3.10 Glossary of Wine Tasting Terms

The variation of descriptors that are used by various wine writers can create a great deal of confusion.Dr Bryce Rankine [pictured right] is one of one of Australia's leading wine Academics, and is responsible for creating this Glossary of Wine Tasting Terms that is being presented in association with Vintage School. We consider Dr Bryce Rankine's Wine Glossary as the benchmark, and thus encourage wine lovers to use these definitions in their notes and discussions on the smell and taste of wine.


Belonging to a Wine and Food Club enables many people to enjoy and appreciate wines in convivial company. A problem associated with this is being required to speak about a wine to one's peers, and groping for the words which accurately convey one's palate impressions. Communication in wine tasting depends on just this using words which convey the subjective nose and palate impression of the wine. In order that one wine tasted by several tasters should be reported in the same way, it is necessary for the tasters to use the same words for the impression which the wine creates.

Accordingly, at the request of the Wine and Food Society in Australia, I have compiled the following tasting terms which now constitute the Society's official list of tasting terms. Some foreign terms which have become part of Australian wine nomenclature are also included. Extensive lists of tasting terms exist, particularly in the French language, and various overseas lists of tasting terms contain a preponderance of French terms. Some of these do not have precise Australian and New Zealand counterparts and are not used in these countries for serious tasting. For example, the often-used French term 'souple' does not mean 'supple' or 'pliant', as the dictionary would indicate, but 'smooth' or 'harmonious'.

Where possible, terms have been quantified by using the results of threshold taste measurements. Similarly, particular chemical constituents of wine are listed against certain of the tasting terms, together with legal maximum limits where appropriate. The description has been augmented by indicating whether the particular term relates to sight (appearance of the wine), smell (aroma and bouquet), and/or taste, as indicated:

  • S = sight
  • Sm = smell
  • T = taste

    The Glossary

    acetic (Sm, T)
    The smell and taste of a mixture of acetic acid and ethyl acetate, reminiscent of vinegar and also called volatile or pricked. The legal maxi mum limit for acetic acid in wine is 1.5 grams per litre in Australia and 1.2 in New Zealand. The taste threshold depends on the wine and is about 0.8 grams for acetic acid and 150 milli grams per litre for ethyl acetate. Big highly tannic wines can tolerate higher levels.

    acidity (T)
    Used to indicate the quality of tartness or sharpness to the taste; the presence of agree able fruit acids - the main acids in wine are tartaric and malic. Balanced acidity is desirable and gives crispness in white wines. Sour and tart are synonyms.

    amontillado (S, Sm, T)
    A Spanish term for a type of sherry not as pale as fino, with more bouquet and characteristic sherry flavour and usually older; usually slightly sweet.

    amoroso (S, Sm, T)
    A Spanish term for full-bodied, dark and sweet sherry, lighter in colour and body than oloroso.

    A French term for appetiser, taken before meals to stimulate the appetite, e.g. dry sherry, vermouth, Champagne and, surprisingly, Sauternes.

    balance (T)
    Harmonious taste balance of wine constituents whereby no one characteristic of a wine is predominant; harmonious is a synonym.

    aroma (Sm)
    The smell of a wine. If no particular aroma is present, the wine is described as vinous. Aroma and bouquet are sometimes used synonymously, but more correctly aroma relates to the smell of the grape and bouquet to the smell of the wine acquired during fermentation and maturation. Some grapes and the wines made from them are aromatic, e.g. Muscat, Gewurztraminer.

    aromatic (Sm)
    The strong scented smell of a wine; not the same as aroma.

    astringency (T)
    Detected by a puckering, tactile sensation in the mouth due to high tannin content (absorbed from the skins and seeds); sometimes indicating that the (red) wine will be long-lived. Harsh, rough and tannic are related terms.

    An old French term used to indicate dissolved solids (mainly sugar) in wine and grape juice. One degree Baume is equivalent to 1.8 per cent sugar and by fermentation converts to approximately 1 per cent alcohol by volume in a dry wine made from mature grapes; thus grapes picked at 11 Baume will on fermentation produce approximately 11 per cent alcohol by volume.

    beeswing (S)
    A filmy sediment which occurs in old bottled ports.

    big (T)
    A tasting term - usually excessive body, often fruity and refers to high extract content.

    bitter (T)
    A fault in some wines in which the after-palate has a lingering bitterness, not to be confused with acidity in red table wines. Detected late on the palate.

    body (T)
    Consistency, thickness or substance of the wine. Refers to extract content - full-bodied wines are more alcoholic than wines less so.

    bottle-aged (Sm, T)
    Denoting that the wine has been stored in bottle for a prolonged period, resulting in a mellow matured character. In white wines the colour becomes golden and the fresh grape flavour and aroma is replaced by a more mature and complex vinosity. Some wines, notably vintage ports, require bottle-age for their full development. On the other hand, fino sherries, for example, do not benefit from bottle-aging.

    bouquet (Sm)
    The part of the fragrance of wine which originates from the fermentation and aging.
    bright (brilliant) S
    Absence of suspended or colloidal matter in the wine. Also refers to brilliance of colour as well as clarity.

    brut (T)
    A French term describing the driest classification of Champagne, containing usually less than 0.5 per cent sugar. Increasing degrees of sweetness are extra-sec, sec and demi-sec. Originally brut Champagne was unsweetened.

    character (Sm, T)
    Combination of vinosity, balance and style; refers more precisely to the style of wine, e.g. port or sherry character.

    clean (Sm, T)
    Freedom from any foreign (or 'off') odour or flavour, but not necessarily indicating high quality.

    cloudy (S)
    Colloidal haze and particulate matter.

    cloying (T)
    An excessively sweet wine with insufficient acidity.

    coarse Sin (T)
    Indicating oxidation and incorrect handling of the wine, particularly excessive skin contact, use of pressings and exposure to air. Characterised by a harsh acidic taste with bitter after-palate. Not the same as the French term corse meaning full-bodied.

    condition (S)
    Refers mainly to the clarity of a wine. A cloudy or hazy wine is referred to as being out of condition.

    corked, corky (Sm, T)
    The off-flavour in wine derived from a defective or mouldy cork.

    crust (S)
    Sediment adhering to the inside surface of bottles of old wine, usually red. Consists mainly of pigment and tartrate crystals.

    demi-sec (T)
    Seen on Champagne labels, meaning that the wine is medium sweet.

    Denotes absence of sugar and opposite of sweet. Dry wines contain less than 0.2 per cent sugar, but wines containing up to about 0.5 per cent usually still taste dry.

    A definite colloidal haze, easily revealed by passing a strong beam of light through the wine whereby the path of the beam is revealed by light reflected from the suspended particles.

    The taste remaining after the wine leaves the mouth; designated as short, medium and long.

    Fino (S, Sm, T)
    A Spanish term for a delicate dry sherry made by the flor-yeast process.

    flat (T)
    A sparkling wine which has lost its gas or a low-acid still wine which has lost its freshness.

    flowery (Sm)
    The aroma reminiscent of flowers contributed by certain aromatic grape varieties.

    foxy (Sm, T)
    The methyl and ethyl anthranilate odour of Vitis labrusca grapes and wines made from them. Rarely encountered in Australian wines, occasionally in the past in New Zealand wines.

    fruity (Sm, T)
    The pleasant aromatic taste of a young wine with strong varietal character. The taste sensation derived from a combination of sugar, acid and grape flavour.

    gassy (S, Sm, T)
    A wine charged with carbon dioxide; see spritzig.

    geranium (Sm, T)
    An unpleasant smell occasionally encountered in red table wines containing sorbic acid in which bacteria have grown. Claimed to be similar to the smell of crushed geranium leaves. The causative compound is 2-ethoxy-hexa-3, 5-diene.

    green (T)
    Term applied to a young wine which is unbalanced because of excess acid (largely malic) and made from immature grapes. Can also refer to the greenish colour of certain young white wines, due to chlorophyll from the grapes.

    hard, harsh (T)
    Strong tannin taste without harmony and a fault in red wines. Refers also to acidic white wines lacking vinosity.

    hydrogen sulphide (Sm)
    The smell of rotten eggs occasionally found in table wines and resulting from the reduction of sulphur dioxide or elemental sulphur. Less than 1 part per million is detectable.

    lees (Sm, T)
    The odour of wine stored too long on the lees or sediment deposited after fermentation; also solids deposited during racking and fining.

    limpid (S)
    Crystal clarity, synonymous with brilliant.

    light (Sm, T)
    Lack of body, otherwise pleasant.

    maderised (S, Sm, T)
    Oxidative change in white wines brought about by prolonged hot storage under oxidising conditions so that the colour and flavour resemble Madeira.

    Soft, ripe, well matured; designates sweet sherry as distinct from medium and dry sherry.

    mercaptan (Sm)
    An onion like aroma in wine, due to the presence of ethyl mercaptan and ethyl sulphides and derived from hydrogen sulphide; some times referred to as organic sulphide smell.

    metallic (T)
    Not quite bitter - certainly a hard finish and a flavour of metal, usually iron or copper.

    mouldy (Sm, T)
    Off-flavour derived from mouldy grapes or storage in a mouldy cask.

    mousy (T)
    An undesirable flavour and persistent taste resulting from bacterial growth in sweet dessert and table wines. Is most evident after the wine leaves the mouth.

    neutral (Sm, T)
    A wine lacking distinctive or recognisable character; related to vinous.

    nose (Sm)
    Characteristics as assessed by smell.

    nutty (Sm)
    Characteristic pungent flavour of sherry due in part to wood age and the presence of acetaldehyde above approximately 100 milligrams per will. litre.

    oloroso (S, Sm, T)
    A Spanish term for old, rich, semi-sweet to sweet, full-bodied sherry.

    oxidised (S, Sm, T)
    A wine which has been exposed to oxygen, resulting in loss of flavour and development of coarseness. Oxidised wines usually contain higher levels of acetaldehyde.

    poor Sin (T)
    Not necessarily faulty but of little merit.

    precocious (Sm, T)
    Suggesting rapid (and unhealthy) development.

    pricked (Sm, T)
    Having excess volatile acidity arising from the growth of acetic acid bacteria, and containing more than about 150 milligrams per litre of ethyl acetate.

    pungent (Sm)
    Very aromatic - often earthy.

    rancio (Sm, T)
    Distinctive smell of old oxidised dessert wines and associated with warm storage.

    residual sugar (T)
    Applied usually to wines which are not quite dry. Sugar (glucose and fructose) above about 5 grams per litre can usually be tasted.

    rough (T)
    Astringent, coarse, tannic taste in red wines, indicating lack of balance and maturity.

    round (T)
    A well balanced wine showing body and fruitiness.

    rubbery (Sm)
    A peculiar aroma resulting from hydrogen sulphide and related to organic sulphides.

    sec (T)
    French term meaning dry; usually applied to sparkling wines containing a small but detectable quantity of sugar.

    soft (T)
    Wine with a pleasing finish, without being hard or aggressive. Usually applied to wines low in acid and slightly sweet.

    sour (T)
    Disagreeably acid, but not a term used for wines showing volatile acid. Opposite is flat.

    stemmy (Sm, T)
    The aroma and taste of red wines which have been made in contact with stems damaged during crushing. Stalky is a synonym.

    spritzig (S, Sm, T)
    A German term indicating the presence of some carbon dioxide bubbles in the wine, but insufficient to produce any froth in the glass. Corresponds to a level of about 2 grams per litre. The approximate French equivalent is petillant, the Italian frizzante.

    sulphide (Sm)
    The disagreeable odour of hydrogen sulphide and mercaptans - evident above about one tenth of a milligram per litre.

    sulphur dioxide (Sm)
    A suffocating sulphurous smell resulting from too much being added to the wine. Sulphur dioxide added to wine separates into free and chemically bound, and only the free can be smelt, usually at levels of above about 40 parts per million, depending on acidity of the wine.

    sulphury, sulphurous (Sm)
    Smelling of sulphur dioxide.

    sweet (T)
    More than fruity, distinctly sweet due to the presence of sugar.

    tart (T)
    Too high in acid, but high acid wines balanced by residual sugar do not taste tart.

    tannin (T)
    A complex organic constituent of wine occurring in greater quantities in reds than in whites. Plays an important part in the self-clearing of young wines after fermentation. Has an important influence on the palate impression of the wine. Conveys fullness of body and astringency (grip) in dry reds while in sweet wine it helps to balance the sugar, giving a desirable palate. An excess of tannin in light dry whites is undesirable as such wines are then too big in body and too coarse. The period of maturation is related to the tannin content of the wine; a full-bodied red wine high in tannin requires a longer period than a lighter-bodied wine in order to obtain the same degree of harmony.

    tawny (S)
    Applied to wines which have turned from red to brownish during maturation; also a style of port matured in cask.

    terroir (T)
    French for earthy, particularly refers to flavour. Has also a broader environmental meaning not related to tasting.

    thin (T)
    Lacking in body, almost watery.

    vinosity (T)
    The characteristic of wine made from grapes but not exhibiting varietal character. Vinous is a synonym.

    A bottle showing signs of a leaky cork.

    woody (Sm, T)
    The presence of oak (Quercus) aroma and flavour in a wine. Sometimes hardwoods are used which leave an undesirable character.

    yeasty (Sm, T)
    Containing materials which smell or taste of yeast, particularly acetaldehyde. Applies especially to the aroma of wines spoilt by oxidative yeasts.

  • S = sight
  • Sm = smell
  • T = taste