Tasting Terms for Wine

Distinct from aroma or flavor, taste refers to what you experience on the palate as you sip. This list of terms will help you describe that experience.



Acidity: An essential component of wine providing tang that helps a wine’s flavors linger and provides a counterpoint to a wine’s fruit. Wines with notable acidity are often called crisp, lively or refreshing; however, balance is key—overly acidic wines can impart a sharp or sour impression, while too little acidity can leave a wine seeming soft or “flabby.” Acidity is usually more noticeable in dry whites than reds, although in both styles of wine, the acidity, along with tannin, is an important factor in longevity.

Aftertaste: See finish.

Aggressive: Very strong, often due to the wine’s levels of tannin or acid. Wines that are too aggressive seem harsh.

Astringent: Pucker power. Applies to red wines that are high in both acidity and tannin. A degree of astringency contributes “bite” and can help complement food; too much makes the wine bitter.

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Backbone: Wines with good structure (tannin and acidity) are said to have a backbone.

Balance: Harmony. A wine is balanced when its key components—fruitiness/sweetness, acidity, tannin, and alcohol—are all apparent and in synch. In such a case, no single element dominates or sticks out.

Big: A descriptor for a wine that is high in alcohol, body, and flavor intensity.

Bitter: As much a textural sensation as a taste, a degree of bitterness comes from a wine’s tannin (too much = too bitter). However, wines that seem bitter sipped alone can seem less so when eating.

Body: Heft. Weight on the palate. Usually wines are gauged as full-bodied (akin to the body of whole milk), medium-bodied (think 2% milk) or light-bodied (think nonfat milk). Red wines tend to be fuller-bodied than whites. Fuller-bodied wines are also usually higher in alcohol.

Bouquet: Effectively interchangeable with aroma, but some tasters apply this term to secondary scents that develop as wine ages, as opposed to the fruity, primary aromas of young wine.

Brut: A French term used worldwide to indicate a dry sparkling wine. Sparklers labeled Brut are actually drier than those labeled Extra Dry.

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Clean: Well-made, with no off smells or flavors.

Closed: When a wine’s aroma is surprisingly “tight” and un-giving, it’s closed. The term is likely to be used when comparing several wines of the same type, and one seems decidedly less aromatic than the others. A high-end wine is more likely to be closed, but it can “open up” as it is exposed to air.

Complexity: A complex wine offers interest on multiple levels. The aromas and flavors are plentiful and interesting; the wine’s structural elements (tannin, acidity) are evident and in balance; and there is layering and depth in general. Complexity is one of wine talk’s highest compliments.

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Demi-Sec: Literally “partly dry.” Found on sparkling wines, demi-sec indicates medium sweetness. Demi-Sec is sweeter than Extra Dry and Brut.

Depth: Real substance on the palate. A wine of depth has flavor intensity and/or complexity that lets you discover layers beyond a first impression.

Dry: Dry is not a flavor. Technically dry means that all or most of a wine’s sugar is gone, having been converted during fermentation to alcohol. The vast majority of table wines today are dry, though their degree of fruitiness may make them seem sweet.

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Elegant: Delicate, graceful, subtle?the opposite of big. Elegance is a positive term when applied to a wine that is also balanced. Elegant wines are often said to have finesse (as opposed to power) and refinement; commonly used to describe lighter-bodied French wines.

Extra Dry: A term used to describe sparkling wines that are not as dry as Brut, but not as sweet as Demi-Sec.

Extract: The concentration of fruit in a red wine is called extract, as in the fruit flavors that get extracted from the grape skins during the winemaking process. Over-extracted wines may seem harsh.

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Fat: A textural term for wines that are full-bodied and mouth filling; usually applied to rich whites or dessert wines.

Finish: The final taste left by a wine after you swallow (or spit). Also called aftertaste. Wines can be said to have a short, medium, or long finish; a long, balanced finish is a reliable indicator of quality.

Firm: Noticeably tannic and/or acidic; in a positive way. Firmness in general suggests age-ability, and is usually applied to reds. A wine that is too firm might be called hard.

Flabby: A negative term (unlike fat); flabby wines are soft and lacking acidity; the opposite of firm.

Fleshy: Soft, smooth texture indicating moderate tannins.

Fruit bomb: A cheeky term often applied to very ripe, bold wines of the New World (California in particular); white or red, fruit bombs offer an explosion of fruit.

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Green: Too acidic or herbaceous, possibly deriving from under-ripe fruit or from the stems of grape clusters.

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Hard: Tough with tannins. An extreme form of firm. Hard can also mean extremely high in acidity; either way, it’s not a compliment.

Heady: High in alcohol and/or aromatics.

Hollow: Lacking in mid-palate impression; a sense that little is happening between first taste and finish.

Hot: Negative term for unbalanced, high-alcohol wines that leave a burning sensation.

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Lean: A wine whose palate is shy on fruit is said to be lean. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if the wine’s elements are balanced. The term is used most often for Old World wines, whose grapes generally start off less ripe coming in from the vineyard.

Legs: The drops of wine that slide down the sides of the glass after being swirled. Typical of rich reds and fortified and dessert wines, thick legs are a sign of viscosity and full body, but not necessarily quality.

Length: The amount of time a wine’s flavor lingers after it has been swallowed. Closely related to finish; a long palate impression and finish implies good quality.

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Maderized: Showing signs of excess oxidation, including a brownish color and a strong, fortified, Madeira-like flavor.

Mature: Ready to drink. Usually used to refer to red wines that are expected to evolve over years; the majority of wines are mature when released.

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Off-dry: Slightly sweet. Off-dry wines are usually white and have alcohol between 10-12%. White zinfandel and many light German rieslings are off-dry.

Oxidized: A big no-no. Wines that have been over-exposed to air may seem “tired” and flat (lacking acidity); browning and off flavors are also signs. An extremely oxidized wine will give the impression of vinegar.

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Racy: Descriptor for a white wine with a pleasant amount of zing (due to acidity) that’s in balance with zippy fruit flavors.

Residual sugar: The amount of sugar remaining in a wine after fermentation. Dry wines have little or no residual sugar; dessert wines have a lot.

Robust: Relatively full-bodied and intense; usually refers to a red wine.

Round: Indicating a smooth wine with some depth; red or white.

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Soft: Wines that are low in acid and tannin leave a smooth impression in the mouth.

Spritzy: A pleasant, light sparkling sensation sometimes found in young white wines; not a flaw if the wine tastes fresh.

Stemmy: A green, sometimes astringent character found in wines fermented too long with the grape stems.

Structure: A comprehensive term that relates to a wine’s “framework”, or how a wine is “built.” Encompasses a wine’s non-fruit elements—namely tannin, acidity, body, texture, and length—that work to hold a wine together.

Supple: A complimentary term for wines that are pleasantly textured, as opposed to noticeably tannic or acidic.

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Tannins: The rough stuff. Tannin is a compound, found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. Though tannin is in both red and white grapes, it is only found in red wines because reds are made with extended skin contact, allowing the tannins to become part of the wine’s character. In wine, tannins contribute texture, sometimes to the point of making the wine feel rough and astringent (think strong black tea). Tannin is more potent in big young reds; over time (ten-plus years) tannins tend to soften, making firm wine more palatable.

Texture: Mouth-feel. The way a wine feels in the mouth, based mainly on body, alcohol, tannin, and acidity.

Thin: Lacking body; often used to describe a wine that tastes diluted.

Tired: A wine that lacks freshness or seems past its peak is said to be tired.

Toasty: A toasted- (or smoky or charred) wood character imparted by oak barrels. Also used to describe aromas in champagne reminiscent of toasted bread.

Tough: Astringent or hard.

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Velvety: Silky or lush in texture; a positive trait perhaps most famously found in fine burgundies and pinot noirs.

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Young: Fresh and vibrant. In simple wines, youth is desirable; in finer wines, youth implies immaturity, or at least prospects for further development as the wine ages.

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