Language can be such a funny, old thing. Particularly the English language.

It is the modern language of science, used by the majority of scientists and researchers on the planet to explain phenomena and research into all manner of complicated and erudite subjects. And it is the language of romance, painting in flowery terms the emotions of the human condition and perfected by Keats, Shelley, Shakespeare, even Kerouac.


English is the language of precision, communicating complicated situations, such as airplane traffic control, around the world. And it is the changeable language of youth, using imprecise phrases as “you know, whatever, thing and OMG,” by all of which we may or may not have any idea what the speaker is trying to communicate, but, you know, whatever.


Wine is primarily a sensual experience, and relating an encounter in terms of words can be challenging, particularly to those who have not familiarized themselves with the vocabulary. The same, no doubt, is true of nuclear fission and I hope scientists in that field have spent some time learning the difference between “wow” and “uh-oh.”


There are some generally-accepted wine terms used by drinkers, writers, winemakers, and collectors and there is broad agreement as to what they mean, and what is being described. Before we take a look at those terms, let’s agree that everyone’s palate is different from every other palate. We can generally come up with about the same sensation but there are subtleties that often get in the way. One person’s strawberry may be another’s raspberry.


And that differential of tactile value from person to person is one of the great aspects of wine, no matter at what level you are enjoying it. There are no absolutes. Whatever you perceive in your mouth and on your nose is exactly what you get. Others may see things a bit differently. And no one is wrong. Don’t be intimidated by some pompous wind-bag who insists on telling you what you are getting from a glass of wine. Simply leave the room and take your wine with you.


Wine Terms You Should Know and Use Correctly:


ACIDITY Acids in the wine provide the backbone to the wine, allowing the wine to stand up to, and be compatible with, food. You can usually feel the acidity in a wine at the back of your palate as you swallow the wine. It’s a tight, maybe even tingly, sensation that grips your attention at the jaw. But it is not to be confused with alcohol.


ALCOHOL There are naturally occurring yeast cells on the skins of grapes. And sometimes there are not enough so the winemaker adds some more yeast to the newly-crushed fruit. The job of all yeast is to consume the sugars in the fruit and yield alcohol. Alcohol in young wines is sometimes quite forward, providing a cool, almost menthol feeling at the end of the taste. Sometimes in older wines when the fruit tastes have dried out a bit, the overwhelming flavor of alcohol is quite apparent. This is not a desired condition. Everything in a wine has to be in balance.


BALANCE When a wine is balanced, it’s a symphony for your nose and your palate. No single item about the wine should overwhelm other sensations. The fruit character must work well with the tannins and the acids provide structure. No single sensation is supposed to stick out and impose itself over any other sensation.


DRY The most misunderstood and wrongfully used of any wine term. People new to wine think that “dry” means not sweet. In many instances, that is correct, but not in all cases. Technically, dry means that all of the sugar in the fruit has been converted during the fermentation process to alcohol. But a wine can be on the sweet side, and still be dry. That’s because some of the grapes used to make wine, like Rieslings, are sweet in and of themselves. It’s a character of the DNA of the fruit. So you can have a slightly sweet wine that is dry. Not the norm, but not all that unusual.


AROMA and BOUQUET At the consumer level, these two terms can be interchangeable. An aroma is the smell of the grape itself, what is there before the winemaking process. Aroma in a wine, often used not as a complimentary term, may also contain non-grape characters, like cork or sulfur. Bouquet is what a wine offers your nose from the aspects of grapes. More than 85 percent of what we get from wine is actually bouquet. In wine enjoyment, the nose does the vast majority of the work. Our noses are capable of discerning up to 10,000 different smells (Dogs can discern over a million. Think what great wine judges they would be.). While our mouths can only work within five sensations. The nose knows. Winning by a nose. On the nose. Okay, I’m done. Sorry.


PALATE These are the tactile sensations that occur in the mouth and as we swallow the wine. The mouth by itself really cannot taste all the impressions credited to it. Our palates only provide us with a few items with which to make a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down judgment. The mouth can discern sweet, and that happens right on the tip of the tongue. Then there’s bitter, which is one of the stronger sensations we can determine and it is usually at the back of the tongue, usually covering an equal area to sweet at the front. Then there’s salt, which humans detect on either side of the tongue, and near those areas is sour, also on both sides. However recent research has dispelled the theory that certain areas of the tongue discern different flavors. Now the favored theory is that all areas of the tongue can discern the four tastes, with certain areas having more sensitivity to specific flavors but not exclusively devoted to the singular aspect. A fifth taste/flavor, added only recently, is umami (ooh-ma-me), the ability to define savory sensations. Two other tastes may also be considered as basic as they are not just a combination of the other five. Piquance is the ability to discern spiciness and metallic is just what it seems. Metallic was added to the mix after the introduction of artificial sweeteners.


Are there other terms about which you are curious or confused? Let me know and we’ll explore those together.


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