Wine Terms to Use to Make you Sound like a Pro

May 10, 2023


Being in the wine and spirits industry, I’ve come across a lot of situations where consumers know what they want in a wine, but don’t know how to describe it to a professional. Too many times over I’ve heard “I want a smooth wine that’s a little sweet” and they end up referring to a Pinot Noir and or a Cabernet Sauvignon using the same descriptors. If that’s you, then keep reading!

As a proprietor and a sommelier, I want you to get the most out of your wine drinking experience. I want to bring you wines that suit your preference. So let’s start by analyzing common terms.

Sweet vs. Dry

I think this is the most commonly misunderstood explanation of a wine. In the wine world, sweet means a wine that has residual sugar in it like Kabinett or other Rieslings, Brut or other Champagnes, Port, Lambrusco or Moscato. Dry means without residual sugar, or lower than 4g/l of residual sugar. Often I find people use the term sweet when referring to fruity because the fruit flavor is very present often on the nose. 

I also find people use the term dry when referring to tannins because they provide a drying sensation. But they very much enjoy lighter bodied red wines that are considered dry by wine standards, without residual sugar.

So how would you properly describe what you’re looking for?

If you want a wine that is “dry” rather than say you want a dry wine, say you’re looking for a tannic wine; And a wine that is not tannic if you do not want that drying sensation. Most wines on the market are dry wines, so this is important to understand.

If you want a wine that is “sweet” but don’t like sweet wines like Rieslings or Chenin Blanc with residual sugar, ask for wines that are more fruit forward and floral.


I hear this term far more often than I’d like to as a descriptor. I often find that this is the most confusing wine term. I’ve heard people use it to describe supple tannins but I’ve also heard it used on wines that have a lot of oak, and contrastingly a lot of wines that are light bodied. In my experience, it’s best you completely remove this from your wine vocabulary. If you like a wine, find other descriptors to explain what you like.

So how do you describe it?

I believe people who use this descriptor are attempting to describe the body of the wine. The best descriptors are going to be light, medium or full bodied alongside tannic or not tannic. Wines like Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Cinsault are often lighter styles of red wine where as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are generally fuller bodied. 

Tannins are what create the chalky-drying sensation in a wine. The older the wine, the more supple and less drying the tannins feel. Tannins come from both the skin of the wine and the oak barrels. If you like the drying sensation, you like a tannic wine. If you do not like the drying, you do not like a tannic wine. Common tannic wines are Nebbiolo (Barolo/Barbaresco), Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Sangiovese (Chianti).

Oaky vs. Buttery in White Wines

These terms are also often mixed up I find. It’s not wrong to associate them with one another because often times wines that are aged in oak barrels do go through malolactic fermentation (the process that creates the buttery flavor in wines), but there are also wines that are aged in oak barrels that are not buttery (like our Eds’ Vineyard Estate Sauvignon Blanc).

Oak barrels provide the baking spice, coconut or wood flavors as well as tannins and body to the wine. The process of malolactic fermentation in white wines provides a buttery popcorn flavor. This process often occurs in oak barrels during fermentation. However, when exposed to the right climate and environment, malolactic fermentation can occur in any aging vessel. All red wines go through malolactic fermentation.

Wines most associated with oak are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc to name a few. Of these wines, Chardonnay is most common to be put through full malolactic fermentation. But not all Chardonnays are made in that style…so if you don’t usually like Chardonnay, I still always recommend giving it a try. You might surprise yourself!

So how do you describe it?

If you don’t like the buttered popcorn flavor, tell your server you don’t like white wines that go through full malolactic fermentation OR that you don’t like a buttery wine. Don’t say you do not like an oaky wine…because you may be ruling out more than you think…including some Champagne!

I hope these terms help you a little bit more! Comment or share some of your commonly used wine terms.



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