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Vocabulary of wine

Last week we talked about how wine descriptions among experts can range from the poetic to the scientific. This week's column is dedicated to basic vocabulary that anyone can use to describe wine with confidence:

Nose, sometimes referred to as "bouquet." It is interesting to note that "bouquet" was used throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, but "nose" seems to be the preferred term today. Both describe, of course, what is smelled in the glass.

Most of what goes on in a wine — good or bad — can be ascertained in the nose. Smells can range from enchanting tropical notes, earth tones, berry highlights and oak to off-flavors such as sulphur, rot and bad oak treatment that suggest problems. A wine person with an acute sense of smell and an ability to associate smells with what is going on in the wine, either in the cellar or in the glass, is a very valuable asset.

  • Sight. Quite a bit can be gleaned from looking at a glass of wine. Colors and clarity are telltale signs of a wine's age or viability. Examples are premature browning in a young wine or slight, tawny aspects in a well-aged claret. We understand that some wines, such as older sauternes, can have golden hues, whereas new chardonnay should almost never show signs of deep gold.
  • Palate. All varietals have a certain palate feel. Nothing is worse than a "thin" syrah or a "flat" glass of bubbly. Pages can be devoted to what can be perceived on the palate.

I like to divide the palate into three parts: front, middle and back. The front palate is the first receptor where fruit is perceived. How fruity is the wine? This is never to be confused with sweetness. A wine can explode with fruit, such as a well-made merlot, but have zero residual sugar. On the other hand, a very fruity riesling can be sweet or dry. The front palate can distinguish between older, softer fruit and intense, young raspberry and light cherry offerings, for example. It also can recognize the type of fruit, such as tropical or berry or plum. There are some folks who are very, very good at this and can really go deep on front palate tastes.

The middle palate is where weight and grip come into play. The weight on the palate is just that: How heavy is the wine on the palate? Some port and dessert wine can be unctuous and heavy, whereas the lighter pinot gris and Soave can be featherweight wines. Grip is the connector to back palate. How long do the taste sensations hold in there? Here we also can get a sense of wood treatment. Some of this manifests itself in the nose and front palate, but the tactile sense of oak is perceived here. We also get the "chewy" feel of thick juice and wood at this point.

The back palate is where the finish and aftertaste reside. Here is where all perceptions come together as a braid of sorts and give one the final experience of the wine. Long, finish, tailings of aftertastes and the last hint of wood are tasted here. I love this part of the wine experience, as the "afterglow" is felt without interruption and is the part that marries so well with cuisine.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.