When the overweight, red-nosed wine blowhards begin flaunting fancy words, I duck out of the conversation before the bullshit hits the fan. Now, with the huge popularity of the movie Sideways, these cocky connoisseurs are crawling out of every cellar, anxious for an opportune moment to release their jargon-laden rhetoric. My favorite beverage is so steeped in descriptors … can’t we just drink it?
But let’s face it: the wine geeks won’t stop blathering any time soon. So, even though all I really want is for you to run out and drink some wine, here’s my attempt to share the language so you too can become fluent.
Acidity: A substance in grape juice that makes you pucker when you sip, like eating a lemon. Acidity comes from the skins.
Aging: Aging mellows tannins (see “Tannins”). Although 90-95 percent of all wine should be consumed within one year after it’s bottled, the remaining big boys – Bordeaux and Burgundy, Spanish and Italian reds, and some California Cabernet Sauvignons – need to be left alone in the bottle to chill out.
Balance: When everything in a wine comes together perfectly. The acids aren’t too strong and the astringent tannins don’t kick you in the teeth.
Big: Mostly a word for red wines, meaning lots of beefy flavor and alcohol. Big wines normally need to age before most people would want to come near them.
Body: Wine is normally described as light-, medium- and heavy-bodied, indicating how heavy the wine feels in your mouth. Kevin Zraly, famed wine educator, invented a way to teach people about “body.” Think of it as different grades of milk. Light-bodied wines imitate skim milk in the mouth; medium-bodied wines are like whole milk; and full-bodied equals heavy cream.
Complex: Complex wine has a lot of personality, and its flavor holds on through the entire sip – from the first taste of fruit to a long-lasting finish (see “Finish”).
Crisp: Sharp acidity in a wine. Normally a compliment for whites.
Dry: Not sweet. Dry wines have most of the sugar fermented out of them so there’s no sense of sweetness on the tongue.
Finish: Refers to the flavor lingering in your mouth after you take a sip. “A long finish” means this flavor lasts a few seconds or more.
Nose: The aroma of a wine. To really “get” the nose, stick your own nose all the way into the glass and breathe deeply.
Oaky: The wood taste imparted by the oak barrels or oak chips used during fermentation or aging.
Palate: The flat part of the tongue. Sometimes broken into “front, mid and back” terms.
Structure: The architecture of a wine: the smell, the feel in your mouth, the tannins, acidity and fruit. “Good structure” is a fabulous compliment for a wine.
Tannin: The drying substance found in the seeds and skins of the grape, mostly in red wines. You can feel tannins as they suck the moisture from your mouth, just like strong-brewed tea. Tannins also enable wine to age.
Tight: Refers to a red wine’s reluctance to be friendly or fruity when you first pour it in the glass. A young wine high in tannins might be “tight” before it gets mixed with oxygen – achieved by swirling. Oxygen helps release its flavors and relax its aroma and flavor.
Paraiso 2002 Riesling Santa Lucia (CA) Deliciously sinful with loads of fruit, like peach, kiwi, greenly cut green apple, and apricot. Great for those seeking a sweeter wine. Sweetness = 4. $14.
Morgan 2002 Twelve Clones Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands (CA) Bright, fun cherry with firm acids and an earthy finish. Drink it with a mushroom-laden stew. Mmmm. Sw = 1. $22.