Austere, when used in tasting, generally refers to a wine which is relatively high in acid, or perhaps tannins, and is tight and restrained on the palate rather than soft, rich, round or fruity. It’s not necessarily a negative, and often refers to young wines that may be destined for graceful ageing.
Good balance is perhaps the most fundamental and important characteristic that sets a good wine apart from a lesser one. When we talk about good balance we mean that the fruit intensity, tannin, acidity, alcohol and perhaps sweetness are in complete harmony with one another in the mouth. No one element sticks out or dominates but rather each complements the others. Good balance completes a wine and allows it to age with poise.
A wine is described as complex when it displays a multiplicity of aromas, flavours and characters, which together create a layered, intricate harmony in the nose and mouth. A wine which dominates in a singular character is referred to as simple or one-dimensional, and while that character may be quite delicious, an intensely grassy Sauvignon Blanc for example, a simple wine tends not to hold the taster’s interest for long. A complex wine challenges the taster, holding more subtleties and often resulting in deliberations over exactly what that elusive flavor is that’s on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite put your finger on. It can evolve in the glass, releasing different nuances as it mixes with air, and can change within the mouth from start to finish.
Creamy is a textural term describing how a wine feels in the mouth. It is often used to describe sparkling wines and Chardonnays, for example, often seen in a wine as the result of yeast lees contact, barrel fermentation or malo-lactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation which converts tart malic acid to softer, smoother lactic acid). Creamy wines have a rich, soft smoothness on the palate reminiscent of the sensation of heavy cream.
Finish simply refers to the lingering flavours and sensations left in the mouth after a wine has been swallowed. Better quality wines generally have a long, balanced finish, which just means that pleasant flavours and sensations linger longer at the back of the palate. “Short” wines are blunter in the mouth and are usually less satisfying.
Fleshy is a term describing how a wine feels in the mouth. A fleshy wine usually has good body, texture and density, and is smooth, rich and chewy. For some, the wine may give the impression of meatiness, like chewing on a piece of steak. For others perhaps a ripe Satsuma plum might be more like the sensation of fleshiness.
This is very much a conceptual term, and perhaps one of the more difficult to grasp. But give it a try and let yourself experience the sensation with a few different wines to really grasp it. Imagine as you take a sip of wine that it gives the impression of a line through your palate, from the first point of entry, through the mid-palate and extending out to a long finish. A wine with good “line” forms the perception of an even, unbroken and tight line which extends right through the palate, whereas a wine without “line” is broken, disjointed, uneven or clumsy and feels all over the place it the mouth. Make sense? Have a go and see if you can taste the difference between a better or lesser wine by the line it displays.
Minerality is a descriptive term for the flavours of minerals, rocks and stones in wine, which may manifest as gravelly, slatey, chalky, flinty or granitic characters, best imagined as the experience of licking a stone. Vines can pick up all sorts of mineral characteristics from the soil they’re grown in. While minerality is mostly used to describe flavor, it can also relate to the texture of a wine.
Another conceptual term which can perhaps be related to the human form. Imagine a wine in your mouth. While fruit and alcohol will generally impact the body and fleshiness, tannins and acidity will contribute more towards the structure or backbone of the wine. Structure supports a wine and stops it from appearing too flat or flabby. But it’s important for the structure to be balanced with the body and flavour of the wine – an overly structural wine can feel hard or tough in the mouth.
Unctuous is a delicious term used to describe a luscious, rich and concentrated wine with a soft, slippery or velvety mouthfeel. In its extreme, an unctuous wine can be heavy, oily or even soapy on the palate, so once again balance is key. Unctuous is often used to describe rich, sweet fortified and dessert wines.
Hopefully this helps to demystify a little wine-talk and gives you a few tools to use next time you’re supping with a connoisseur.