Wine Descriptors Made Easy

For some reason, many people become intimidated when it comes to describing a wine.  They hear other people sound very knowledgeable and believe that there is a right way and wrong way to describe wine.  However, this simply isn’t the case.  Wine descriptors may seem confusing or complicated at first glance, but there is no need to be afraid of describing any wine.

Before we get into specific wine descriptors, let me help you put your mind at ease with a fascinating study. Scientific research has been able to prove the power of suggestion relating to one’s perception.  French researcher Frederic Brochet submitted a “mid-range Bordeaux in two different bottles, one labeled a cheap table wine, and the other bearing a grand cru etiquette”.  The tasters then went on to describe each wine.  They described the “cheap wine” as short, light and faulty while describing the “expensive” wine as woody, complex, and round… keep in mind this, in all actuality, the same wine.

A similar study was done regarding the color of the wine.  When Brochet served a white wine, the descriptors were “fresh, dry, honeyed, and lively”.  He then added red dye to the wine and re-served it to the same tasters.  They responded by noting that the wine was, “intense, spicy, supple, and deep”.

The important message that you should get from these study results is that you need to ignore the obvious characteristics: origin (geographically), vintage, color, price, etc.  You should only focus on what you smell and what you taste.

To help get you started, here are some common, yet very meaningful, wine descriptors to use when describing the bouquet and taste.

Bouquet (The layer of smells or aroma of the wine)

  • Autolytic

Autolytic is a great word that describes when the aroma of a wine has a yeasty quality.  It is commonly used to describe wines that have been aged sur lie and have a acacia-like floweriness.

  • Bright

A wine is bright if it has a high level of clarity, which inherently means a low level of suspended solids.  It is also used to describe a wine’s flavor when it has a noticeable acidity that is very intense.

  • Complex

A complex wine will make you think that its aroma has multiple layers.  It is not always smelling multiple aromas at once, but rather noticing several aromas one after another.  It can also be used to describe the taste as well.  Regarding taste, it is complex if you taste several different flavors one after another, rather than all at one time.

  • Earthy

An earthy wine has aromas “from the earth” such as a woody smell (like fresh pine), mushrooms, are a range of grasses.

  • Nose

The nose of a wine is the aroma or bouquet.

  • Undertone

The undertones of a wine exist in both smell and taste.  An undertone is a smell or flavor that is subtle and complimentary to the primary smells or flavors.


  • Aggressive v. Smooth (Soft)

An aggressive wine has pronounced flavors that are obvious and distinct, whereas a smooth or soft wine may have few or many flavors, but they all seem to blend together to create one whole flavor.

  • Austere

A wine is considered to be austere if the acidity or tannin is dominant and the fruity flavors are not strong enough to balance it out.

  • Big

A big wine is one that provides very intense flavors, whether it be one dominant flavor or several.

  • Bite

If a wine has a bite, then it has an obvious overtone or perception of tannins or acidity.  This can be both positive and negative depending on how balanced the wine seems.

  • Fallen Over

A wine has fallen over if it is past its peak drinking period.  After its peak drinking period, the flavor will often decline quickly.

  • Meaty

A wine is considered meaty if it has a rich and full body.  It may seem so thick that it can be chewed on.

While this is only a small sampling of Wine Descriptors, it should get you pointed in the right direction.  The simplest rule of thumb (which may sound silly, but is almost always effective) is to ad “-y” to the and of any description that fits your needs.

For example:

plumy, watery, stalky, sassy, peppery, oaky, lemony, jammy, grassy, fruity, dirty, chocolaty, and citrusy.

While learning all of the wine descriptors in the world may make you feel better about your wine competency.  All it really takes to appreciate and describe a wine is to describe what you really taste (regardless of color, price, label, age, etc.), with whatever words you think best describes it.

Sonya Lee

Since a child, Sonya has been traveling from the corners of Canada to the far east Asia. Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, she led a normal family life with her brother, mother and dad. A well received job opportunity in Hong Kong for her father put the compass in action from a young age. Sonya loves good food, and I mean GOOD simple food. She loves an occasional drink, be merry and enjoy the good times. Having recently healed herself from a large ruptured cyst, her favorite foods include fresh carrot juice, grilled vegetables, sauteed portabello mushrooms and truffle french fries. Her philosophy? Healthy food makes a healthy body. Read more on the Editor page. When she's not fretting over WAFT, she runs a small design agency called mowie media and shares the good times with her dog, Monster and 3 cats Sabi, Kaeli & Misty.

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