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The language of wine may be one of the most frustrating aspects of learning about wine for new wine drinkers. Fruity, flabby, acidic, firm, rich and fresh are just a few of the terms thrown around. I remember one of my first wine classes in London when my instructor described a wine with deep serious observance as smelling of “barnyard manure.” At the time I never would have guessed the phrase would be used to describe one of the finest wines I have ever had the honor to drink later in life … aged Burgundy.

Over the years the language of wine became a personal obsession, as I was constantly learning and unraveling exactly how to describe a wine. I think wine lovers may be one of the largest groups of underground geeks. We smell everything, read anything with the word wine involved and we will share a glass of wine with 10 people in the room just to get a taste.

Wine terminology isn’t as confusing as it seems if we stop to consider the words are simply memorable ways to describe specific smells and tastes and other traits. These are a few of the more interesting terms in our wine world.

Cat’s pee on a tomato bush

I know, not words you want associated with something you’re about to drink, but this description is spot-on for the distinctive smell of most sauvignon blanc. Other words used to describe the grape include “flinty,” “grassy” and “gun smoke.”


Another confusing term if your first thought is of untoned muscle. This term is actually used to describe a wine too low in acidity.


It isn’t an insult to the wine’s intelligence, but describes a wine with undeveloped aromas. Usually the description refers to a very young wine in a certain stage of aging.


This means there are no off flavors or aromas in the wine.


While it’s true a wine served too warm could be called hot, this actually refers to the alcohol and balance of a wine. Unbalanced, high-alcohol wines can be hot in that they create a burning sensation in the mouth.

Legs or tears

This is one of my favorite wine terms, but it is also possibly one of the most misunderstood phrases in wine language. This term is not a visual measure of quality but of alcohol content. Legs and tears refers to the colorless streams left on the inside of your glass when you swirl the wine around. The slower the streams fall and the thicker they are is usually a sign of higher alcohol.