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Knowing the lingo helps when talking wine

One of the most important vehicles in understanding and communicating about wine is terminology.

Wine professionals throughout the industry use common terms to describe what they experience in a glass of wine. Many of these terms can be used interchangeably for different grape varietals and flavor components.

It is important for the industry to have common descriptors so that buyers and sellers of wines can agree upon a certain vintage's attributes.

Let's look at a few of these descriptors:

  • Clean. Used for all wines, regardless of varietal. A "clean" glass of wine displays no microbial action, either in the nose or on the palate. It shows us the varietal of the wine without "dirty" smells or tastes associated with poor vineyard or winemaking practices.
  • Balance. A wine in balance is a wine in harmony in the glass. This is a broad stroke in wine terminology and is a starting point in evaluating a wine. If a wine is not balanced, there is too much or too little of some component, such as oak or alcohol, or the wine might be too thin or lacking in the nose. In the wine business, if we are given a glass of wine that is not balanced, we simply move on.
  • Sweet. Never to be confused with fruity. Sweet wines have residual sugar, generally starting at about 1 percent, and are perceived on the palate as sugary.

At about 2 percent, residual sugar and sweetness becomes very apparent to most of us.

It is common for many wine consumers to confuse fruit flavors with actual sugar. We can have, for example, a very fruity zinfandel that has the bouquet of plum pudding but is dry (opposite of sweet) on the palate. We also can have quite fruity wines that have residual sugar, such as a Riesling.

  • Floral. This might seem silly to have to write, but floral smells are of the flower scents. There are times when this term is used to describe a very effusive bouquet, regardless of which wine we are smelling and tasting. I do not know how this came about, but I am beginning to hear this term used incorrectly in wine tastings. It is, however, the perfect term to describe the nose on many white wines.
  • Tropical. Tropical flavors in the nose and on the palate can be very pronounced or subtle. These flavors enjoy, but are not limited to, mango, pineapple, guava and banana. One can experience these sensations in a variety of white wines but rarely, if ever, in red wines. I just attended a tasting of Monterey whites, and many of the tasters were amazed at the variety of tropical flavors present.
  • Woody. Woody, or oaky, wines display enough oak to be noticed by the taster. Generally, a wine that is made using oak will not be regarded as woody or oaky unless this component stands out in the experience.

Wood used in winemaking should be tempered enough to complement the wine, not drive it. Many times older wines, especially those that have aged too long, will display high wood tones because the fruit has faded away. I found this to be true not long ago when I tasted some very old Bordeaux from a collection.

Round. A round wine has lost any angles, tartness or astringency or was made in a round style to begin with.

Sometimes "soft" is used to describe this flavor component, but I think round is a stylistic approach meaning unctuous and full.

Round wines can have silky overtones without a hint of roughness in them. Many times round wines come from warmer climes and can display soft acids much like Macabeo, the ubiquitous white wine from Spain.

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