Wine

The New Vocabulary of Wine

October 15, 2020

Story: Emily Timberlake

Art: Rymie

The words we use to talk about wine often say more about us than what's in the glass. Here, a non-exhaustive guide to determining what kind of wine talker you are—or want to be.

The year is 2050. Two wine professionals—one, the owner of a natural wine bar, the other, a CMS-accredited master sommelier—have been cryogenically frozen, Austin Powers–style, for the last 30 years. Upon thawing, they do what any reasonable wine lover would do, and head to the nearest bottle shop.

“Oh my god, am I ready to crush some juice!” the MS exclaims. “What do you have in the reductive, PYCM style?”

“I haven’t had a drink in 30 years,” says the natural wine bar owner, “so my tolerance is probably shit. Can you recommend something glou-glou and sessionable?”

The wine store clerk, a robot, beeps and whistles apologetically. “I’m sorry, I do not understand either of your requests.” It retreats to its robot charging station.

Back in the year 2020, we nod in sympathy with the wine store robot. Humans have been making and drinking wine since 6,000 BCE, but it’s not clear whether we have gotten any better at talking about it in the intervening millennia. The difficulty of communicating about wine in clear, non-goofy terms is perhaps the only thing drinkers across the spectrum can agree on. “Wine-talk is a problem,” begins the entry for the “language of wine” in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine—a 900-page, 1-million-word encyclopedia of wine-talk.

The words we use to talk about wine often say more about us than the wine itself—how we want to be seen, which club we want to be a part of. Are you deductive or intuitive? A numbers gal or a feelings gal? Nerd or jock? Country or rock ’n’ roll?

Today, the problem feels especially fraught. What might have been a punchline in years past (“Wow, that guy sounds like a real asshole when he talks about wine”) is now seen as a symptom of the wine world’s exclusionary tendencies—pretentiousness, classism and Eurocentrism at best, racism and sexism at worst. “When I go to wine tastings, I feel like I have to make a conscious effort to play down my brownness,” writes Miguel de Leon on this website. “I cherry-pick my vocabulary, reaching into the word box of white somm-speak.”

“[I]t’s becoming clearer than ever that the conventional language used to describe wine isn’t merely intimidating and opaque,” writes Esther Mobley in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s also inextricable from racism and sexism, excluding dimensions of flavor that are unfamiliar to the white, Western cultures that dominate the world of fine wine and reinforcing retrograde notions of gender.”

As Mobley and other mainstream wine writers consider “how seemingly innocuous words can have a larger impact,” many have shifted away from the stiff, jargony language of the late 20th century toward something simpler and more vernacular. For example, when writing for or talking to consumers, wine gatekeepers of the year 2020 have mostly ditched old-fashioned, single-use wine terms like “mouthfeel,” “bouquet” and “legs” in favor of more straightforward words like “texture,” “smell” and “weight”—a sort of linguistic Kon-Mari-ing of wine-talk clutter. (This corresponds to a shift in the culture at large toward more inclusive, accessible language—most style guides have loosened up on old-school grammatical rules like splitting an infinitive and, in 2019, Merriam-Webster named the gender-neutral singular pronoun “they” as their word of the year.)

But behind closed doors, when professionals talk about wine with each other, their language feels as impenetrable as ever. To make things even more complicated, there are now competing dialects of wine-talk, as splinter groups—most notably, the “somm” and “natty” sets—dance out their own Jet vs. Shark–style rivalries. Walk into the wrong natural wine bar and ask for a glass with “moderate-plus acidity,” and you’ll be laughed out the door. Ask a certain type of fine-dining sommelier for a bottle of something “funky” and steel yourself for the Arctic blast of their glare.

“Somm speak” is perhaps best understood as a quantitative language. The very existence of certification programs like the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) is predicated on the idea that wine expertise is measurable—either you pass the test, or you don’t; you are certified, or you are not. This philosophy bleeds into the language—acid and alcohol levels are “plus” or “minus”; wine is “faulty” or “sound”; tasting is “deductive.”

“With the rise of deductive blind tasting as a set of training tools, you learn a technological language to analyze wine and flavors,” says James Sligh, a former sommelier at New York’s Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels. “But the way it’s being used is like a game of telephone: By the time a bunch of 28-year-old dudes in an EMP [Eleven Madison Park] dining room are sitting around talking about aromatic molecules, it’s been passed down. It’s not like they’ve been reading the relevant scientific literature.” Hence words like “rotundone” and “reductive” step out of the examination room and into the lexicon, where they are wielded with varying degrees of fluency. Sligh adds: “The way sommeliers talk has gotten faux-scientific.”

“Natty speak,” by contrast, is more of a qualitative language: Naturalists in the year 2020 are more likely to talk about the “vibe” of a wine than its clarity, concentration or color. The language is intentionally rudimentary, filled with fuzzy but friendly-seeming words like “funky” and “crunchy” that are actually quite conceptual when applied to wine. Whereas sommeliers are trained to identify faults and flaws, naturalists reject the faulty/sound binary and have embraced a new set of tasting terms designed to celebrate a broader spectrum of “acceptable” flavors and expressions, like “bretty,” “cloudy” and “gassy.”

So many people think that they’re intimidated by wine when in fact they’re intimidated by the language of wine.

It all sounds very “come as you are” and “Kumbaya”—but as anyone who has felt out of place in an aggressively hip natural wine bar can tell you, natty speak is its own special version of alienating. Despite its origins as a fringe, New Age-ish movement rooted in environmental stewardship and biodynamics, today natural wine is just another accessory to mainstream cool culture, with its own set of in-group signifiers: “glou-glou,” “pét-nat,” “zero-zero.”

“You like the right kind of music, you have good taste in furniture, your clothes are on point, you drink Susucaru,” laughs Sligh.

So many people think that they’re intimidated by wine when in fact they’re intimidated by the language of wine. Someone, somewhere convinced them that before they dare try to describe what’s in their glass, they must first master the hyperspecialized vocabulary of wine’s professional class. But there’s a twist: That vocabulary isn’t fixed, it’s ever-changing—a dispiriting realization whether you’re a retail robot from the future or a consumer in the year 2020. The words we use to talk about wine often say more about us than the wine itself—how we want to be seen, which club we want to be a part of. Are you deductive or intuitive? A numbers gal or a feelings gal? Nerd or jock? Country or rock ’n’ roll?

The glossary below does not pretend to be definitive or comprehensive, because the words we use to talk about wine—even the science-y ones—pass into and out of fashion. Many will seem dated and silly in a few years; some may become better understood and more mainstream over time. It’s up to you to decide which ones help you best understand and appreciate what’s in your glass, and which (if any!) reflect your values as a consumer and member of the global wine community. It’s up to you to decide what kind of wine talker you want to be.

French, French Slang and Franglais

Bojo: Shorthand for Beaujolais, ground zero for the contemporary natural wine movement.

Glou-glou: Quaffable, relatively low-alcohol wine. More often applied to red wines than white, to differentiate from more tannic, inky or full-bodied styles. From the French onomatopoeia for “glug, glug”—the sound you make when gulping (rather than politely sipping) wine. See also: Vin de soif.

Vin de soif: French phrase that roughly translates to “thirst quencher.” Another term for “glou-glou”—i.e., wine that is light-bodied, relatively low-alcohol, high-acid, refreshing.

Zéro-zéro (Fr.), zero-zero (En.): Also stylized as øø. A natural wine with “nothing added” (no additives or preservatives—although battles rage as to whether small amounts of sulfur are permissible) and “nothing taken away” (no fining or filtering, although there is controversy over what qualifies as “filtering”).

Conceptual Tasting Terms

Crunchy: Used to describe both white and red wines with pronounced acidity. See also: Fresh.

Fresh: Often used as an imperfect translation from the French “frais,” which means “fresh” but also “chilly” or “brisk.” Electric, energizing, zippy. Can be used to describe both texture and flavor.

Funky: A controversial term, as there is no single, agreed-upon definition—nor is there agreement as to whether “funkiness” is a positive or a negative. Historically, calling a wine “funky” meant that it was flawed; “funky” odors were interpreted as a sign of bacterial spoilage. But in recent years “funky” has become a sort of shorthand for “natural” among consumers, to whom it could mean sour (like a lambic or other sour beer), earthy, savory or mushroomy.

Good acid: A bit of a sommelier in-joke. Since sommeliers all seem to love high-acid wines, “good acid” has become a knee-jerk tasting note that often simply means “I like this wine.” See also: Medium-plus.

Minerality: Most often used to describe white wines, though occasionally red as well. A somewhat controversial tasting term that means different things to different people—sometimes a flavor (wet stones, oyster shell, gunflint), sometimes a texture (grainy, chalky), sometimes a feeling (an electrical current, zippiness). As noted by Jordan Mackay and Rajat Parr in The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, part of the term’s controversy stems from the fact that soil scientists and geologists cannot find chemical traces of the specific minerals that tasters often identify (slate, graphite, schist) in the wines themselves—yet “upholsterers don’t get flummoxed when we describe wines as ‘velvety.’” And so, most agree that minerality is not the literal taste of minerals in the vineyard, but rather a metaphor, just like hay or cat piss or gasoline.

Salty: Related to “mineral.” Used almost exclusively as a tasting note for white wines, especially those with saline flavors (Muscadet, some chenin blanc).

Tight: Often used interchangeably with “closed” or “closed down.” A wine that doesn’t have much going on, aroma-wise. (Decanting is often the answer.) Some fine wines destined for long aging go through a period of years where they are “closed down,” i.e., they will show well for a few years in their youth, “close down” for five or even 10 years, then blossom again to reveal an even wider array of aromas in their maturity.

Scientific Terms and CMS-Crossover Speak

Allocated: When a wine is in high demand but short supply, distributors or importers may limit which accounts can purchase the wine, and in what quantities (called an “allocation”). For example, a restaurant may only be allowed to buy one bottle of an allocated wine per year. Because of this scarcity, some restaurants may not even list their most prized allocated wines on the menu, keeping them “off list” and saving them only for special occasions or favorite regulars.

Bretty: Characterized by the flavors and aromas of the yeast Brettanomyces. Usage is controversial, as Brettanomyces itself is controversial: Most homebrewing or winemaking primers list it as a flaw or sign of spoilage characterized by a “band-aid” aroma. This has been challenged in recent decades, especially as the popularity of sour beers and natural wines has broadened consumer’s palates. “Bretty” has also been challenged as a tasting note, as many experts argue that there is no single, monolithic “Brettanomyces” flavor. In 2017, researchers at the University of California, Davis, Department of Viticulture & Enology published a “Brettanomyces Aroma Wheel” detailing the many aromatic manifestations—positive and negative—of the yeast, ranging from sewer gas to chocolate.

Medium-plus, moderate-plus: Adapted from the Court of Master Sommeliers deductive tasting exam, where participants are asked to quantify a wine’s acidity (low to moderate-minus, moderate, moderate-plus or high). As with “good acid,” many somms joke that the phrase has been rendered essentially meaningless, as they will describe any wine that they like as having “moderate-plus” acidity.

Mouse, mousy, mousiness (Fr: goût de souris): Mouse taint—the unpleasant, wet-fur-like flavor that afflicts certain low-sulfur wines and is variously described as “rice crackers,” “dirty socks” and “mouse cage”— has become a bugbear of the “embrace the flaws” naturalist set in recent years. Most drinkers can perceive mouse only after tasting a wine (i.e., not just sniffing it) and, confoundingly, not everyone can detect it. Research suggests that the compounds responsible for mousiness only become volatile—and therefore detectable—when they are combined with saliva at an adequately high pH. The variability of individuals’ saliva pH is at least part of the reason why some people don’t detect mouse at all, and others detect it sometimes but not always.

Oxidation, oxidative, oxidized: In the world of wine, “oxidation” refers specifically to the exposure (intended or not) of wine to oxygen. “Oxidative” is understood to mean that the oxygen exposure was deliberate—as with sherry, Madeira and some Jura wines. “Oxidized,” by contrast, is generally used to describe an unwanted exposure to oxygen—considered a wine fault. (This distinction is unique to the world of wine; “oxidative” and “oxidized” do not refer to separate chemical processes.) As Jamie Goode notes in The Science of Wine, a key component in the oxidation of wine is the molecule acetaldehyde, which contributes nutty and apple flavors.

Reductive: For an excellent explanation of this complicated topic, turn again to Goode’s The Science of Wine, where you will find an entire chapter on “Reduction: volatile sulfur compounds in wine.” TLDR: Most people use this word to describe taste and smell sensations caused by volatile sulfur compounds. On the favorable end of the spectrum, there’s the “struck match” or “flinty” quality of many high-end white Burgundies, for example those made by Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey (known to fine-wine hipsters as “PYCM”); on the negative end, aromas of leek or rotten egg. In red wines, volatile sulfur compounds may contribute roast-coffee aromas that are often described as “reduction.” “Reductive winemaking” often refers to the use of stainless steel tanks and other production methods designed to limit the exposure of wine to oxygen.

Rotundone: A key aroma molecule in peppercorns and syrah. Rotundone was first identified in a 2008 article in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, which described it as “a hitherto unrecognized important aroma impact compound with a strong spicy, peppercorn aroma” and “a major contributor to peppery characters in Shiraz grapes and wine (and to a lesser extent in wine of other varieties).” The relative newness of the discovery of this “obscure sesquiterpene” might explain its trendiness as a tasting note. “Peppery” is a synonym that has served wine tasters equally well for centuries.

Sulfur, sulfite, sulfide: Where… to begin? At the most macro level, sulfur is a nonmetallic chemical element, S on the periodic table. But in a wine context, “sulfur” most often refers to sulfur dioxide, SO2, arguably the most common additive in wine. Sulfur dioxide has many uses in winemaking, most notably as an antibacterial, antioxidant preservative. In Natural Wine for the People, Alice Feiring writes that in large quantities, it is “a fixative much like hairspray.” In recent decades sulfur has become a tinderbox for the natural wine movement, with various camps arguing whether a wine with added sulfur can be considered “natural”—and if yes, how much sulfur is acceptable. “Sans soufre” wines purport to have no sulfur added; other natural wines hover closer to the 10 to 40 ppm range. “Sulfite” is a blanket term that includes an array of sulfur-based chemical compounds, including sulfur dioxide (SO2) and sulfurous acid (H2SO3). “Sulfides,” by contrast, are a sign of chemical reduction, and are broadly considered a wine flaw. Perhaps the most infamous sulfide is hydrogen sulfide (H2S), with its unmistakable rotten-egg smell.

Frat-Dude Slang

Crushable: Easy to drink. Typically refers to wines with medium to high acid, low tannins, relatively low ABV. When applied to red wine, it almost always refers to chilled red wine. Clear origins in collegiate fraternity argot, where phrases like, “Let’s crush some brews” or “We crushed that keg” were de rigueur in the 1990s and 2000s. See also: Poundable, Slammable.

Natty: Shorthand for natural. Arguably derived from slang used to describe the beer brand Natural Light, which entered the market in 1977 and remains one of the top-selling low-calorie beers in the United States. (NB: Natural Light formally embraced the nickname “Natty” in 2012 with the release of “Natty Daddy,” an 8 percent ABV malt liquor.)

Juice: Anti-snob slang for wine, as in, “Wine is just fucking fermented juice.” Predictably, this populist framing has been coopted and capitalized on by mainstream wine marketers, and now, “juice” is a staple of so-called “Wine Mom” culture—specifically, in advertising and merchandise targeted toward women (e.g., tea towels and aprons with phrases such as “Mommy needs her juice” or “Merry Christmas—now pass me the Jingle Juice”).

Porch (or patio) pounder: A lower-alcohol, refreshing wine with pronounced acid, light body and low tannins, presumed suitable for day-drinking.

Poundable: See “Crushable.”

Slammable: See “Crushable.”

Unicorn: A term that became popular among sommeliers in the early days of social media to describe any rare, hard-to-find wine. In 2013, sommelier Rajat Parr took to Twitter to crowdsource a set of “#unicornwinerules” to define what could rightly be called a unicorn. The consensus was that a unicorn had to be made from a lot with fewer than 200 cases by a retired or deceased winemaker. However, many drinkers favor a looser interpretation: Perhaps the producer only made one vintage, the producer stopped making wine entirely, the wine was made in incredibly small amounts, or the wine is so culty and sought-after that it has become prohibitively expensive.

Tagged: sommeliers, wine