Breaking the Code 

A primer for vino-speak virgins

When fancy wine words fly at you, you've gotta duck before they splat. It's like moving to a different town with new slang, and it behooves you to learn the vocabulary so the cocky blowhards at wine shops don't talk above you. Somehow I don't think the intimidators are gonna stop, so with the help of a dictionary or a friendly wine-geek buddy, it's easy to become fluent in wine jargon. Here's a starter list.

Acidity: A substance in grape juice that makes you pucker when you sip, like eating a lemon.

Age: Remember that 90 percent to 95 percent of all wine should be consumed within one year after it's bottled. The rest -- wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, Spanish and Italian reds, and some California Cabernet Sauvignons -- need to be left alone in the bottle to mellow the sometimes overwhelming harsh tannins.

Balance: When everything in a wine comes together perfectly: The acids aren't too strong and the astringent tannins don't knock you off your chair.

Big: Mostly a word for red wines, meaning lots of beefy flavor, alcohol and tannins. Big wines normally need to age before most people would want to drink them.

Body: Wine is normally described as light, medium and heavy bodied, indicating how heavy the wine feels in your mouth. Kevin Zraly, famed wine educator formerly of Windows on the World, invented a way to teach people about body. Think of it as different grades of milk. Light-bodied wines imitate skim milk in the mouth; medium-bodied wines are like whole milk; and full-bodied ones equal heavy cream.

Clarity: This relates to the color of wine. Clarity mostly refers to the clearness of white wines, but also with lighter-color reds like Pinot Noir. A cloudy-looking wine has bad clarity.

Complex: The opposite of simple. Duh, right? Simple wines' flavor dies on the tongue, but a complex wine has lots going on, from juicy fruit to a nice, long finish.

Crisp: Sharp acidity in a wine. Normally a complimentary word used in connection with whites.

Dry: The direct opposite of sweet. Dry wines have most of the sugar fermented out of them and there's no residual sweetness after you swallow.

Finish: This refers to the flavor left in your mouth after you take a sip. "A long finish" means this flavor lasts a few seconds or more.

Nose: The aroma of a wine, especially when you first smell it. Stick your nose all the way into the glass and snort deeply to get the full effect.

Oaky: The wood taste imparted by the oak barrels used to ferment or age the wine. Too much oak can mask true flavor.

Palate: The flat part of the tongue.

Structure: All the components that make up a wine -- the smell, the feel in your mouth, the tannins, acidity and fruit. "Good structure" is a fabulous compliment for a wine.

Tannins: The drying substance found in the seeds and skins of the grape, mostly in red wines. You can feel tannins as they suck the moisture from your mouth. Same stuff as in tea. Tannins are also what enable a wine to age.

Tight: Normally refers to a red wine's lack of fruity substance when you first pour it in the glass. A wine high in tannins might be tight before it gets mixed with oxygen -- achieved by swirling. Oxygen helps release its flavors.

Varietal: Not to be confused with grape "variety," this word describes a wine made with one grape type, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay.


Kendall Jackson 2001 Camelot Bench Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley. $17. Loads of yummy vanilla and butterscotch on the nose. Sports tinges of lemon and tropical fruit like mango dancing on the palate. Well-balanced and priced right for the quality in the bottle.

Riddoch Katnook Estate 2000 Cabernet-Shiraz Coonawarra. $14. When you first smell it, whiffs of feet float up your nose. Then, the surprising aroma of mint begins. In the mouth, blueberry and cherry erupt. Really fascinating wine.


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