When picking a wine, there is an enormity of options. It can be frustrating to feel like you are taking repeated, blind stabs at what you hope will be an enjoyable bottle. To make matters worse, the descriptions on labels or menus -- often written by wine marketers -- are jam-packed with jargon. Words such as “seductive,” “perfumed,” or “sophisticated” are relatively meaningless when trying to find a similar wine. One of the reasons I became interested in wine was to be able to identify wines that I enjoyed so that I could have them, and others like them, on a more consistent basis. So, of all of the wine-related vocabulary, what words are actually useful in finding wines that agree with your palate?
By far, the most useful way to discuss wine is to talk about the components of its structure. This sounds complicated and it does takes some attention when you are drinking drinking to correctly identify each component. But, by paying careful attention to the components of structure, you will immediately increase the percentage of wines that you find enjoyable ending up in your glass. And, as an added bonus -- assuming you view it as a bonus -- you may find the drinking of wine a bit more intellectually stimulating.
Structure: This term encompasses all of the aspects of wine other than flavor, including sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol, body, texture, and length. Basically, this is the bones on which the flavor of wine are hung.
Length: Even though length is typically thought of as how long you continue to taste the wine after drinking, it is important to note that wine -- indeed most things -- does not have only one flavor. Wine is commonly described as having a front, mid-palate, and finish -- a beginning, a middle and an end. This time component is very important to understanding each part of structure.
Sweetness: The vast majority of wine that we drink with meals is dry, meaning that it has virtually no sugar in it. Sugar is perceived in the mouth by an immediate sensation of sweetness the second the wine hits the tongue. This is simply a message to the brain saying, hey, there’s carbohydrates in here that our body can use right away! Any “sweetness” that comes later in the wine in the form of ripe fruit flavors is unlikely to be sugar, but rather flavors coming from ripeness.
Acid: Acid is what sets wine apart and what makes it uniquely well-suited to food. Wine is very acidic compared with other foods we ingest (with the exception of lemon juice). Acidity can be assessed by paying attention to saliva. Our body is designed to protect the enamel on our teeth and does so by flooding the mouth with saliva when acid foods are present. Saliva -- although it does vary in pH -- is slightly basic, so it serves to raise the pH of the mouth when acids are present. The more acid in the drink, the more saliva generated, and for a longer period of time. And unlike sugar, which is an immediate sensation, saliva generation is a physical process, and it will come a second or two after sipping the wine.
Tannin: Mainly present in red wines, it comes from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes, as well as new oak barrels. Tannin is derived from an old German word meaning oak or fir tree (Tannenbaum!). The phrase “to tan leather” also comes from tannin, because tannins have an important property, which is that they strongly bind with proteins. When tannin enters the mouth, it attaches to the proteins found in the cheeks and gums. This gives the sensation of drying or tightening, and it is great to “cut the fat” of protein-rich foods like steak. Black tea is another tannin-rich drink and your preference, be it steeping for 1 minute, 2 minutes, or 5 minutes, is very informative about how much you like tannin. Pay attention to the sensation that the tannin in tea brings about, as it functions exactly the same way in wine.
Alcohol and Body: Along with sugar, alcohol is responsible for giving the wine its “body.” However, because most wines you drink will be dry (or very nearly dry), it is most likely alcohol that is creating body. In a well-made wine, there won’t be a perceptible taste of alcohol. Instead, if a wine has more alcohol, it will feel “heavier” in your mouth than others. A helpful analogy is milk: skim is light-bodied, 1 and 2%, medium-bodied, and whole, full-bodied. When people talk about liking “bigger” wines, they are often -- perhaps unknowingly -- referring to alcohol percentage. Wines with more alcohol come from riper grapes grown in warmer regions and, as a result, they have fuller fruit flavors that can balance the higher alcohol that results.
Finally, as with any scale, it’s always important to calibrate. It’s always good to have a specific go-to example. When in a wine store, try asking for the kind of structure you want, perhaps low to medium tannin, fuller-bodied and relatively high acidity, and then give an example of a wine that you think has that structure: perhaps a Russian River Pinot. If you’re incorrect about the structure -- don’t worry, this example is pretty spot on -- you’ll get a quick lesson on terminology, but your bases are covered. A good wine salesperson will then have the opportunity to both match your expectations and also give you a more adventurous recommendation, a Barbera from Alba (in Italy). The fruit will taste different, it will be more reserved, but the structure will be similar, allowing you to discover an enjoyable bottle without blindly guessing.
Two other terms -- texture and minerality -- are tossed around a lot and warrant a brief mention. They can be useful, but should be used with caution because they are less clearly understood than other components of structure.
Texture: This is a bit of a controversial term, but in my experience, wines do have an overall texture to them ranging from coarse to silky and everywhere in between. This isn’t something that is objectively measurable, but more of a general sense that the wine provides.
Minerality: This term will cause full-fledged arguments between wine nerds. I know, because I’ve been in them. Minerality is a term in vogue, and it is often used to imply some relationship to the soil in which the wine is grown. There is no scientific evidence that the type of soil actually alters the composition of the wine, so some argue that minerality is a fiction. However, just as as most wines taste of fruit that is not in the wine, some wines do taste of minerals. Whether present in the wine or not, this term can be descriptive of a certain style of wine.