, while grapes from cooler areas produce wines with more subtle tannins.

In addition, tannins are added to the wine throughout the fermentation process as the grape skins, seeds, and stems soak in the juice.

A fun fact is the presence of tannins in oak. Take California  Chardonnay — a low-tannin grape variety by default. However, after being fermented and aged in oak barrels, it becomes a full-bodied wine with higher tannins than other whites.

What role do the tannins play in the wine? First, they serve as antioxidants and preservatives to protect the wine during production. Second, tannins give the wine a mouthfeel that can be astringent, silky, or velvety. Third, tannins are an essential structural element in wine, along with acidity and alcohol content.

White wines undergo fermentation without skins, so they are much less tannic than red wines. Red varieties, in turn, differ in their tannins content.

If you prefer light tannins, consider reds like Gamay, Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Beaujolais.

Wines with balanced tannins are Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Merlot, and Zinfandel. In addition, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Petite Syrah, Malbec, and Sangiovesemay may be good options for you if you enjoy strong tannins.

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Body

The wine body is the last but not the least wine term we will cover today. It’s one of the top 10 red wine tasting terms you need to know. By the body of the wine, we mean the richness and density of the drink that you can feel on your tongue. The body of the wine is a derivative of alcohol, natural grape sugars, tannins, and acids. The higher the concentration of alcohol, the denser and thicker the drink will seem to you. The sugar content is similar: the higher its level, the thicker the wine tastes. 

What determines the wine body? Many factors are involved: the grape variety, the climate where the grapes grow, the amount of sunlight the vine receives, and the crop’s maturity. Grapes from a warm wine region are more likely to produce full-bodied wines than those growing in cooler climates. Along with these natural factors, aging in oak barrels and left unfermented sugars can contribute to a full-bodied wine profile. 

Now, let’s take a closer look at wine grape varieties in terms of the wine body profile they are likely to produce.

Light-bodied wines

Light-bodied wines are drinks with a light and transparent structure. As a rule, they have low to average alcohol content and lower tannins, which contributes to their smooth and less astringent taste. However, red wines from grape varieties growing in cooler climates may have higher acidity and taste spicy or sharp. 

Light-bodied reds worth trying are Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir. Light-bodied whites include Pinot Grigio, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Medium-bodied wines

Medium-bodied wines with moderate acidity levels and balanced tannins are pretty food-friendly. The production of these wines does not involve long aging in oak barrels. As for alcohol content, it is between 12.5% and 13.5% ABV in medium-bodied wines.

Examples of medium-bodied wines are Burgundy, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Grenache, and Cabernet Franc.

Full-bodied wines

Full-bodied is a wine with more tannins and higher alcohol content (over 13.5%). Full-bodied reds tend to have a dark red, sometimes almost black, color. Oak aging is an additional factor contributing to these wines’ rich taste by adding cedar and vanilla flavors.

Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, and California  Chardonnay are great examples of full-bodied wines.

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Summary

Understanding the essential wine characteristics and tasting terms will help you taste wines like a pro. Knowing what to look for in wines, you won’t have trouble choosing your favorite wine varieties. Besides, you will feel more comfortable at get-togethers with fellow wine lovers.

Once you master the basics we’ve shared in this article, you can dive into a more sophisticated glossary of wine terms from the wine descriptions chart used by wine experts.