Wine Talk

Fifteen Adjectives to Describe Fine Wines

Woody, structured, full-bodied... More than 1,000 terms are used to describe wine! Here is a (very small) sample to get you started ahead of the holidays.
© Matthieu Joannon

Connoisseurs are not happy simply sipping fine wine. They also like to wax lyrical about their characteristics. Thank God (or, rather, Bacchus), they have an almost infinite vocabulary for expressing sensations. And this list is not as old as you might think. While Rabelais and Montaigne, two well-known vino buffs, sing the praises of wine in their writing, neither of them indulges in details. Words for wine first appeared in the 17th century, and have developed alongside scientific and general knowledge about the renowned tipple. There are now no fewer than 1,000 terms used to describe wine’s many features, whether visual, olfactory, or gustatory. Here is a (very small) sample to get you started ahead of the holidays!


Balanced wines present a harmony between acidity, smoothness, and tannins for reds.

From freshly-cut grass and moss to mushrooms, black pepper, and olives, certain flavors that lend wines their complexity develop in the bottle after a certain aging period.

This refers to a wine exuding flavors of fruit without any identifiable “maturation notes.” Fruity wines are young and often known as “thirst-quenching” or “easy-drinking” wines.

This adjective is used for robust wines with a high alcohol content. As a result, they age well and improve over the years.

If flavors remain on the palate throughout the tasting, the wine is said to be “long” or having “length.” Inversely, wine can be described as “short.” Length is a sure sign of quality.

The notion of minerality is used to describe non-fruity and non-spicy flavors found in certain wines. They can be reminiscent of wet stones, heated silex, and slate. Often found in Muscadet and Riesling, minerality is a characteristic of very dry, largely acidic wines.

A nervous wine is slightly acidic on the palate but bright and pleasant. This term is generally used for young white wines.

A round wine has a smooth, supple, or even creamy texture, and is easy to drink. You can expect few tannins and no acidity on the palate. Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages are good examples of round wines.

Smooth wines feel like velvet on the palate. Soft white wines between dry and sweet are described as such, but the term also applies to more viscous wines with low acidity.

A wine can be petit (ordinary) or grand (the best wine from an estate). It may also have volume, or not. If it lacks body, it is described as “dull,” “shallow,” “empty,” “thin,” or “hollow.” A wine with body, however, is referred to as structured – and even “full” or “robust.” This term is generally used for reds such as Saint-Estèphe or Madiran.

These wines have astringent notes, which means slight bitterness, due to high levels of tannins. (Aside from adding flavor, this substance found in grape skin also helps to store wines for longer.)

Tension is used to describe a lively yet balanced wine that offers both acidity and length. As with dry whites such as Chablis, these wines leave a lasting impression on the tongue.

This adjective is used when the wine’s flavors reflect the grape variety used to make it. This is the case with hints of fresh grape in dry Muscat and the citrus and pineapple notes in Sauvignon.

Thanks to their liveliness, vigorous wines awake all the senses. Whether Riesling, Gamay, Barbera, or Chenin Blanc, they are made using very acidic grapes. Red Burgundy wines can also be described as vigorous.

The expression “maturation notes” is often used to describe the flavors of wine aged in wooden barrels – usually oak. Woody notes include cedar, pine, vanilla, coconut, clove, coffee, and caramel. These can lend wines complexity but also weigh them down.

Article published in the October 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.