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How to Share Your Wine Preferences

April Sullivan
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How to Share Your Wine Preferences

When it comes to wine, you probably already know what you like, but chances are, the terms used to describe wine sometimes fly over your head. If you get confused by wine jargon, don’t be ashamed — not only do sommeliers spend years studying this stuff, but a large part of what expert wine tasters and curators use to define wine notes and flavors is a creative process anyway. So let’s help clear the palate a little, so to speak, when it comes to tasting terms and wine jargon. The process is more intuitive and natural than many are led to believe. Here is our short guide to making you sound like a wine pro at wine tastings and other wine experiences in no time at all.

Varietals and Old World vs. New World

The first thing you need to know is what the actual name on the bottle signifies. What is the difference between a Bordeaux and a cabernet, for example? The answer is that this part is a bit confusing. Old World wines, like French Bordeaux, are often named for the region where the wine was made. New World wines, like Napa Valley cabernet or Australian syrah, for example, are named for the primary grape they are made from. When a wine is named for the grape variety it is produced from, it’s known as a varietal.

Even when a wine is named for the region where it was produced, you can still know what kind of wine you are drinking because Old World wine regions are often associated with particular types of grapes that grow well there. A Bordeaux might be a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, malbec, and occasionally carménère, for example, while Spanish rioja is usually made from the single tempranillo grape, although it might also contain garnacha and mazuela and several other possible grape varieties. The reason for this is that Old World grapes represent a rich tradition and are just as much about the terrior, or cultural and ecological landscape, they come from, as they are about a particular variety of grape. 

New World wines do sometimes blend grapes and identify with terrior, especially in renowned regions like California’s Napa and Sonoma counties. So what’s the difference between a cab and a Bordeaux at the end of the day? The truth is that, at this point, a premium French Bordeaux and a high-end California cabernet, especially if it’s a meritage, or blend of traditional varietals, are often quite similar in taste and quality; they just come from different parts of the world. Once you start a wine subscription and get wine subscription boxes on a regular basis, you can master this fast.

Wine Notes and Flavors

You’ve probably heard some of these words used to describe wine: “sweaty,” “herbaceous,” “canned,” or even food terms like “black olive” or “artichoke.” While these are real terms used by wine tasters and are all part of the Wine Aroma Wheel, they are actually advanced expressions of much simpler categories that you should understand first before all these fancy descriptions make sense.

Dry vs. Fruity

The most basic characteristics of red wine are whether it is dry or fruity. More full-bodied red wines like cabernet and merlot usually have black fruit notes (think blackberries and black cherries), while less full-bodied red wines like pinot noir are usually reminiscent of red fruits like raspberry. See how that makes sense according to tastes you already know? Chances are, if you are thinking that a full-bodied red wine with black cherry-ness would go great with your steak, you already know what to tell the waiter: “Bring me a nice merlot, please.” 

Aromatic vs. Neutral

Likewise, white wines are usually either aromatic or neutral. If you are eating something like white fish or pasta alfredo that is creamy yet relatively bland, a nice aromatic chardonnay might be exactly what your taste buds are crying for. But if you are indulging in rich foods like oysters on the half shell or eggs florentine, you may want something more neutral, like a sauvignon blanc. Do you see how the jargon and descriptions are based on your existing flavor knowledge and preferences?

The next four categories of wine tasting are tannins, bodyacidity, and finish. Think of these more like colors on a palette than absolute terms, and you will not only have more fun with this but also be more accurate in your descriptions. These are the most essential terms used at wine tastings and other wine experiences.

Tannins

Tannins are astringent flavors found in grape skins, seeds, and stems and also in other non-wine-related foods like tea. You feel the kind of clampdown or tighten the pores in your mouth when you consume them. That ‘drying’ and puckering feeling is how you can tell if there are heavy tannins. If you like this feeling, ask for a wine with heavy tannins, and if you don’t, ask for the opposite. Yes, it’s really that simple.

Body

The body of the wine is a term used to describe its weight and texture. Again, different varietals and wine regions generally correspond to wine with a lighter or fuller body, but things like aging in oak barrels and residual sugar in the wine also affect its body. Don’t let that overwhelm you, though; “body” is simply a useful term to describe how fully flavored or heavy a wine is.

Sommeliers sometimes swirl wine against the glass to look at its “legs,” to help determine the alcohol content there is in a glass of wine, or how opaque or the richness in color the wine is to determine how heavy or light the wine is.

Acidity

Acidity refers to a characteristic that kind of makes your mouth water, like lemons. Good wines have a balanced acidity, just enough to give you that suckling sensation but not so much that you pucker up. You may want to ask a waiter or salesperson about the acidity of a wine before you purchase it to make sure it is going to be the right one for you.

Finish

When it comes to the finish with wine, it’s just like with any other food, just more complex and subtle. In fact, it is in the finish that many of the fancy terms for wine notes are coined. Do you taste a bit of honeysuckle? How about some baseball mitt? Yes, that’s a real one! While there are many official wine notes you can study and play with, the most common are earthy, fruity, savory, etc. Just exactly what your mouth tells you you are tasting. The truth is that once you have sampled many different complex wines, you will start getting creative and finding more and more subtle flavors on your own; it just takes time.

Ready to get started? Good, so are we. Sign up for a Melier wine subscription membership today to get premium Napa Valley wines direct to your door via our exclusive wine subscription boxes as well as invitations to wine tastings, outings, and other events that will immediately immerse you into the wonderful world of artisanal Napa wines.