Written By Maia Parish - Tales of a Wine Mistress - September 10 2020
People like to describe certain wines as “smooth.” We asked some experts to explain what that means, exactly.
There are many terms used to describe wine. Some are common and straightforward, like fruity, while others are a little more obscure, like minerality. And then there’s the wine descriptor that’s at once common yet obscure: smooth.
Smooth is used just about everywhere that wine is sold. You hear it in tasting rooms and wine shops, and it pops up all over online marketplaces like Wine Insiders and Winc. It’s a word that wine drinkers seem to have just accepted as part of the vocabulary. But what does it actually mean?
“It’s such a funny word,” Chevonne Ball, a sommelier and the founder of the wine travel company Dirty Radish, said. “Smooth jazz is the first thing that comes to mind for me.”
Ball thinks about, and talks about, wine a lot. She also often thinks about words and their meanings as well. While speaking on the phone for this story, she googled the definition for smooth to try and find one that meshes best with wine. The first three definitions weren’t a match, but the fourth fit: “in a way that is without difficulties.” It’s admittedly still a little open ended, but it’s a working definition that sommeliers understand and can further define.
Smooth wines are gateway wines that aren’t tannic or acidic
It would take a lifetime and a large dictionary to learn all there is to know about wine, but we all have to start somewhere. And that somewhere is often a smooth wine.
“I think smooth is used for entry-level wines because it has no pejorative connotation and sort of sounds a little more sophisticated than ‘easy drinking,’” master sommelier Andrea Robinson said. She added that the residual sugar that’s popular in entry level wines adds “a slight syrupy-ness, which is texturally unctuous and thus smooth.”
One way to understand what a smooth wine is is to consider what it’s not-namely, it’s not harsh and it’s not bitter, Ball said. Others agree.
“It’s a wine that lacks tannic structure,” Matthew Kaner, sommelier and owner of Bar Covell, said. “It’s a wine that also has low acid. In the fine wine world, those would be negatives. But when you’re looking for something easy drinking and inexpensive, something you can enjoy and not think too much about it, then smooth is the term people use.”
The perception of texture goes along with this. “Usually people are talking about how it’s flowing through their mouth,” Maia Parish, sommelier and founder of The Wine Suite, said. “We would also call that elegance or style. A very soft tannin wine.”
What are some smooth wines?
With that basic understanding of not too tannic and not too acidic, sommeliers know just the right wines for anyone asking for something smooth. Dustin Wilson, master sommelier and owner of Verve Wine, considers Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Trousseau, and Poulsard classic examples of smooth wine.
“Other grapes could also be included in this if and when they are made in such a way to keep their tannin structure soft- i.e. Syrah that is treated gently during fermentation, perhaps has some partial carbonic, and maybe gets some new oak aging,” Wilson said. “This would all lead to a more ‘smooth’ version of that grape.”
Easy drinking Merlot wines belong on the list as well, Parish said. Kaner would add big Napa Cabernet Sauvignon aged in new oak barrels, as well as red blends from Paso Robles.
New World wines, especially those from the United States and Australia, are more often considered smooth, though Kaner said some Rioja wines that use American oak are smooth as well. Ball, who has lived in France and guides tours in Beaujolais with Dirty Radish, said there’s not a direct translation for “smooth” in the context of wine there. Words like soft and sweet can mean similar things, but the literal translation doesn’t work.
Words to use instead of smooth
Of the sommeliers I spoke with, all agreed that people should describe a wine in the way that best makes sense to them. That said, there are other terms if you’re looking to get more specific.
“I don’t see anything wrong with using the word smooth, so if someone likes saying that, by all means keep it up,” Wilson said. “Other words that, to me, mean the same thing would be silky, soft, elegant, velvety.”
Robinson prefers words that evoke texture, like satiny and silky, because she often sees smooth used for wines that can have big tannins combined with high alcohol and higher levels of naturally occurring glycerin that boosts viscosity and sweetness. Ball likes to use the word quaffable, but admits it’s not a common term in many circles. Kaner said to focus on the lack or presence of acidity to have the same conversation without using the word smooth, though a well seasoned wine expert can guide you to the right wine whether you use smooth or something similar.
“I don’t think smooth is a four-letter word,” Kaner said. “When someone says smooth, I think they want low acid, low tannin, easy to drink, and easy to understand. If they want to find more sophisticated ways of saying that, you can simply say, ‘I like wine with oak influence,’ or, ‘I like things a little more fruit forward and a little lower on the acidity.’”