Jargon 101: A wine-geek primer

When wine blowhards start flying fancy words, I try to duck before the bullshit hits the wall. Now, with wine’s popularity at a post-Prohibition high, these cocky connoisseurs are crawling out of every cellar, jonesin’ for an opportune moment to spew their jargon. Unfortunately, my favorite beverage gets drowned in descriptors, and I confess I chatter as much as they do. But fear not — you, too, can flaunt fancy. To induct you into the We Unkappa Geek fraternity, here’s a brief translation of key terms.

Acidity (noun): The aspect of a wine that makes you pucker when you sip it, like eating a lemon. Acidity originates in the grape skins.

Age (verb): Aging mellows tannins (see "tannins"). Although 95 percent of wines should be consumed within a year of their release, some brawny bottles — Bordeaux and Burgundy, Spanish and Italian reds, and some California Cabernet Sauvignons — will improve with some downtime.

Balance (noun): 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 (adjective): Mostly a word for red wines, meaning lots of beefy flavor, tannins and alcohol. Big wines normally need to age before drinking.

Body (noun): Wine is normally described as light-, medium- and heavy-bodied, indicating how the wine feels in your mouth. Kevin Zraly, famed wine educator, defined body with different grades of milk: light-bodied wines feel like skim milk in the mouth; medium-bodied wines are like whole milk; and full-bodied equals heavy cream.

Breathe (verb): The process of incorporating oxygen to allow the wine’s flavors to flourish and its aromas to unwind. Three methods: Pour the wine into a wide-mouthed glass and swirl, let it sit in the glass for 30 minutes, or decant the whole bottle (see "decant"). Note: Simply opening the bottle does essentially nothing for the wine.

Complex (adjective): Complex wine is loaded with personality, and its flavor clings on through the entire sip — from the first taste of fruit to a long-lasting finish (see "finish").

Crisp (adjective): Sharp acidity in a wine. Normally a compliment for whites.

Decant (verb): To pour wine into another vessel to aerate the wine.

Dry (adjective): Not sweet. Dry wines have most of the sugar fermented out of them, so there’s no sense of Sweetness on the tongue.

Finish (noun): 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.

Fruity (adjective): This does not indicate Sweetness — it’s a sense of fruit on the tongue.

Nose (noun): The aroma. To really "get" the nose, stick your honker down into the glass and breathe deeply.

Oaky (adjective): The wood taste imparted by the oak barrels or oak chips used during fermentation or aging.

Palate (noun): The flat part of the tongue. Sometimes broken into "front, mid and back" terms.

Structure (noun): The architecture: the smell, the feel in your mouth, the tannins, acidity and fruit. "Good structure" is a fabulous compliment to a wine — not just a woman.

Tannin (noun): The drying substance imparted from the seeds and skins of the grape, mostly in red wines but also in rosé. Like strong-brewed tea, you can feel tannins sucking the moisture from your mouth.

Tight (adjective): Refers to a red wine’s reluctance to be friendly or fruity when you first pour it into the glass. A young wine high in tannins might be "tight" before it breathes a bit.


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