Making sense out of wine terminology

Readers sometimes ask me to write about the various sensations in a glass of wine. Knowing which terms to use while appreciating and evaluating wines can be difficult, as can trying to decipher wine articles in newspapers and magazines.

Let's look at a few very basic terms and see how they relate to today's winemaking:

Sight. I know this might seem obvious, but what we look at in a glass of wine is very important and can tell us a bit of what to expect. Any wine with pronounced browning tells us it has been subject to air introduction and the result is off fruit color. This same phenomenon happens when we bite into a banana or apple and let it sit on the counter. After a short time, the fruit "browns" from exposure to the air. We also may see "floaters," which can happen with protein or poor filtration.

Another sight-related clue is the bottle of wine itself. If there is a recession in the capsule, that is, a drop in the capsule on the top of the bottle, this indicates a dry cork. Dry cork can lead to air introduction as well and this can spoil wine. If we see the capsule bulging, this means that the cork is rising and indicates a secondary fermentation within the bottle and quite possibly a wine that was exposed to heat. If a label on a bottle of wine is faded, this will often indicate exposure to sunlight, which will again adversely affect the wine.

  • Smell. Most wine judges will tell you that smell, or bouquet, is the most important indicator of the value of the wine. Off flavors are first experienced in the "nose" of the wine. Such problems as oxidation, maderization (heat exposure), sulphur problems or an excessive amount of oak are readily sensed in the nose of the wine. We can also experience wonderful attributes in the wine from the smells, such as delicious fruit and spicy nuances, especially in very delicate white wines.
  • Taste. Taste sensations are the bottom line in any glass of wine. We can know what to expect from a glass of wine by our sight and smell evaluations, but when the wine hits the palate, there is a very important set of tools we can use. We all know of the bitter, sweet and salty receptors, but wine evaluators look beyond them and rely on palate "feel." This "feel" is based on palate density, grip and weight on the palate and aftertastes, which are the lingering sensations.

We understand that the palate is a set of front, middle and back sensations and forms a sort of linear experience. When one takes a sip of wine, the front palate is the first to be sensed. This is where the fruit of the wine is first experienced and can linger for quite some time. Writers sometimes use descriptions such as "explosive fruit" because the front palate is witness to the first exposure to the fruit of the grape.

The middle palate is where the grip and weight of the wine are perceived. We need to have wine sit on this part of the palate so that it remains with enough weight to ensure that cuisine is integrated along with wine flavors. A light medium palate can be problematic with the pairing of food as a wine with little weight or grip seems lost with many types of cuisine.

Back palate is where we experience the lingering "finish" and aftertastes of wine, including that of new oak. It has been said by many wine writers and wine judges that this part of the palate plays the most important part in separating a good bottle of wine from a truly great bottle of wine. Flavors trailing on the palate are the ones we remember the most and can lead to a truly great experience. It is true that many of the older red wines might appear to have lost fruit in the front palate, and some grip in the middle, but rarely do older and great wines disappoint in the back palate.

Well, there you have it. See if you can play with these three sensations and have some fun.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at

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