Skip to main content

Ever had grilled cherries? How about melted licorice? Both are actual wine descriptions penned by esteemed U.S. tasters Steve Heimoff and Robert Parker, respectively. One sometimes wonders if wine critics learned to write - and cook - from Dr. Seuss.

Lord knows, I'm guilty of reaching too far, at least as far as some readers are concerned. I've used "iron," "bubble gum" and "petrol" to people's befuddlement.

Aside from such fanciful, often purely personal flavour associations, though, there's plenty of widely accepted technical language I fear is similarly lost on the average consumer, geeky terms heard over and over again from experts attempting to nail down the technical virtues or chemical flaws of a chardonnay or merlot. Stuff such as "hot," "backward" and "flabby" which, admittedly, can sound more like dialogue from a yoga class than a hedonistic wine tasting.

To help novices hold their own this dinner-party season, I've assembled my personal list of the most useful wine words, jargon that may earn you the cachet of hard-core taster. It's a selective list, of course. The full geek's glossary could fill a small book. But I had to stop somewhere.

Corked: foul, musty odour due to a mouldy cork, caused by a random compound known as TCA. Not to be confused with broken-cork particles that have fallen into the bottle or glass.Your line: "I'm getting TCA off this pinot grigio. Or did someone just remove their shoes?"

Volatile: pungent odour of vinegar or nail-polish remover caused by too much acetic acid, also known as volatile acidity.

"This vin de pays reminds me of my last pedicure."

Hot: unpleasant medicinal fumes or burn found in some, but by no means all, wines with high alcohol.

"I find this Santa Barbara pinot hot. Keep it away from the candle centrepiece."

Flabby: flat taste due to insufficient acidity.

"This Aussie chardonnay could be a contender on The Biggest Loser. Where's the acid?"

Tannic: astringent, mouth-parching quality also found in strong black tea. Caused by compounds derived from skins, seeds and stalks of grapes and also from wood barrels. Different from acidity, which makes the mouth water.

"What a tannic monster. They should serve this in Royal Doulton with cream and sugar, maybe some scones and jam."

Hard: too tannic.

"What else would you expect opening such a young Barolo? It's harder than my ex-husband's head."

Backward: an old wine that tastes younger than expected, often because of substantial tannins that have yet to soften with cellaring.

"I find this cabernet so backward it rivals Stephen Harper's immigration policy."

Bottle stink: usually excess hydrogen sulfide in a wine that's had too little exposure to oxygen. Smells like rotten eggs or sewer pipe. Most common in bottles sealed under screw cap. Blows off with exposure to air.

"Eau de Halifax Harbour, anyone?"

Barnyard: manure-like smell due to brettanomyces, an unfriendly yeast found in old barrels. Pleasant in small quantities but a big dose is the sign of a flawed wine.

"Am diggin' the barnyard in this old-school Burgundy. Oink, oink, yo!"

Oaky: strong vanilla, coconut or toasty quality common in wines aged in heavily charred, new-oak barrels.

"Help, someone pull the splinters from my mouth. Was this California chardonnay made in a winery or a lumberyard?"

New World: fruit-forward character common in wines from sunny regions outside Europe, such as California and Australia. Fashionably cited in the case of modernist European wines with similar character.

"This Pomerol is more cloying than a Kenny G album. Where's the gritty Bordeaux terroir?"

Terroir: catch-all term that denotes the classic flavours of a wine from a specific place.

"The petrol fumes coming off this Mosel riesling remind me of the time we picnicked next to the autobahn near Trier. Rockin' terroir!"

Matchstick: fresh-struck-match quality of a wine treated with too much preservative sulphur. Dissipates somewhat after contact with air as you swirl the glass.

"Getting a bit of matchstick off this sauvignon blanc. It could light my cigarette."

Oxidized: tangy, sherry-like quality in white wines; prune- or port-like quality in dry reds. A product of too much oxygen exposure, usually because of a faulty cork or too much time in cellar.

"I would have preferred to drink this white Rioja while watching the Leafs win their last Stanley Cup."

Closed: subdued aroma or flavour, which can "open up" with exposure to air.

"I've seen more extroverted reds standing guard outside Buckingham Palace. Hand me a decanter."

Blowsy: very fruity, with insufficient acidity. A pleasant, slightly sweet initial flavour but a sign the wine may not cellar well or taste good after the first glass.

"This blowsy white zinfandel is making me thirsty - for real wine."

Confected: candy-like flavours. The mark of a "chemistry set" cuvée that may have been overly manipulated.

"Was this Beaujolais pressed from Jolly Ranchers or were real grapes actually involved?"

Dumb: almost no aroma. Often found in good young bottles that should have been left to age a few years longer.

"This three-year-old grand cru Burgundy must be going through a George W. Bush phase."

Balanced: all the flavour components, such as fruitiness, acidity and tannin, in perfect harmony. The most critical feature of a good wine.

"This '82 Petrus could perform in Cirque du Soleil."

Length: persistence of flavour in the mouth, a hallmark of a good wine.

"The finish on this Sauternes reminds me of the sustain on that Les Paul guitar from This Is Spinal Tap. It goes on forever."

Varietal: textbook quality of a grape. For example, a classic pinot noir tastes of fresh berries, spice and earthy vegetation, while a good sauvignon blanc tends to give off fresh grass and citrus.

"Good varietal character on this pinot. Raspberry, beetroot, cinnamon - the whole nine yards. More, please."

Interact with The Globe