Wine drinking has increased among all ages — with those over 55 making up the largest consumers — but most of us still don’t know how to talk about what we’re imbibing the way experts do.
Don’t feel bad. Only a small percentage of drinkers are truly conversant in winespeak. According to a Wine Market Council survey, about 5 percent of consumers purchase wines over $20 on a regular basis, and these are generally the connoisseurs who know their malolactic acid from Merlot.
- Become “mindful.” Wine importer and author Terry Theise has his students try several different brands of nachos and write down which ones they liked best and why. One may have a “deeper corn flavor,” another will not be “salty enough.” They try to determine which has the taste that lasts the longest. He then tells his class that they “now know everything they need to become a wine taster.” Some take these taste tests too far, however. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, who created the e-commerce site winelibrary.com, is known for eating dirt (to fully taste terroir) and sucking on wet rocks (to identify mineral components).
- Create a small tornado in the glass. Not only does swirling the wine look debonair, it draws oxygen into it, creating vapors to release its aroma. The process of aerating wine, particularly for reds, is also believed to improve the quality. Perhaps that is why some wines taste better as you drink them. (Of course, it may just be that you’ve become too drunk to care.) To swirl the wine, firmly hold the stem of the glass and gently rotate in tiny circles on a flat surface for 10 to 20 seconds. If you’re really serious about this, pause and wait a minute or two and do it again.
- The nose knows. According to Wine for Dummies, experts use the word nose because “smell” and “odor” sound pejorative. The idea is to pick up scents to fully comprehend flavor: 80 percent of taste comes from our olfactory senses, so sticking your nostrils over the glass heightens the experience. Saying wine has a nose of butter or of citrus just means it smells of grapefruits or oranges or butter. The term bouquet is used for the aroma of older aged wines.
- “Wow, look at those legs.” After you have swirled the wine, watch how it drips down the sides. If it moves slowly toward the bottom of the glass in streaks, which are the “legs,” it contains more alcohol. It does not necessarily mean the wine is better quality. Wine with high sugar content also will leave more of a residue. Light bodied wine with low alcohol won’t. The French refer to the legs as “tears.”
- “Great body.” Yes, between “great legs” and “exquisite body,” wine geeks can sound a little like construction workers ogling a scantily-clad babe on a hot day. Full-bodied wine is heavy, but not syrupy. Think of the difference between the texture of cream and water. The more watery, the lighter the body, which doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s a matter of preference. Full-bodied wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, have more alcohol and tannins, which come from the grape skins with which red wines are fermented (white grapes are not aged with their skin). More tannins add a somewhat bitter sensation. Some red wines are made from grapes with relatively thinner skins, such as Pinot Noir. Thinner-skinned red varietals tend to result in wines of a lighter body.
- “Chewy.” That's the word used to describe wine that is heavy on tannins, but not too heavy (which leads to the next term). This type of wine leaves a thick texture in your mouth, as if you need to chew before swallowing. Or as blogger sommelier Madeline Puckette describes: “The sensation of having a piece of raw steak in your mouth that is fleshy.” Not surprisingly, this type of wine is recommended with steak, which helps clear those extra tannins from your palate.
- “It’s a bit flabby.” In the wine world, describing wine as “fat” is a good thing, meaning it is full-bodied with just the right balance of tannins and acid. And fleshy, mentioned above, is also good. But flabby means it has too many tannins and not enough acid. (Tannins also produce a type of acid, but not of the acidic kind. Got that?) I prefer to use the word “voluptuous” over “fat” and “fleshy” only because I don’t like to think of my Cabernet as needing liposuction.
- Take inspiration from the younger generation and get creative with your metaphors. “Wine is like poetry in a bottle,” said Robert Louis Stevenson. Maybe good wine is like poetry, but bad wine is lip synching to karaoke at one in the morning. Still, the idea here is to relax and take a stab at elaborating on what you’re sipping, the way Millennials do. Does it taste like fresh strawberries on a warm summer day? Or smell a bit like toast for tea at Grandma’s?
Know you can’t do worse than these two doozies:
“A long elegant dress, fine pearls and a longing, contemplative, poignant stare.” (From blogger “Winedude” about his latest favorite $90 Blanc de Blancs.)
(MORE: How to Drink More Wine (Smartly and Healthfully))
“Like cashmere in your mouth.” (Someone describing a smooth Amarone Valpolicella. I can’t for the life of me figure out how this is supposed to be inviting.)
For a more comprehensive list of wine terms, I recommend the site WineFolly. Don’t forget: Getting to know what you like, wine-wise, should be fun, playful and delicious.
Annette Foglino is a journalist and author of Spa Journeys for Body, Mind and Soul.
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