Decoding Winespeak

Understanding common wine terms can help you remember which wines you like best.

By Karen MacNeil

In the wine classes I teach at the Culinary Institute of America, I hear all kinds of wine descriptions. One of my favorites is of a Pinot Noir that a student described favorably as having the aroma of "puppy's breath."

This just shows how subjective describing wines can be. Still, there is a core group of wine terms that nearly all professionals use. These words not only help us understand a wine, but they also help us remember it.

Here's a glossary every wine lover should know:

1. BODY
Body is the weight of the wine on your palate. The best way to figure out a wine's body is to compare it to different types of milk. A light-bodied wine will feel about as weighty as skim milk in your mouth, a medium-bodied wine will feel more like whole milk, and a full-bodied wine will feel similar to half-and-half.

2. CRISP
Sassy. Mouthwatering. Refreshing. Snappy. Zingy. These are just a few ways to describe a wine that's crisp. Wine's crispness comes from acidity, since acids are natural components of grapes. However, some grape varieties (such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris) are inherently high in acidity, while others (like Chardonnay and Zinfandel) are low. Climate, too, is critical―the cooler the climate, the more acidity in the wine and the crisper it will be.

3. FINISH
While most of us pay attention to that first burst of a wine's flavor, wine pros spend as much time savoring the last sensation. The reason: The longer a wine's flavor lasts in your mouth (called its finish), the better the wine. The way to discern a wine's finish is by retronasal breathing (it sounds more complicated than it is). To do this, take a sip, hold the wine in your mouth, swirl it around, and swallow, keeping your mouth closed. With your mouth still closed, breathe out forcefully through your nose. Notice the sensation. If the wine has a long finish, you'll still be able to taste and smell it. If the finish is short, you'll notice very little, if any, flavor.

4. LEGS
When you swirl wine in a glass, legs are the rivulets of wine that coat the inner surface of the glass above the wine, then run slowly back down. Myth has it that the wider the legs, the better the wine. This is not true. The width of legs is determined by a number of factors, including alcohol content, the amount of glycerol, and the evaporation rate of the alcohol. The most important point to remember is this: Legs have nothing to do with the quality of a wine.

5. NOSE, AROMA and BOUQUET
While the word nose can be used as a synonym for aroma or bouquet, those two terms are, technically speaking, different. Aroma is the correct term for the scents that are associated with a young wine. A young red wine, for example, might have the aroma of cherries. Bouquet describes the more complex aromatic compounds that evolve after a wine has been aged for a considerable period of time. In an older red wine, that simple cherry aroma will disappear, and a multitude of smells will take its place. Rieslings possess some of the most gorgeous noses in the world.

6. TANNIN
Tannin is extracted from grape skins during fermentation. A natural preservative, tannin can feel astringent if the grapes were harvested too early. But when grapes are allowed to hang on the vine until they have fully matured, tannin gives wine a sense of structure. Some grape varieties naturally have more tannin than others. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, for example, have a lot, while Pinot Noir has little. And here's a good tip: If wine seems to have a lot of tannin, serve it with a filet or a creamy, soft cheese. The fat in meat and dairy products coats the palate, which makes a tannic wine seem surprisingly velvety.

Wine expert Karen MacNeil is chair of the wine programs at the Culinary Institute of America in California's Napa Valley.