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The Words of Wine Tasting

With nearly 300 wineries in the vicinity, Santa Rosa, Calif., is a heavenly destination for dedicated oenophiles and casual drinkers alike. Many of the wineries offer tours and tastings, providing an excellent opportunity to sample and savor the local vintages. To help make sure that novice connoisseurs get the most out of these experiences, here’s a rundown of some of the common terms associated with wine tasting and what they mean:

To begin with, you will want to identify the fruit level in the wine. As you might imagine, this generally refers to the fruitiness of the wine (in both flavor and aroma).

  • When a wine is full of sweet fruit flavor – for red wines, it might be something like blackberry or maraschino cherry; for white wines, mandarin orange or cantaloupe – it is said to be “fruit forward.” You might also hear such a wine referred to as “fruit-driven,” “jammy” or “flamboyant.”
  • A wine that is the opposite of fruit forward, with flavors in the tart or bitter spectrum, is “savory.” Similar terms that get bandied about include “herbaceous,” “earthy,” “rustic” and “stemmy.” Savory wines might feature such flavors as cranberry, rhubarb, black currant and wild strawberry (red), or lime, lemon, quince, green apple and grapefruit (white).

The next component to contend with is the sweetness level of the wine. Wines get their sweetness from residual sugar, which is left over from grape juice that doesn’t get completely fermented into alcohol. There are four levels of sweetness that are used to characterize wine: “bone dry,” “dry,” “off dry” and “sweet.” (For a basic sugar comparison, the average soft drink has 16 grams of sugar per 5 oz. serving.)

  • Bone dry – Extreme dryness with no residual sugar. Bone dry wines are usually accompanied by an astringent or bitter taste. Red wines get this bitterness from tannin or savory fruit flavors; whites from “phenolic” bitterness, which is described like the taste of grapefruit or quince.
  • Dry – The most common sweetness category, describing wines with zero to 1 gram of sugar per 5 oz. serving.
  • Off dry – Used to describe wines with a touch (2-3 grams per 5 oz. serving) of residual sugar. Most off dry wines are white wines, although some high-quality Italian reds qualify. High acidity wines (such as Riesling) will taste more dry than varieties with lower acidity, even with the same sugar content.
  • Sweet – These are typically dessert wines, and can have as little as 3 grams of sugar per serving, all the way up to 28 grams! Examples of sweet wines include ice wines and tawny ports.

The body of a wine refers to its consistency and how it feels in the mouth. There are many factors that affect the body of a wine, from alcohol level and tannin to acidity – and some wines fall into multiple body styles – so it’s far from an exact science.

  • Light bodied – Wines that sit in your mouth and have a more refreshing taste, with a long aftertaste. In general, light bodied wines have lower alcohol levels, lower tannin and higher acidity. Terms used to described light bodied wines include “subtle,” “delicate,” “crisp” and “floral” (red), or “light,” “zesty,” “airy” and “lively” (white).
  • Medium bodied – This characterization is used almost exclusively for red wines. Medium bodied reds are often described as “food wines,” and have a middle-of-the-road tannin level. Applicable terms include “moderate,” “elegant,” “fleshy” and “mellow.”
  • Full bodied – These wines fill the palate with their texture and intensity. Again, this term is more commonly applied to red wines, with heightened alcohol (above 14% ABV) and tannin levels. While some full bodied reds are better enjoyed as stand-alone varietals (not matched with foods), others are so intense with bitter tannin that they call for pairing with a rich, fatty food (such as steak) to smooth out the experience. Full bodied reds may be described as “lush,” “opulent,” “muscular” and “hot,” while full bodied whites (such as Chardonnay) are called “rich,” “oily” and “buttery.”

The aftertaste of a wine is known as the finish, and it can be the difference between a mediocre-tasting wine and an astounding one. There are three kinds of finish to be experienced:

  • Smooth finish – This is what people generally ask for and expect in a wine, though it really isn’t considered descriptive enough. To fully appreciate what is meant by a smooth finish, it needs to be further clarified:
    • Tart finish – Common in higher acidity wines. Usually begins with tart fruit flavors and ends with subtle bitterness. Generally found in wines from cool climate regions or cool vintages. In light white wines, a tingling tart finish (lasting 15-20 seconds) is considered a great quality.
    • Sweet tannin (or smoky sweet) finish – Common in oak-aged red wines.
    • Dried fruit finish – Common in aged red wines as well as lighter bodied reds.
  • Spicy finish – The sensation of a spicy finish can be compared to the feeling in your nose when you eat wasabi or horseradish. This can occur due to the type of grape (Cabernet Sauvignon and Barbera are known to produce a spicy finish) or the type of acid in the wine. In some cases, a spicy finish is desirable; at other times, it is a sign that the balance of the wine is off. Wines with a spicy finish are described as “peppery,” “sharp,” “austere” and “edgy.”
  • Bitter finish – As described above in the section on bone dry wines, a bitter finish is astringent – as if it’s scraping the inside of your mouth. While not a popular quality, it can work extremely well with rich, fatty foods. Bitter reds can be described as “muscular,” “chewy” and “harsh,” while bitter whites tend to be described by their flavor, such as “citrus pith,” “bitter almond,” “green mango.”

Now that you’ve got the vocabulary, you’re ready to enjoy a tantalizing tasting tour in Santa Rosa. And when you get there, be sure to stop by the California Welcome Center and pick up free tasting coupons and maps. To plan your trip to Santa Rosa – or to another of our wine-tastic destinations, such as Kelowna, British Columbia or Portland, Oregon – drop us a line at

To learn more about Santa Rosa, visit our website at

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