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Understanding Wine: Common Terms Explained

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If you don't know a lot about wine, it can be difficult to figure out what people really mean by the words they use to describe it. Wine tasting doesn't need to be a confusing, elitist language -- a lot of it is actually deceptively simple! Read on for a quick rundown of the five most basic characteristics of all wines and how you can use this vocabulary to figure out which bottles you might enjoy the most.

  1. Acidity: It's easy to confuse acidity with a higher alcohol content, but that's not actually what wine critics and advertisers mean by the term. An acidic wine will cause saliva to well up in your mouth a little, just like when you suck a slice of lemon or eat a sour jelly sweet. Light, crisp wines tend to be quite acidic, and generally speaking they're more likely to be whites than reds. Rich, round wines are less acidic, and are sometimes described as being "smooth".  
  2. Body: This is one of the most commonly used terms when describing wines -- almost every bottle in the shop will describe itself as "light-bodied", "medium-bodied" or "full-bodied". Generally speaking, the lower the alcohol content of a wine the lighter-bodied it will be -- but that's not the only determining factor! Full-bodied wines are thicker and more viscous, have an aftertaste that lingers for longer and lend themselves to being drunk slowly. Light-bodied wines are thinner, crisper and fresher, and they tend not to bead much on the side of the glass. They're also usually lighter in colour. Most whites are lighter-bodied than most reds, but this is by no means a hard and fast rule.  
  3. Fruit: After body, the thing you're most likely to see on a wine label is which fruits the wine tastes of. It doesn't mean that those fruits are in the wine -- just that the tastes the wine has developed as it fermented are reminiscent of them. Lighter red wines often taste of bright red fruits like strawberry or raspberry, while fuller ones tend to have notes of dark fruits like blackberry and blueberry. Some white wines are citrusy, with notes of lemon and lime; others bring out sweet fruits like peach or green apple.   
  4. Sweetness: Perhaps the easiest wine tasting concept for a layperson to understand is sweetness vs. dryness. Sweet wines will create a tingling sensation on your tongue, while dry ones give you that tart, almost 'heartburny' feeling. Very sweet wines feel almost oily as you drink them while very dry ones can create the impression of being higher in tannin than they actually are.  
  5. Tannin: The final concept on this list is also the one most frequently misunderstood. Wines that are high in tannin aren't necessarily dry -- they're actually bitter. Tannin is a familiar flavour to most people; tea has a high tannin content, and the easiest way to tell if a wine has a strong tannin component is to think about drinking black tea as you sip it. It's a very herbal sort of a taste, and it's most frequently found in large quantities in full-bodied red wines -- which can also be very sweet and not actually dry at all! Tannins do come with one big warning label: They're said to make hangovers much worse, and wines that are high in tannin are therefore best enjoyed in moderation.  

Contact a wine supplier if you need various wine options for a function or venue and they'll be able to guide you in choosing the right combination of elements described above.


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