Flabby, oily and alcoholic. Are you describing ME or the wine?

Dear World,

There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to proper wine terms to use when articulating how you feel about an individual wine. As with any discipline, there is a “lingo” the wine taster must develop in order to be understood by others when describing a wine.

I had a boot camp of sorts in this lesson at a wine competition I was invited to judge last fall. I am used to methodically evaluating a wine: detailing my impressions of the aromas, the attack, the mid-palate and finish, the length of finish and my overall impression of each wine I drink. What caught me off guard was using these descriptors in a coherent and methodical manner and explaining how I felt about 248 wines in front of my judging panel.

At first all I could muster was “SUPER”. I felt like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when all he could spit out was “FOOTBALL” when asked by Santa what he wanted for Christmas. I was totally bewildered and almost paralyzed at being put on the spot. This was an unusual reaction for me, as I am someone with literally no inner monologue.

I knew the lingo, I knew what my impressions of the wines were and I was confident in my ability to fairly and accurately rate each wine. I just could not adequately explain it in words to my peers. After Day 1 of judging was over I decided to re-tool my individual judging tactics…lest risk giving the panel the impression that I was a complete and total idiot. Who invited this girl? Is she even 21?

On Day 2 I was prepared! I decided to take my mental notes and formulate them onto paper. In the past I would normally write very little about the majority of wines in a given flight. If something was remarkable about the wine or if one element stood out which made the wine seem unbalanced to me, I would write it down. I would only jot down my full evaluation of a wine if it was remarkable or when I questioned whether it was even safe to consume a wine for fear of immediate death.

Here are the elements I use to evaluate a wine. Regardless of which system you personally adopt to assess the wines you taste, it is important to stick with one particular method which will make it much easier for you to evaluate wines over time. For the most part, the descriptions below have been used, by me, in other articles or as scribbled reminders to myself in wine notebooks…why bother re-writing what I’ve already explained so well in other publications?

Appearance – What color is the wine, is it straw yellow, ruby red or an intense purple? Is the wine hazy or cloudy, bright or bubbly? To an experienced taster, a cloudy wine may indicate there is something “off” or faulty. The appearance of the wine can also hint at the grape variety, the age of the wine and winemaking techniques.

For example, a Sauvignon Blanc can vary from pale green to a straw yellow depending on where in the world it was grown and the winemaking techniques employed. If I was presented a Sauvignon Blanc that did not possess these characteristics I would be hard pressed to say it was “typical” of the grape variety and I would wonder if another grape was blended or if an overzealous winemaker had transformed the wine into something that wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc at all.

Aromas – Does the wine smell like something you want to drink? If you notice an unpleasant aroma, then do not drink the wine. Wine is meant to be enjoyed, so don’t feel obligated to drink any wine that does not seem right. Trust your nose!

As an example, I find many wine drinkers do not know what a TCA inflicted, or “corked” wine, really smells like and they wrongly pass it off as bad winemaking or as a wine varietal they dislike. By all means, don’t ever venture to find out what a corked wine tastes like; your palate will be unforgiving. It is hard to describe what aromas “corked” is. I would describe it using the following descriptors: dead mouse, cardboard, rancid, wet dog or musty. Not an aroma you’d use to describe a wine you would put in your mouth, right?

Taste/On the Palate – While you are swirling the wine in your mouth, ask yourself this: What flavors can you identify? What flavors to you get during the “attack” (the initial taste), then on the middle palate and what flavors develop throughout the finish of the wine? Is the wine balanced? A balanced wine means all the components are in harmony and no single element overpowers the rest. Is the wine complex? For me, the more descriptors I can list about a wine, then the more complex it is. Is the finish of the wine long and lingering or is it short and/or dreadful? The hallmark of a wine’s quality is the length of its finish.

Overall Impression – After evaluating each of those elements of the wine I tend to give the most weight to the finish of a wine. A long, pleasant finish is a hallmark of a well made wine and can sway me up or down in a rating. Of course, the most important question to ask yourself is, do I like this wine?

Here are some references to get you started on your journey of accurately and methodically describing and evaluating wines:

Michael Mondavi has put together a great free online wine reference, including a wine dictionary, on his Folio Fine Wine Partners web site. It is called “Folio Fine Wine College”.


Le Nez Du Vin sells great aroma kits, which contain vials of the aromas contained in red and white wines and their accompanying explanatory cards. There are even oak kits and wine fault kits to practice with. I use these religiously and they help a great deal with being able to identify particular aromas in a wine. You can find out where to buy these fabulous kits on this website.


Unfortunately, “SUPER” is not described on Folio’s Fine Wine College page nor does it have it’s own vial in a Le Nez Du Vin kit, yet!




~ by winnieswineworld on March 13, 2010.

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