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Vocabulary for tasting wine

The topic of wine is vast and ever changing. There are volumes written about wine and with each harvest a new chapter is added to its history. Fortunately for the novice wine drinker, describing the wine in their glass is a relatively simple task. They don't need to know the details or history in order to describe it effectively. It is all about flavor with a few words that portray the experience.

From the moment the wine tumbles into our glass we are affected by its presence. The color, the weight, and the smell, all of these things suggest something about the wine. A deep color of violet in your glass tells you that the grapes basked in the sun. Golden color in a white wine alludes to oak aging. Shades of garnet that deepen from the rim of your tilted glass indicate years of aging. Each variety has its own unique color.

If you roll the wine around in your glass long enough you'll get legs. The long tears that roll down the side of your glass are a sign of high alcohol. When the legs contain color the wine was made with warm weather grapes. Big colorful legs are a sign of body and high alcohol.

The smell of the wine is called the nose or bouquet. Swirl the wine in your glass to send a few molecules airborne and you'll get an olfactory delight. In fact the sense of smell is far more acute than the sense of taste. It is the nose that allows us to perceive many flavors when we eat. Some grapes, like viognier, cabernet franc, and riesling are known for their aromatic qualities. Some wines are so fragrant that you'll hesitate drinking them.

Rather than gulp your wine, give your tongue a chance to decipher what you're tasting. The tongue detects five different flavors, including sweet, sour, and bitter. When you swish the wine around in your mouth you allow your tongue to measure the acidity, tannins, and sugar in the wine. Sugar or sweetness is detected on the tip of the tongue. A wine is not sweet unless you feel a tingle on the tip of the tongue. If a wine tastes sweet, but does not create this sensation then it is considered fruity or fruit forward, not sweet, because it does not contain sugar. Most wine is fermented completely dry these days. If sugar remains after fermentation the wine is said to have residual sugar.

Acidity is another aspect of wine that is perceived on the tongue. Acidity makes your mouth water. Wines with high acidity work well with food. There is an inverse relationship between acidity and sugar as grapes ripen. Acidity wanes as sugar levels rise. It is the sugar that will later become fruit flavors. When grapes experience a long growing season with warm days and cool nights, what we call long hang time, acid and fruitiness can co-exist.

Tannins are astringents that make your mouth feel rough, like eating walnuts. Tannic acid comes from new oak barrels, stems, seeds, and skins. It is this astringent that allows wine to be aged. Young wines can be very tannic, but with time their tannins will mellow. The longer a winemaker allows their grapes to sit on their skins after they are crushed, the more flavor, color, and tannins will be imparted. When grapes enjoy a long hang time their tannins are said to be mature. Mature tannins taste sultry, rather than astringent. Some varieties are very tannic, like petite sirah or cabernet sauvignon, while others are not so, such as gamay or grenache.

Distinct fruit flavors, flavors of minerals, flowers, soil, vegetables, and spices can evolve in the mouth while the wine is present. Sensations in the mouth have three stages, the front or fore-palate, mid-palate, and finish. Fruit forward wines explode on the front of the palate, while complexity and layered flavors show themselves on the mid-palate. A wine's finish can reflect more of the same flavors or offer something completely different. A wine that lingers on and on in the mouth after it has been consumed is said to have a long finish.

When you define acid, fruit, and tannins, you identify a wine's structure. Every wine has its own unique structure, made by nature and refined by the winemaker. From the serious collector to the casual drinker, comprehending the flavor components of wine allows us to distinguish our preferences and understand the different styles available.

Articles are property of Brenda Francis and are not to be reproduced in any way without written consent from Brenda Francis.