5 Key Wine Components and How To Detect Them

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A glass of red wine is placed near grapes.Wine reviewers often use terms like "structure," “crisp,” “bright" and “tannins." But what do these terms actually mean when it comes to a flavor of a wine? Let's break down the mystery, starting with "structure."

Structure is kind of like the framework of a wine. It is most often used in reference to levels of acid (especially found in white wines) or tannin (often found in red wines). But there are other things that come into play such as alcohol, sweetness and "body." By themselves, none of these components really mean anything but they are amplified by delicious flavors like fruitiness, oakiness, minerality, florals, herbs and others.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has made it remarkably easy to detect the main wine components. Grab a glass of red wine and taste as we walk you through it. Now let's get started!

Acid:

Acid has a tart flavor. Some wines, especially reds, are so flavorful that it’s difficult to taste the acid but sometimes you can still gauge it. As you taste the wine, notice the way your mouth begins to water, especially along the sides of your tongue and under it. This is where the phrase “mouth-watering acidity” comes from. Generally, white wines are higher in acid than reds but well-made dessert wines can also turn on the water works in your mouth because the sweetness is balanced with a high level of acidity.

White wines that feature high-acid include sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

Why It's Important: Acid keeps the wine fresh and lively. It has a cleansing effect and makes the wine easy to pair with food. It is also a great, natural preservative, allowing the wine to keep longer.

Where It Comes From: Mainly the grapes cause the acidity but some winemakers can add other acids. As grapes ripen, the sugar increases and the acid decreases.

Descriptions: Crisp, lively, bright, racy, nervy, vitality

Tannin:

Do you ever have an urge to brush your teeth after tasting red wine? That's the tannin! It runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then clings to it, which explains the drying sense of grip on your gums and the furry teeth. The flavor of tannin is bitter, so winemakers try to craft the wine in such a way that you feel it, rather than taste it.

Wines that express a high amount of tannin include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo. Sometimes these wines are blended with less tannic grapes, such as Merlot or Cabernet Franc to dilute the effect.

Why It's Important: Tannin is an important part of the texture of red wine. Like acid, tannin is a natural preservative. It's part of a group called polyphenols, which are anti-oxidants that prolong the wine's life.

Where It Comes From: The biggest source of tannin is in the grape skins. Other sources are seeds, stems and oak from wine barrels. Red wines are almost always higher in tannin than white because the winemaker must ferment the juice and skins together to get the purple color.

Descriptions: Astringent, drying, grippy, chalky, chewy, hard, coarse

Alcohol:

Isolated, alcohol smells sweet. Give the wine a good swirl for a few seconds and pop your nose in the glass. If you actually smell something sweet that reminds you of rubbing alcohol or feel what seems like a heat-driven tickle in your nose, the alcohol is too high for the style of the wine – it’s not balanced. You’re not supposed to notice the alcohol, it’s just supposed to be there.

When you taste alcohol in wine, your mouth may feel warmer. If it's quite warm, or almost hot, the alcohol content is on the high side. If you actually taste the alcohol or feel like a fire-breathing dragon, it’s too high, not balanced. It seems to be most noticeable in the back of your throat. The alcohol can also add an oily sensation.

Wines that often display higher alcohol levels include dessert wines (port being one great example) and Zinfandels, which have sometimes been criticized for having too much alcohol.

Why It's Important: Alcohol gives the wine a great deal of body. A wine that’s meant to be robust feels thin if the alcohol is too low. And alcohol is yet another preservative

Where It Comes From: The sugar in the grapes at harvest. In many parts of the world adding sugar is permitted. It’s called Chaptalization. During the fermentation the sugar is converted to alcohol.

Descriptions: Warm, hot, weighty, sweet

Sugar:

The amount of sugar in a wine can be identified by the sweetness. Occasionally a high acidity can make the wine seem less sweet than it is. Sparkling wines called "brut" for instance, are considered dry, but they may actually have as much as 1.5 percent sugar. They taste dry because they are so high in acid. Fruity flavors can also trick your palate into detecting sugar that isn’t actually there, a phenomenon called auto-association.

Certain types of Riesling, especially those made as dessert wines, and some Chenin Blanc are particularly high in sugar and sweetness.

Why It's Important: Who doesn’t love something a little sweet from time to time? Plus, a bit of sugar can cover a lot of sins in the production of inexpensive wine, and it’s another of Mother Nature’s natural preservatives.

Where It Comes From: The grapes. In most cases the sugar in wine is residual sugar because the fermentation was stopped before the yeast converted all of the sugar to alcohol. In some cases, the winemaker ferments to dryness and adds ingredients to sweeten the wine.

Descriptions: Sweet, syrupy, off-dry, cloying, doux, Extra-Dry (sparkling wine), demi-sec (sparkling wine)

Body:

This refers to how a wine feels on your tongue and in your mouth. Like milk, wine can feel light, medium or heavy (full-bodied). When the wine is balanced, the flavors, body and components interact harmoniously.

To compare the different variations, you might try a Beaujolais Noveau (a young wine from the Beaujolais region in France) as an example of a light-bodied wine, a Merlot, Shiraz or Chianti as an example of a medium-bodied wine and a Bordeaux or California Cabernet Sauvignon as examples of full-bodied wines.

Why It's Important: Since alcohol gives wine body, a glass of red Bordeaux from a poor vintage that’s only 10.5 percent alcohol may feel thin and unsatisfying. Conversely, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley should better have plenty of flavor and body to stand up to 15 percent alcohol. Otherwise, you will have spent a lot of money on something that makes you feel like a fire-breathing dragon.

Where It Comes From: Mainly alcohol and grape extracts (in red wines) contribute to how the body feels; barrel-aging can increase the body as well.

To read more wine tips, tricks and news by Snooth, visit Snooth.com.

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