Dear Decantress, Help! My Wine Vocabulary Sucks!

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By Carson Demmond Posted June 06, 2016

Decantress advises a reader with "a very non-refined palate."

Dear Decantress,

I feel like I sound like an idiot when describing wine. I have a very non-refined palate so everything tastes the same to me (or at least, I can’t commit the differences to memory). I want to say things like “this is a really dry and sharp white” or “this Chardonnay is buttery and smooth” but don’t know what terms are appropriate. How can I improve my vocabulary? 



Dear Tongue-tied,

It sounds like the real issue is lack of confidence in your palate. You’ll feel much freer to speak what you taste once you get over that. Our mouths are all made of the same muscles and receptors, so trust me when I say you’re just as physically capable of tasting nuances in a wine as someone who’s been doing it professionally for a long time. Sure, taste sensitivity exists (the number of taste buds varies from person to person), but it’s not some magical factor that determines who can appreciate wine. There are boatloads of sommeliers and winemakers out there who aren’t supertasters, just as I imagine there are plenty of supertasters who either don’t know they are or have never considered wine as a career or hobby. Would you assume the same of one of your other senses? Let’s substitute music for wine in your self-assessment: Do all songs sound the same to you? I’d bet the answer is no.

One thing that’s true in both scenarios is that you’re more likely to pick up on differences (songs, wines) if you’re paying attention. Next time, really tune in to what’s in your glass. The expression ‘to train one’s palate’ is a misnomer in the sense that it’s not actually our palates that are being exercised (your tongue won’t increase its capacity to detect sweet or bitter); it’s our brains. Try to not fixate on specific flavors that you’re “supposed” to taste. Not getting citrus notes? Great! What are you getting? Be honest with yourself and describe what you’re experiencing in your own terms without worrying about the officially accepted wine lexicon. There’s no correct answer, and no two people describe the same wine in exactly the same way. What we do have are reference points that help us relate the qualities present in wine on a sort of scale (more on that below). And if you think what you’re saying sounds silly, try sitting on a tasting panel with a bunch of sommeliers; I’ve heard all sorts of descriptors from “pink Jolly Rancher” to “cherries dipped in an ashtray.” Yeah, those are from real pros.

Here are some basic concepts to think about when you taste:

Dryness. A dry wine is one that has no perceptible sugar. Think of dry as the opposite of sweet. With the exception of certain categories like off-dry Riesling, all wines are technically dry unless they’re dessert wines.

Acidity. A high-acid white comes across with that “sharp” character you reference above. Other terms that might get thrown around (but that all essentially mean the same thing) are: tart, bright, high-toned, racy. The best way to understand acidity is to taste two wines side by side. Take a young Sancerre and a ripe California Chardonnay as an example. One will taste notably brighter than the other. A more extreme taste experiment might be: lemon juice vs. apple juice.

Body. This is your assessment of the way a wine feels inside your mouth. You can also think of it in terms of weight. People often use the milk metaphor to explain wine body: a light-bodied wine is like skim, a medium-bodied wine is like 2%, and a full-bodied wine is like whole. Try a red Burgundy next to an Australian Shiraz. Which one feels richer or fuller to you?

Tannin. Have you ever tasted a red wine and thought, “that’s funny; this wine gives me cotton-mouth”? Those are tannins you’re tasting. We perceive them as texture, and they’re actually essential to a red wine’s structural integrity if it’s intended to age. I like to think of tannins in terms of sandpaper grit: the more pronounced (or harsh) the tannins, the coarser the grit. Unsurprisingly, we use the term fine to describe the gentlest versions of both. 

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