Wine Reviews Tasting Notes and Education for the Non-Snob, by Vino Joe, a Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW)

Wine Term: Earthy

Jar of soil from Verite wine vineyardsDoes this term mean the wine is 100% organic? Does it mean it’s “plain and simple in style”, or “plain in taste” as Merriam-Webster defines? No, no, and no. While a wine that is organic CAN be earthy, an earthy wine is not necessarily organic, and an earthy wine is often the opposite of plain — though, a plain wine can have an earthy character. Sufficiently confused? Read on.

If you have been drinking wine for a long time, you might already know the term “earthy”, and likely have experienced this characteristic. Wines described as “earthy” will have aromas and flavors of soil, minerals, vegetation, and/or wet leaves. Yes, I said soil, and yes I mean as in dirt. Believe it or not, many people find dirt — er, earthiness — to be a positive element in a wine (myself included), as it adds to a wine’s complexity.

Typically “earthy” wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo — though just about any red wine can pick up an “earthy” element. As you might guess, it’s believed that the earthiness comes from the soil in which the vines are planted. Generally speaking, white wines are rarely described as “earthy”, although I’ve had some wines with a component in the flavor or aroma that could be described as “mushroom” — and mushrooms come from the earth, so go figure.

Wine Term: Lees

White Lee jeansNo, these aren’t what you might wear for pants, and you will be hard-pressed (pardon the pun) to find them in white (though blue is not unusual).

The lees (pronounced like the jeans) are the dead yeast cells, grape seeds, pulp, stems, skins, and tartrates that separate from the juice during wine making and aging.

When there’s “stuff” at the bottom of the bottle, it’s referred to as sediment or dregs; when you’re discussing the technical aspects of the winemaking, it’s called “the lees” — as in, “this wine was left on the lees for two months, blah blah blah”.

Some wines (usually white) are left in contact with their lees to increase the complexity and enhance the structure of the finished wine. By leaving the juice to remain on top of the lees (and/or occasional stirring) after fermentation, all the dead yeast and skins, etc., can provide additional flavors, body, and richness. After a predetermined amount of time “on the lees”, the juice will then be “racked” — a.k.a., moved to a new container (barrel, tank, etc.) — with the lees left behind.

An example of a wine left on the lees is Muscadet “Sur Lie”; many white wines in the higher price ranges are also left on the lees — it’s a common tactic for ageable whites and Champagnes.

Wine Term: Unfiltered

A modern wine filtration deviceOnce in a while, you may see a label announce that the wine is “unfiltered”. This does not mean the winemaker was smoking a Camel cigarette when the wine was bottled, nor does it mean that you need to pour the wine through a coffee filter before drinking it. Basically, it’s an explanation for the wine’s lack of clarity.

For the last 25 or so years, wineries have used fining and filtration techniques to make a wine appear crystal-clear. This makes for a more attractive and trustworthy product. Most wines sold at retail today are filtered, and as a result you can see right through them (this is most obvious with white wines).

A wine is filtered in one or more more of several ways. For example, sterile filtration uses micropore filters, which are fine enough to remove yeast cells, and thus prevent a second fermentation inside the bottle. On the other hand, depth (or sheet) filtration is not unlike the use of a coffee filter, though is a bit more sophisticated than the typical #4 cone you use in your coffeemaker. The process relies on a thick layer of fine material (diatomaceous earth, cellulose powder, perlite, etc.) to trap and remove small particles. There are other methods as well — membrane filtration is common — and there are pros and cons for each process. Regardless of the way it’s done, the goal is to remove any undesirable elements and produce a stable, clear liquid.

However, these filtering processes may also remove elements that affect the flavors and aromas of a wine, so some winemakers choose not to filter. They believe that filtering strips the wine of its true character, and employ other methods of getting the wine as clear as possible (racking, cold stabilization, and other old-school techniques are the alternative). There are also wineries that avoid filtering — or keep it to an absolute minimum — to maintain organic status.

Does an unfiltered wine taste better than a filtered one? Maybe — it all depends on the individual. For many, it can be more of a visual thing than a flavor issue. Some people are put off by a wine that is not completely clear, while others feel a cloudy wine is more “natural”.

Wine Term: Fat

Definition of the wine term fatNo doubt you’ve heard this one, especially if you subscribe to one of the large-format wine magazines, such as Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast. They review a lot of California Chardonnays, many of which may be described as “fat”.

For example, any of a number of white wines have this phrase in the notes: “… Round and fat with a long, butter- and honey-filled finish … ”

So what is meant by “fat” ? Luckily, it has nothing to do with your waistline. Generally, a wine that has a lot of fruit concentration but low acidity is often defined as being “fat”. If the acidity is so low it is displeasing, the wine may be called “flabby” or “insipid”.

Though a lot of New World Chardonnays are described as “fat”, those aren’t the only wines that need to go on a diet. For example, Condrieu and other big white wines from the Rhone Valley have been described as such. Further, fat wines are not relegated to whites; on occasion you may see the term used in a red wine review. As a general rule, fat wines come from very hot regions, and as such also tend to be overly ripe and have high alcohol levels as well.

Finally, fat wines are not necessarily bad; quite the contrary, in fact. Most often, “fat” is used to praise a wine’s generous fruit concentration, and is a complementary term to “mouthfilling”, “big”, or “round”.

And don’t worry — fat wines have about the same amount of calories as “thin” wines, and are assigned the same amount of points by Weight Watchers.

Wine Term: Austere

Wine education - wine tasting note termAustere is a major geek term that is often used to describe a young, expensive wine that critics assume will evolve into a blockbuster.

The term austere is actually difficult to pinpoint; it is a vague definition of a wine that has a high level of acid and/or tannin, which currently overpowers the fruit, but is expected to soften with age.

For example, a huge red Bordeaux or expensive California Cabernet may taste more like an ashtray than wine — when it is young. The flavors will be dominated by bitter earth and tar, acids may be oppressive (some people describe it as “bite”), and/or the tannins may leave your tongue feeling like it needs a shave. However, experienced connoisseurs — who have tasted similar wines in youth and later at maturity — may take the educated guess that the wine will eventually evelve into something much more drinkable. So instead of saying the wine is similar to licking hot tarmac, they’ll say it is “austere” (sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?).

In all seriousness, if you hear or read the word “austere” in tasting notes, it almost always will mean that the wine is 1) expensive; 2) very young; and 3) after appropriate time in the cellar, the “hardness” (“hard” is a common synonym for “austere”) will soften, the fruit will come forward, and the wine should taste somewhere between good and extraordinary.

The Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd EditionBy the way, if you are an advanced wine drinker and want to become more knowledgeable about wine, you should consider purchasing The Oxford Companion to Wine. Just about every wine term you’ve ever heard (and never heard) is defined in this massive tome, and it makes a nice paperweight. Click on the picture to the left to buy it from Amazon.

Wine Term: Cloying

You may often see the term “cloying” used in the highbrow wine magazine reviews — most often when describing overly ripe white wines and dessert wines. Merriam-Webster defines cloying thusly:

” disgusting or distasteful by reason of excess ; also : excessively sweet or sentimental ( a cloying romantic comedy )”

In wine terms, cloying is used to connote a wine that is excessively sweet in flavor (sentimentality might enter the picture, though it depends on your mood). Like most descriptors used in wine tasting notes, it is a subjective term — what one finds cloying, another may find “just right”.

However, seeing the term in a taster’s notes can be helpful to you. In nearly all cases, a wine that is described as “cloying” will have a high level of residual sugar, and therefore a sweet taste. Similarly, a wine that is described as ” .. ripe fruit, but not cloying .. ” suggests that it will have a flavor that might give the perception of sweetness, but not be overpoweringly sweet.