Studies have shown that more complex descriptions of red and white wine actually make those wines taste better. Intuitively, this makes sense. If you have more vocabulary to describe what you're tasting, your brain is better able to discern subtler flavours.
Tongue, meet tannins
Tannins are a naturally occurring substance in grapes and other fruits and plants. The taste of tannin is frequently described as bitter, causing a dry and puckery feeling in the mouth.
Tannins end up in wine when the grape skins are allowed to sit in the grape juice as it ferments. This is also how wines get their colour.
Wines that have little or no skin contact end up pink or white, with far less tannins.
Wines that ferment with the skins for a longer period become red and have high tannin content. As you would imagine, red grape skins have more tannins than white grape skins.
(Trivia: you can get a white wine from a red grape by removing the skins from the juice immediately. All the colour comes from the skins – even red grapes are white inside.)
Tannin provides the backbone of red wine, which is why you might say a red wine as “firm” or “leathery” or plain “bitter.”
Tannin also gives red wine texture, which you may describe as “smooth” and “soft” or “rough” and “chewy.”
Katnook Estate Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon features assertive fine-grained tannins.
Generally, the darker the wine, the higher the tannin and the “bolder” the taste.
White wine has less tannin and is more acidic.
How to describe the taste of wine
Taste is highly subjective and trying to find common ground when talking about wine seems ill-fated from the start.
But in spite of the glut of snobbish and bizarre descriptions for wine that you will come across, there are a few terms that mean pretty much the same thing to everyone.
The four key wine descriptors
Needs no explanation. The opposite of sweet is dry. A wine can also be medium-dry or off-dry (i.e., just a hint of sweetness, but almost too faint to move the needle).
We already talked about this. Acidity is a big deal for white wines. It makes them refreshing and crisp, or “sour” if it's overdone.
The crisp acidity of Ken Forrester Petit Chardonnay ensures a long-lasting zesty lime and floral finish.
Another one we’ve already covered. It’s all about the tannins for red wine. High tannin wines are astringent, perhaps even bitter and inky. Lower tannin wines are smooth and soft, and generally more drinkable.
Chateau de Marsau boasts of silky tannins.
Body refers to the perceived “weight” and viscosity of the wine. A full-bodied wine feels thick, coating the sides of the glass as you swirl while a light-bodied wine is almost like water. A medium-bodied wine is in-between.
Prelude de Marsau has a seductive and full-bodied bouquet.
There's a fifth thing to be aware of when describing wine—flavour. Unlike the four key descriptors, flavour encompasses every descriptor under the sun and is far more subjective.
If you’re not sure, don’t bother delving into descriptors like graphite, barnyard, and other flavours you’ve (hopefully) never tasted. Instead, stick to the most relatable flavours like fruity, earthy, spicy, smoky, or flowery.
In the wine world, you’ll inevitably hear a lot about “oak” or “oakiness”.
Oak flavour infuses wine when it is either fermented or aged in oak barrels. If you’re a whisky drinker, you already know how much of a big deal oak can be.
Cono Sur Reserva Especial Chardonnay has a superb oaky character.
With wine, some say oak adds qualities like smokiness, clove, spiciness, or vanilla tones. Others just plain don’t like oaky aromas. If that’s you, go for a wine with low oaky character. Many wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel casks and are therefore not oaky at all.