The use of wine tasting descriptors allows the taster to qualitatively relate the aromas and flavors that the taster experiences and can be used in assessing the overall quality of wine. Wine writers, like Karen MacNeil author of The Wine Bible, differentiate wine tasters from casual enthusiasts; tasters attempt to give an objective description of the wine's taste (often taking a systematic approach to tasting), casual enthusiasts appreciate wine but pause their examination sooner than tasters. The primary source of a person's ability to taste wine is derived from his or her olfactory senses. A taster's own personal experiences play a significant role in conceptualizing what he or she is tasting and attaching a description to that perception. The individual nature of tasting means that descriptors may be perceived differently among various tasters.
The following is an incomplete list of wine tasting descriptors and a common meaning of the terms. These terms and usage are from Karen MacNeil's 2001 edition of The Wine Bible unless otherwise noted.
Brilliance : When describing the visual appearance of the wine, it refers to high clarity, very low levels of suspended solids. When describing fruit flavors, it refers to noticeable acidity and vivid intensity.
Crisp : A pleasing sense of acidity in the wine.
Depth : A wine with several layers of flavor. An aspect of complexity.
Dirty : A wine with off flavors and aromas that most likely resulted from poor hygiene during the fermentation or bottling process.
Dry : A wine that is lacking the perception of sweetness.
Earthy : This can mean a wine with aromas and flavor reminiscent of earth, such as forest floor or mushrooms. It can also refer to the drying impression felt on the palate caused by high levels of geosmin that occur naturally in grapes.
Elegant : A wine that possess finesse with subtle flavors that are in balance.
Expressive : A wine with clearly projected aromas and flavors.
Extracted : A wine with concentrated flavors, often from extended skin contact, trading a rougher youth for enhanced ageability.
Fallen over : A wine that, at a relatively young age, has already gone past its peak (or optimal) drinking period and is rapidly declining in quality is said to have "fallen over".
Fat : A wine that is full in body and has a sense of viscosity. A wine with too much fat that is not balanced by acidity is said to be "flabby" or "blowzy"
Finesse : A wine of high quality that is well balanced.
Finish : The sense and perception of the wine after swallowing.
Flat : In relation to sparkling wines, flat refers to a wine that has lost its effervescence. In all other wines the term is used interchangeably with flabby to denote a wine that is lacking acidity, particularly on the finish.
Foxy : The musty odor and flavor of wines made from Vitis labrusca grapes native to North America, usually something undesirable.
Heavy : A wine that is very alcoholic with too much sense of body.
Herbal: A wine with a flavour or aroma "reminiscent of herbs".
Herbaceous : The herbal, vegetal aromas and flavors that maybe derived from varietal characteristics or decisions made in the winemaking process-such as harvesting under-ripened grapes or using aggressive extraction techniques for a red wine fermented in stainless steel.
Oaky : A wine with a noticeable perception of the effects of oak. This can include the sense of vanilla, sweet spices like nutmeg, a creamy body and a smoky or toasted flavor.
Oxidized : A wine that has experienced too much exposure to oxidation, considered faulty, and may exhibit sherry-like odors.
Oxidative : A wine that has experienced constrained exposure to oxidation over the course of its aging process. The aromas and flavors that develop as a wine oxidatively matures can range from nuttiness, biscuity and butteriness to more spicy notes.
Petrolly : A wine containing a high concentration of trimethyldihydronaphthalene, whose scent is evocative of the odour of petrol, kerosene or paraffin. A petrolly character is considered a highly desirable characteristic in mature Rieslings.
Powerful : A wine with a high level of alcohol that is not excessively alcoholic.
Raisiny: A wine (usually red) with a slight taste of raisins resulting from the use of grapes that were overripe when picked.
Reticent : A wine that is not exhibiting much aroma or bouquet characteristics perhaps due to its youth. It can be described as the sense that a wine is "holding back".
Rich : A sense of sweetness in the wine that is not excessively sweet.
Rough : A wine with coarse texture, usually a young tannic wine.
Round : A wine that has a good sense of body that is not overly tannic.
Smokey : A wine exhibiting the aromas and flavors of the various types of smoke, such as tobacco smoke, roasting fire smoke and a toasty smoke derived from oak influences.
Smooth : A wine with a pleasing texture. Typically refers to a wine with soft tannins.
Sour : A wine with unbalanced, puckery acidity. Often applies to mistreated wines with excessive acetic acid, giving a vinegar-like bite.
Spicy : A wine with aromas and flavors reminiscent of various spices such as black pepper and cinnamon. While this can be a characteristic of the grape varietal, many spicy notes are imparted from oak influences.
Toasty : A sense of the charred or smoky taste from an oaked wine.
Transparency : The ability of a wine to clearly portray all unique aspects of its flavor—fruit, floral, and mineral notes. The opposite would be a wine where flavors are diffused and thoroughly integrated.