Chances are you’ve read the back of a wine bottle before that has descriptions like “dry, medium body, medium acidity, long finish, medium alcohol” and thought, “Yes. This is wine. I’ll buy it”, not really having any clue as to what you’re reading. This week, we’re going to get a bit more technical and focus on the structure of a wine, so you can try hone in on what you like, and maybe even understand what the glob’s going on in that description when you read it next time.
On one of our lasts days in Paris last month, four of us found ourselves traversing the freshly built Louis Vuitton Foundation Building located on the outskirts of Paris’s very own forest, Bois de Boulogne. One of the first things we marvelled at was the architecture. The geometric shapes, the clean open spaces, the material and movement. It is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. Yet, does this mean we all loved it? No. Some of thought it was too empty and cold, while others wanted to bring in a sleeping bag and pillow and set up a home inside. Not everyone has to like the same structures, right? The exact same thing can be said for wine.
If you’ve ever sipped on a glass of wine and thought to yourself, ‘That wine was awful, I don’t know exactly why it was so awful, but I’m never going to buy it again’, or vice versa, you’ve had a bottle at dinner that appealed to you so much you scribbled down the name to buy it next time you’re grocery shopping, then you’ve automatically conducted a swift analysis of a wine’s structure. And most of the time, you don’t even know you’re doing it. Clever brain, eh?
So what is wine structure? Before we begin, please note that as always, we’re providing you with the basics. There is always more, but these are the foundations for which to build your Louis Vuitton Building of wine knowledge onto.
Wine structure is the relationship between the following 7 key characteristics that you experience when you TASTE a wine. If you can remember these 7 aspects and learn to distinguish and assess them every time you sip on some wine, you’ll be well on your way to being able to understanding the descriptions of wine:
1) Sweetness – How much sugar can you taste in the wine?
Dry wine = Low sugar level, you can’t pick up that sugar has been added
Off-Dry wine = Tiny amount of detectable sugar
Medium-Dry to Medium-Sweet = Distinct level of sugar, but not a dessert wine
Sweet = Obvious amount of sugar in your mouth, often described as ‘luscious’
2) Acidity – How fresh is your wine?
Acidity gives a wine its freshness. Imagine biting into a lemon. That’s acidity.
How to assess the level of acidity?
An easy way to assess how low or high the acidity is in a wine is to assess the amount of saliva your tongue produces once you take a small sip:
A lot = Medium – high acidity
Not much = Medium-minus to low acidity
3) Tannin – How dry does your mouth feel?
Tannin is extracted from grape skins, stems, seeds and oak barrels. Most of the time, the skins of grapes are used to give red wine their colour, therefore red wines are associated to tannins rather than white.
How to assess the level of tannins?
Take a sip, and assess how dry and/or rough your front teeth and gums feel once you’ve swirled the wine in your mouth:
The more dry = The more tannins
4) Alcohol – How does the wine feel in your throat?
We’re on the hunt for ethanol here basically.
How to assess the level of alcohol?
Take a sip, and assess how the wine feels when it hits the back of your throat:
Watery, thin = Lower level of alcohol
Burning sensation, thick or viscous = Higher level of alcohol
5) Body – How does the wine feel in my mouth?
What is the texture of the wine in your mouth? This may sound strange, but imagine the difference between skim and full cream milk. There’s a difference right? The same goes for wine.
How to assess the body of a wine?
Here, you have to compile a few of the above components to make a conclusion:
Full bodied = Wine has high alcohol, a high level of tannins and intense flavours
Light bodied = Wine has low alcohol, high acid and is delicately flavoured
6) Intensity – How intense is the aroma and taste of the wine?
Flavour intensity and flavour characteristics are detected through the sense of smell.
Generally, flavours on the palate should be the same as aromas detected on the nose.
Savoury, earthy, spicy and oaky aromas tend to be more prominent on the palate.
Fruity and floral aromas are more prominent on the nose.
7) Finish – How long do you taste the wine on your palate after you’ve swallowed?
The finish is a collection of sensations after you have swallowed or spat the wine. How long do the sensations linger?
How to assess the finish of a wine?
Short Finish = Taste lasts 5 seconds or less, pleasant flavours will disappear within a few seconds
Medium Finish = Taste can last 10 – 20 seconds
Long Finish = Taste can last for up to 1 minute, fine wines often described this way
The structure of a wine itself comes in when you look at all these individual characteristics and ask yourself how they work together. This may all sound a little complicated, but generally speaking, if everything in a wine is low, then it won’t give you much of a POW! and if everything is too high, then the POW! will be too strong. So put simply, a well-balanced wine often has medium-low to medium-high levels of everything. Just remember that everyone has a different level of sensitivity to a wine component such as sugar, acid or tannin, so DON’T be disheartened if you can’t pick up the same levels as your friends. That’s normal, and that’s why we don’t all like the same wine.
At the end of the day, if you’re not going to move into a house that is made of facebrick if you hate brick, why should you drink a Shiraz if you dislike a high amount of tannins? Understanding the kind of wine YOU like is great, because after all, you’re paying for it and you’ll hopefully be the one enjoying it.
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