Aromas and flavors are very difficult to describe, especially since we rarely even attempt to do so outside the context of wine. Unless you’re a food analyst working for Campbell’s, chances are that no one has ever asked you to provide a complete and unabridged inventory of every aroma, flavor, texture and sensation that you experience when slurping down a spoonful of tomato soup. Instead, you just think, “Mmm, mmm, good!”

When we eat, we describe food as being ‘delicious’ or ‘satisfying’ or ‘awful’ or ‘overcooked’ or ‘filling,’ not as tasting or smelling like something they are not: A steak tastes and smells like a steak. Wines, on the other hand, are the complete opposite; it’s very rare that they smell or taste of grapes, and wine often has a fruit or cinnamon or leather aroma. And that’s one of the strange beauties of Vitis vinifera, the wine grape: with absolutely no additives, and minimal intervention by the winemaker, nearly all vinifera varieties will yield wines that taste and smell nothing at all of grapes, but taste and smell plenty of blackberries or white pepper or slate or smoked meats.

This broad variation in how wines can smell can turn describing those flavors and aromas into a nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be. Just like color and appearance, descriptions of a particular flavor can be taken at face value: when we say that we taste strawberries, we mean just that– the wine tastes like strawberries, plain and simple. Not that strawberries were somehow added to the wine. Simply that all the factors involved in making a wine resulted in a wine that has a strawberry flavor as part of its character.

But there are some terms that may be confusing, especially so when the same word is often used in different ways:

Sweet (sugar)– In the world of wine, the most basic, chemical definition of sweet is that a wine has a noticeable sugar content. The sugar content of a wine also affects its tactile qualities, something we’ll get to later.

Sweet (aroma/flavor)– Many wines have flavors and aromas that are very strongly associated with sweetness, but which are not actually sweet (containing sugar). So we describe ‘sweet vanilla’, ‘sweet oak’, ‘sweet preserves’, ‘candied orange zest’, meaning while the wine tastes sweet, it has a low sugar content.

Dry (sugar)– Most wines are chemically dry, meaning that they contain no sugar. From a chemical standpoint, that’s all that dry means: the opposite of sweet. The perception of a wine’s dryness can be increased by acidity or tannin, but we’ll get to that when we talk about structure and texture.

Fruity– One of the most commonly misinterpreted terms, fruitiness is not the same as sweetness. A fruity wine is one in which the fruit aromas and flavors are the most dominant characteristic. Most light, young Cotes-du-Rhone red wines, for example, have very strong aromas and flavors of ripe raspberries and strawberries. The wine may taste fruity, but chemically speaking, it is bone dry and contains absolutely no sugar.

Fruit– When we talk generally about a wine’s fruit, we’re simply making reference to the wine’s fruit flavors; not necessarily saying that it is fruity or jammy. If I describe a wine as having “a nice balance of fruit, spice, and oak,” I mean just that– I like the way that the fruit flavors, spicy flavors, and oak flavors all come together.

Jammy– Sort of a step above fruity; and again, this term has nothing to do with actual chemical sweetness or sugar. Think of the difference between strawberries and strawberry jam: the jam is more concentrated, more densely flavored, more fruity than fruity.

Spicy– As with every other flavor descriptor, this term does not mean that anything (spice, in this case) has been added to the wine. The term also isn’t meant to imply that a wine is spicy in the mouth-burning, I-just-ate-a-habañero, hot hot hot sense. Spice aromas that wines frequently reveal are black and white pepper (especially in Syrah and Grenache, respectively), clove, cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, and so on. Very often, though, there won’t be a specific spice aroma that comes leaping forward– the wine simply has a general, very noticeable character that we describe with the catchall term spicy.

Oaky– Quite literally that the wine has flavors and aromas of oak. When wines are aged in oak barrels (especially new oak barrels) they take on some of the flavors of oak. The higher the percentage of new oak barrels used and the longer the wine stays in those barrels, the more oaky the finished wine will be. Oak can impart notes of vanilla, baking spices, liquor, and other flavors.

Earthy– A difficult term to explain, in part because the word seems to have largely negative connotations for some people. When used to describe a wine, writers are not suggesting that drinking Chateau X is like eating a handful of mud. People who love earthiness in wine enjoy the aromas in much the way that an avid gardener enjoys the aromas and rich fecundity of his soil. Another positive way to think about it might be to contemplate the deliciously earthy aromas that mushrooms give off as they’re sautéed. Excessive earthiness, of course, is not a positive attribute, just as excess in any attribute is generally not positive.

Tart/Sour– Both words are used in reference to a wine’s acidity, and they’re useful in describing both flavor and texture. Tartness is often a positive attribute; sourness is nearly always a negative and can be interpreted as meaning excessively tart. If ‘tart’ doesn’t sound positive, think of how refreshing a light, ice-cold, citrusy white wine can be on a hot, muggy day– that’s tartness at its best.