How to Describe a Wine’s Taste

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

The tastes of a wine reveal themselves sequentially as the tongue detects them and your brain registers them. We recommend that you follow the natural sequence we describe in the next sections when you try to put words to what you’re tasting.

Sweetness in wine

As soon as you put the wine into your mouth, you can usually notice sweetness or the lack of it. In Winespeak, dry is the opposite of sweet. Classify the wine you’re tasting as either dry, off-dry (in other words, slightly sweet), or sweet.

Is it sweetness or fruitiness? Beginning wine tasters sometimes describe dry wines as sweet because they confuse fruitiness with sweetness. Here’s the difference:

  • A wine is fruity when it has distinct aromas and flavors of fruit. You smell the fruitiness with your nose; in your mouth, you “smell” it through your retronasal passage (see the earlier section “Tasting the smells”).
  • Sweetness, on the other hand, is a tactile impression on your tongue. When in doubt, try holding your nose when you taste the wine; if the wine really is sweet, you’ll be able to taste the sweetness despite the fact that you can’t smell the fruitiness.

Acidity of wine

All wine contains acid (mainly tartaric acid, which exists in grapes), but some wines are more acidic than others. Acidity is a key taste factor in white wines more than in reds. For white wines, acidity is the backbone of the wine’s taste (it gives the wine firmness in your mouth). White wines with a high amount of acidity feel crisp, and those without enough acidity feel flabby.

You generally perceive acidity in the middle of your mouth — what wine-tasters call the mid-palate. How much you salivate after tasting a wine can be a clue to its acidity level, because high acidity triggers saliva production. You can also sense the consequences of acidity (or the lack of it) in the overall style of the wine — whether it’s a tart little number or a soft and generous sort, for example. Classify the wine you’re tasting as crisp, soft, or Pillsbury Doughboy.

Softness and firmness are actually textural impressions a wine gives you as you taste it. Just as your mouth feels temperature in a liquid, it also feels texture. Some wines literally feel soft and smooth as they move through your mouth, while others feel hard, rough, edgy, or coarse. In white wines, acid is usually responsible for impressions of hardness or firmness (or crispness); in red wines, tannin is usually responsible. Low levels of either substance can make a wine feel pleasantly soft — or too soft, depending on the wine and your taste preferences. Unfermented sugar also contributes to an impression of softness, and alcohol can, too. But very high alcohol — which is fairly common in wines these days — can give a wine an edge of hardness. Initially, it’s enough to notice a wine’s texture, without figuring out what factor is creating that sensation.

Tannin in wine

Tannin is a substance that exists naturally in the skins, seeds (or pips), and stems of grapes. Because red wines are fermented with their grape skins and pips, and because red grape varieties are generally higher in tannin than white varieties, tannin levels are far higher in red wines than in white wines. Aging wine in new oak barrels can also contribute tannin to wines, both reds and whites.

Have you ever taken a sip of a red wine and rapidly experienced a drying-out feeling in your mouth, as if something had blotted up all your saliva? That’s tannin.

To generalize a bit, tannin is to a red wine what acidity is to a white: a backbone. Tannins alone can taste bitter, but some wine tannins are less bitter than others. Also, other elements of the wine, such as sweetness, can mask the perception of bitterness. You sense tannin — as bitterness or as firmness or richness of texture — mainly in the rear of your mouth, on the inside of your cheeks, and on your gums. Depending on the amount and nature of its tannin, you can describe a red wine as astringent, firm, or soft.

Is it acid or tannin? Red wines have acid as well as tannin, and distinguishing between the two as you taste a wine can be a real challenge. When you’re not sure whether you’re perceiving mainly tannin or acid, pay attention to how your mouth feels after you swallow the wine. Acid makes you salivate (saliva is alkaline, and it flows to neutralize the acid). Tannin leaves your mouth dry.

A wine’s body

A wine’s body is an impression you get from the whole of the wine — not a basic taste that registers on your tongue. It’s the impression of the weight and size of the wine in your mouth, which is usually attributable mainly to a wine’s alcohol. We say impression because, obviously, one ounce of any wine will occupy exactly the same space in your mouth and weigh the same as one ounce of any other wine. But some wines seem fuller, bigger, or heavier in the mouth than others. Think about the wine’s fullness and weight as you taste it. Imagine that your tongue is a tiny scale and judge how much the wine is weighing it down. Classify the wine as light-bodied, medium-bodied, or full-bodied.

The flavor dimension

Wines have flavors (uh, we mean mouth aromas), but wines don’t come in a specific flavor. Although you may enjoy the suggestion of chocolate in a red wine that you’re tasting, you wouldn’t want to go to a wine store and ask for a chocolaty wine, unless you don’t mind the idea of people holding their hands over their mouths and trying not to laugh at you.

Instead, you should refer to families of flavors in wine. You have your fruity wines (the ones that make you think of all sorts of fruit when you smell them or taste them), your earthy wines (these flavors make you think of minerals and rocks, walks in the forest, turning the earth in your garden, dry leaves, and so on), your spicy wines (cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, or Indian spices, for example), your herbal wines (mint, grass, hay, rosemary, and so on), and so on, and so on. So many flavors exist in wines that we could go on and on (and we often do!), but you get the picture, don’t you? (By the way, chocolate-like flavors would fall into the family of nuts or kernels, along with flavors of coffee and of nuts themselves.)

If you like a wine and want to try another wine that’s similar but different (and it will always be different, we guarantee you), one method is to decide what families of flavors in the wine you like and mention that to the person selling you your next bottle. In Parts 3, 4, and 5, you find wines that fit these specific flavors.

Another aspect of flavor that’s very important to consider is a wine’s flavor intensity — how much flavor the wine has, regardless of what those flavors are. Some wines are as flavorful as a chili cheese dog, while others have flavors as subtle as ungarnished fillet of sole. Flavor intensity is a major factor in pairing wine with food, and it’s also an issue in determining how much a wine appeals to you.