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Originally published Nov. 22, 2013
By Andy Perdue, former Grapevine writer

ONE JOY OF this profession is writing wine reviews, where we can tell a wine’s story while giving you an idea of whether you should pursue a bottle or 12.

But what do our tasting-note terms mean? Do we really taste all those berries? Can we actually perceive hints of gala apple? And what do river rocks taste like?

Well, that’s the creative part. And wine professionals can pick out all those descriptors. It just takes practice.

Descriptions come from personal experiences. For example, my father smoked a pipe, and his brand of tobacco was Heine’s Blend. When I pick up aromas that remind me of my dad and his pipe, I think of sitting next to him in the dugout of my Little League Baseball games. And among my happiest memories is picking blackberries each summer with my grandmother along Lake Washington. These aromas and flavors are seared into my memory.

When we taste and review, we use different words to deconstruct each wine. Here are a few terms and some advice about how to decipher them:


Structure: Structure is like the framing on a house: It holds up everything else. The two main aspects of structure are tannin and acidity. Tannin gives a red wine sturdiness, while acidity is the brightness behind both reds and whites. To understand structure, think of tea. We start with black tea, which has a lot of tannin, a compound that wicks away moisture. Add lemon, and you’ve got acidity that brightens the flavors and balances the tannins. Add sugar to round the edges of both the tannin and acidity. Cream provides richness that can reduce both the tannin and acidity, similar to fruit flavors in wine. When we write “silky tannins,” expect a wine that is mild and won’t dry out your mouth. When you read “assertive tannins,” it’s time to fire up the grill and cook something rare, because you’ll need protein to soften the wine’s aggressive nature.

Mouth feel: This is a hedonic phrase that describes a wine’s texture as it sloshes across the palate. Tannins play a role here, but so does chemistry. A wine higher in pH and alcohol might be “plush,” “rich” or “jammy.” A wine with more structure might be “bold” or “broad-shouldered.” If it reveals a lot of oak, look for “smoke” or “dark chocolate.”

Heat: This almost always refers to a wine’s alcohol and how well-integrated it is. If you see “hot” in a descriptor, we’re telling you the alcohol is out of balance.

Sweetness: In most cases, when we refer to sweetness, we mean the residual sugar left in the wine. For example, a “late harvest,” “ice wine” or “dessert wine” will always have residual sugar. How well that sweetness balances with the rest of a wine’s components determines its quality. If it lacks acidity, it can come off as syrupy. If it has acidity, all the flavors feel like they are singing on your taste buds. To further confuse things, we sometimes write about the perceived sweetness of a wine, which often has to do with the flavors we’re reminded of: oranges, for example.

River rock: Really? Sometimes, we’ll perceive something that reminds us of minerality. Look for words like “slate,” “graphite” or “gravel.” At our most playful, we might write “river rock.” When we use these terms, we’ve typically found something quite fascinating and complex.

Wine reviews are an exercise in creativity, combining education with playfulness and poetry — just like a good wine.