Here's the thing, I've spent years studying wine so that you don't have to. Your goal should be simple - enjoy wine and enjoy life. So let's cut through the technical jargon associated with wine so you can get to the good part - pouring a glass and sharing a bottle.
Acidity. You know how some wines simply make your mouth start to water when you taste them? That's the sensation of acidity in a wine. Acidity will feel refreshing and crisp as it cleanses your palate and makes you want to come back for another sip.
Balance. A wine is balanced when one flavor or quality does not stick out amongst the rest. Balance comes from the harmony of different qualities coming together to create something pleasant. Imagine the difference between someone playing a single note on a piano vs. a chord - that's the beauty of balance.
Body. This refers to the weight of a wine in your mouth. Does the wine make you feel like you just took a sip of water or does it feel more like whole milk?
Bouquet. A nice way to refer to the combination of aromas you smell in a wine.
Bright. Often used to describe wines that are high in acid and refreshing.
Buttery. You'll see this term frequently linked with Chardonnay. There's typically two camps of Chardonnay lovers, the big, buttery, oaky style (think Rombauer), or a crisper, leaner style (think Chablis). Buttery wines have typically been aged in oak and feel creamy (like butter) on the middle of your tongue.
Creamy. Used to describe white or sparkling wines fermented or aged in oak. Creaminess in a wine can be caused when malic acid turns into lactic acid after the initial fermentation. Creamy white wines typically have a medium to full body in terms of weight.
Crisp. Crisp white wines are in some ways simply the opposite of creamy white wines. They are higher in acid and very refreshing. Think about the experience of biting into a slice of green apple, as compared to a slice of brie.
Complexity. I'll come back to the piano metaphor. A simple wine will have one note that will stand out to you, something like cherry, grass, or oak. That one quality in the wine will be the only thing you notice. Compare that to a wine with lots of qualities presenting together. Now the experience is harmonious (again) like a chord on the piano. There is a new experience created by different qualities in the wine working together to balance one another and to add layers of complexity to your experience.
Drinkable. This is not an insult towards the winemaker I promise. Rather, this is perhaps the ultimate compliment. No matter how rare, expensive, or highly praised a wine is by the critics, at the end of the day we want a wine that tastes delicious. Drinkable means it is ready to drink today (no years of aging required) and that it doesn't require a diploma in wine to appreciate.
Dry. Perhaps the strangest term ever created to describe a liquid. Dry means that a wine is not sweet. If a label states "off-dry," expect the wine to be slightly sweet.
Earthy. This is used to describe wines that do not have “fruit-forward” flavors (see below). Does the wine smell like wet grass, soil, or maybe even a barn? Before you run for the door - keep in mind that earthy flavors can give an attractive complexity to a wine and even help them pair with different foods.
Elegant. I like to use this term when describing wines that are harmoniously balanced in a way that is not big, bold, overly fruity, high in alcohol, or with aggressive tannins.
Fruit-forward. Wines that taste and smell of ripe fruit (or even fruit conserves) can be described as fruit-forward. These are typically younger wines from warmer regions and are easy to enjoy on their own.
Flabby. Nothing to do with needing a diet! Flabby refers to a wine that is lacking in acidity and one that feels heavy on your tongue. This is not a flattering term for a wine.
Finish. Despite what you might be thinking, this isn’t when you’ve finished the bottle of wine! Finish refers to the length of the aftertaste for a single sip of wine. Does the flavor linger in your mouth for 5, 10, or even 20 seconds? A long finish is a sign of a high-quality wine.
Food friendly. Wines that pair well with foods are typically lower in alcohol (under 14%). It can also be argued that food friendly wines are not as enjoyable on their own because the qualities in the wine taste better when matched with the qualities in specific dishes. For example, a red wine with plentiful tannins and little fruit, pairs deliciously with a salted steak because the tannins play well with the fat in the meat and the salt on the steak enhances the fruit in the wine.
Jammy. This one's controversial. Expect most sommeliers and winemakers to cringe at the sound of a wine being jammy, meaning dominant with syrupy ripe fruit qualities. On the other hand, that cooked berry sweetness is often a delicious quality in some Zinfandel, Grenache, or Shiraz. What both camps can agree on though, is that these powerfully fruity wines are rarely food-friendly partners at the table.
Juicy. A step below jammy, this wine has qualities that feel like biting into a perfectly ripe piece of fruit - but not cooked or jammed fruit.
Lees. After the grape juice is fermented, there are little bits of dead yeast cells in the liquid. These yeast cells can actually impart delicious flavors and aromas of bread, like freshly baked brioche. Yum! Some winemaker will choose to keep the wine on the lees, and even stir the lees around to increase their influence, creating a wine that is thicker and creamier in texture.
Mineral. Another slightly controversial term. Some experts believe there's no such thing as minerality in a wine, others say it's absolutely a quality and it feels (tastes?) like licking a stone from an alpine stream. While I've never actually done that (props to you, if you have though), I can imagine what that might taste and feel like. And yes, I do feel like I experience that quality in a number of white wines.
Nose. The word "nose" is used to describe the smell of the wine in the glass. You might hear, “The nose on this wine is quite beautiful with scents of white flowers, peach…”
Oaky. When a wine is aged in oak barrels it can take on gorgeous aromas of nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, caramel, and toast. Sometimes this can become overpowering (like when the wine was aged in brand new oak barrels that overpowered the other qualities of a particular wine). If the only aroma you notice “on the nose” is oak, then it’s out of balance.
Opulent. Describes wines that are rich and smooth, but also bold and big.
Palate. If “nose” describes the way you experience a wine through your sense of smell, then “palate” describes the way you experience a wine in your mouth. Someone can describe their personal palate as the way they perceive or taste wines in general.
Refined. Similar to elegant, these are wines with the volume turned down, but with beautiful music playing none the less. A refined wine can still be incredibly complex, it just won't have any one specific quality at a high volume.
Silky. If creamy is for white wines, then silky is for red. This describes a wine that doesn't have rough or plentiful tannins, but that hits your tongue like a smooth piece of silk. In fact, using materials like silk, cotton, or velvet, is a great way to describe the texture of a wine.
Tannins. Tannins are a biomolecule found in grape skins, seeds, and stems. They can also come from the wood a wine was aged or fermented in. Tannins add structure to the wine, but when there are too many it will feel like your mouth is dried out, or like you have cotton balls in your cheeks! They are primarily found in red wine as the juice spends more time in contact with all of these elements during the fermentation and aging process.
Tight. A term to describe a wine that is not yet ready to drink. Picture the inside of a baseball, all wound up, that's what the qualities of the wine feel like. Over time, a "tight" wine can loosen its grip on the different components, and the fruit will become more apparent, the tannins will soften, and it will become a "drinkable" wine. Keep in mind that just because a wine has lots of tannins doesn't mean it will age. Wines need a high acidity to carry them through the aging process.
Typicity. This refers to how much a particular wine tastes like the specific place where the grapes were grown. It takes into account both the terroir of the region and the style of winemaking that the region is known for.