When I first became interested in wine, the jargon seemed impenetrable. Most of the terms that appeared murky at first have become clear to me, but some of the most common words used to describe wine remain difficult to understand – partially because of a general lack of consistency in their usage and partially because putting taste and aroma into words remains a highly abstract exercise. This article will tackle some of these terms and attempt to shed light on their meaning.
This extremely common descriptor has many uses and appears to have multiple meanings depending on who’s using it. For many people, “full-bodied” seems to simply mean “good,” because the term is generally associated with powerful flavors. For most professionals, the term does not refer to quality or intensity of flavor, but to viscosity and mouthfeel. In other words, some wines are thicker than others. The best way to think about this is to imagine skim, 2%, and whole milk as being light, medium, and full-bodied respectively. Some full-bodied wines are intense and some are bland, while many light-bodied wines are packed with flavor.
This term has only recently entered the wine vocabulary and is currently very trendy. It’s often used to describe dry crisp white and sparkling wines though it can be used for reds and rosés as well. To attempt to grasp the concept, imagine the smell of a gravel driveway after a fresh rain, the difference between distilled and mineral water, or the smell of the ocean. The roots of vines are very selective about which minerals they absorb from the soil and air, so it’s not certain that wines with a lot of “minerality” literally contain minerals anymore than “citrusy” wines literally contain citrus. Nevertheless, the term “minerality” describes an experience shared by millions of people while tasting wine and allows them to share their perceptions with others.
This word is commonly used to imply quality in wine, but its meaning isn’t always clear. Some people use it in reference to a multitude of flavors or aromas. Does your wine taste like cherries and nothing else? By most standards, it would not be considered complex, even if the wine is very pleasant to drink. If five or more descriptors come to mind for a particular glass, it would be more likely to be described as complex. The number of flavors, however, isn’t a sufficient definition for some. A subset of wine professionals consider the word “complexity” to require a temporal component. In other words, a wine would need to taste different than it smells and have still another set of flavors on the finish. If a wine changes in the glass over an hour or more, or in the bottle over a day or more, it can be credited with yet more complexity. For me, the term “complexity” is related to the question of whether a wine is interesting. If you find that it holds your attention, it is likely to be at least somewhat complex.
Wines are described as “balanced” far more often than the word “balanced” is defined. Some seem to use the term more or less interchangeably with “complex.” For me, “balance” means “proportional.” To use a musical example, a balanced performance would be one in which all the instruments and singers can be heard without covering each other up or drawing excessive attention. A wine is balanced if all its elements are harmonious and “in balance” with one another.
Finally, the term “concentration” has become more widespread as an understanding of viticulture has grown among the public. As grapes mature on the vine, for example, they eventually begin to lose some of their moisture, and the flavors in their juice are literally concentrated. Wine flavors can be concentrated by late harvesting, drying the grapes after picking, removing water from the freshly extracted juice, evaporation during aging, etc. When you encounter the word “concentration,” it’s helpful to keep the question in mind: “what is being concentrated?” Anything can be described as “concentrated,” including aroma, flavor, tannin, acid, alcohol, and sugar. If the word is used by itself without a modifier, it generally refers to the flavor of the wine.