Jargon Buster 1

I can already tell that some of the jargon inherent in wine writing might take its toll on some readers relatively new to the subject. It took me a while to get to grips with what people were talking about when they talk about wine so I thought I’d start a guide of sorts to what some of the terms mean.

Some criticism has been leveled at wine writers for, well, attempting to write bad poetry when they should be describing a wine! There is a certain lyricism to be found when describing some of the elusive properties of taste, of aroma, of sensation; and a lot of the time the sensuality of a truly-enjoyed wine cannot accurately be put into words. However, some writers take this too far and the agglomeration of adjectives becomes confusing rather than clarifying. I won’t go so much into these descriptive terms here, and leave these for another time, rather focusing on some semi-technical terms.

Coming to look at the wine in the glass, fortunately there’s not a lot of jargon. White wines may have evidence of spritz – bubbles of CO2 just under the surface of the wine. Red wines may have sediment (solid residue) in the glass. Otherwise one can talk about the colour in fairly familiar terms. It is also noteworthy that when you tilt the glass to at least a 45° angle, you may see a difference in colour, or depth of colour, between the central ‘body’ of the wine, known as the core, and the edge of the liquid (the rim). A gradient of colour can also run between the two.

The aroma produced by the wine in the glass is often referred to as the nose. A ‘nose’ can be complex, simple, nuanced, subtle, overt, etc. It can be ‘driven’ or ‘dominated’ by one particular aroma, or set of aromas. This is more commonly applied to fruit, where fruit-driven would mean the aromas are more reminiscent of fruit (blackcurrants, apples, mangoes, etc) as opposed to anything else (such as flowers, vegetables, honey, chemicals, etc). Vegetal is an adjective to describe ‘vegetable-like’. Herbaceous and floral are other generic qualifiers for what a wine can smell like. Obviously, within these broad terms there are more subtle and evocative descriptions that may be used. These will the focus of subsequent posts.

The jargon level starts to rise when it comes to describing the wine as you drink it. The word ‘palate‘ is used to stand in for the sensations of taste, the recognition of acidity, sweetness or the lack thereof, the physical weight and ‘texture’ of the liquid (referred to as the body of the wine), and, for red wines, the presence (or not) of tannins. Tannins are chemicals present in the grape skin and stalks that taste bitter in high concentrations and induce a ‘drying’ sensation as they interact with the skin of the tongue and cheeks.

These qualities again have their own vocabulary, for instance, palates can be ‘balanced’, or ‘full’, or ‘flabby’. We can have a ‘cloying sweetness’, a ‘crisp acidity’, an ‘oily texture’, a ‘full body’ and ‘drying tannins’. I’ll leave a lot of this to a subsequent Jargon Buster post.

After we swallow the wine, residual vapours continue to stimulate our olfactory, and to a lesser extent, taste sensors. This experience is known as the finish. A finish can be long, short, pleasant, bitter, sharp, reminiscent of fruit, or honey, or of any other particular flavour.

Over future posts I’ll take each of these broader categories and introduce some more terms into a glossary for each of them.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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