Tips & Tricks: Wine’s Building Blocks and How To Detect Them

22 04 2011

For those loyal PnP readers (if such a thing exists), some of this will cover ground trekked out before in previous posts, but I thought it would be useful to get all of this info in one place.  Describing the smells and flavours of wine is inevitably a subjective experience, since we all process aromas and tastes differently, but that doesn’t mean that every description about wine is solely in the eye of the beholder.  Every wine has a number of objectively-discernable components that form the architecture of the overall wine; even if reasonable minds can differ about a wine’s flavour profile, they should generally come to common ground when discussing these vinicultural building blocks.  Here are the key components of a wine and how to pick them out of your glass:

  1. No, not THAT body.

    Body:  The body of a wine is simply its weight or heaviness in your mouth.  Lighter-bodied wines have the same viscosity and mouthfeel as skim milk, or in extreme cases, water.  Fuller-bodied wines are thicker, rounder and more viscous, like whole milk or cream.  A wine’s body is the product of its alcohol level (higher alcohol = fuller body), sugars (more residual sugar = heavier body) and pigmentation/extract (the more dissolved pigment and other compounds in a wine, the fuller its body will be), among other factors.  Fortified wines like port are always full-bodied because of their heightened alcohol levels; dessert wines are similarly always full-bodied because of their sugar levels.  To get a sense of body, pour a glass of water and a glass of 2% milk and swish them around in your mouth one after another…that weight and texture difference can be directly applied to the analysis of your next glass of wine.

  2. An acidity stand.

    Acidity:  Anyone who has had a particularly tart glass of lemonade already knows what acidity tastes like in a liquid.  It’s cheek-puckering, lip-smacking tartness, and as long as it’s not overdone it often tastes refreshing.  The taste buds on the side of your tongue pick up acidic or sour flavours, but acidic wines don’t just taste sour:  they taste like they have a sharpness or precision to them, a razor-like bite.  Acidity is a component found in both red and white wines, but it is particularly important to whites because they don’t have tannins to give them structure like reds do; as a result, it is usually a white wine’s acidity that forms its main framework or structure.  If you swish your wines around in your mouth as you taste them and make sure they cover all parts of your tongue before you swallow them, you should be able to pick out acidity in wines of all colours.  If you can’t, try swishing around some pure lemon or lime juice and focus on the sensation on the sides of your tongue…I just did this and can promise you that it will be a feeling you will NOT forget.

  3. Now THAT's a taste test. All for science, right?

    Alcohol:  If you’ve ever done a shot of anything in your life, the sensation of alcohol is all too familiar.  Alcohol doesn’t have a particular flavour per se, but higher levels of it in a wine lead to a hot or burning sensation in the mouth, usually at or near the wine’s finish.  To have an up-close-and-personal encounter with this sensation, pour yourself a glass of rum or rye or anything else with a high alcohol content and try to swish it around in your mouth for awhile before swallowing…it should quickly become physically uncomfortable to do this because of the heat of the booze on your tongue.  Alcohol is important to wine because it gives it life and balance, and also because it prevents wine from being excessively sweet because it uses up the sugar in the grapes during fermentation (during fermentation, grape sugar + yeast creates alcohol + carbon dioxide).  In most cases, if you go searching for alcohol while tasting wine you’ll usually be able to detect it, but in my opinion, any wine whose alcohol jumps out at you is probably unbalanced (and any wine whose alcohol level is 15% or higher will have alcohol that jumps out at you).

  4. Learn your tannin ABCs with super-steeped tea. Mmmm.

    Tannin:  Unlike the other building blocks above, I have already devoted an entire blog entry to tannin, so check it out for the full scoop.  Here’s the Cole’s Notes version:  tannin is the silty, somewhat bitter, tongue-coating component of red wine that makes your tongue and teeth feel fuzzy and that dries out your mouth when you swish the wine around.  It is only detectable in red wines, because it comes from the skins, seeds and stems of the grapes, which in red wine production are fermented with and partially leach into the grape juice (which is what gives red wine its colour) but in white wine production are separated from the grape juice before fermentation (resulting in less contact between the juice and the skins/seeds/stems and little to no opportunity to allow tannins to end up in the wine).  Detecting tannin is fairly easy once you know what to look for, and the easiest way to figure it out is to use another tannic beverage, black tea, as a test device.  Steep a cup of black tea for a LONG time (20-30 minutes), then swish around your ultra-potent brew in your mouth — you should be immediately assaulted with huge, mouth-drying, moisture-sucking furry tannins just like those that would be found in a big, structured, young red wine.

  5. It's just sugar; don't be afraid.

    Sugar:  As discussed above, sugar is a foundational element in all wine because it is what is converted into alcohol during fermentation.  In red wines (other than dessert/fortified reds), the sugar is entirely used up in the fermentation process, so the resulting wines are dry (i.e. not sweet — no residual sugar).  This is sometimes true with white wines, but other whites retain some residual sugar (because the fermentation is stopped before the yeast turns it all to alcohol) which give the wines a sense of sweetness.  I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you what sugar tastes like and how to detect it, but I WILL urge you not to dismiss all semi-sweet white wines out of hand.  The key question you should ask yourself when you taste a white that has some sweetness is whether the other building blocks of that wine (particularly its acidity) are in balance with the level of sugar present.  Some sweeter whites like German Rieslings have a fair bit of sugar left in them, but they also have monumental levels of laser-like acidity that tone down the impression of sweetness and keep the whole wine in focus.  If you have a red dinner wine that tastes sweet, that flavour impression probably doesn’t come from leftover sugar in the wine; instead, it probably either comes from the fruitness of the wine (strong fruit flavours can often seem sweet) or its alcohol (a byproduct of fermentation is glycerol, which makes a big alcohol wine more viscous and makes it taste a little sweet).

If you keep these tips in mind, you will always have something intelligent to say about a wine in any setting.  You may not be able to pick out huckleberry or shoe leather or orange rind from your glass at a tasting, but once you start to look for the 5 things above, you WILL be able to find and describe them, and that’s more than half the battle of understanding the wine you’re drinking.
P.S.  I’m proud to say that PnP is rapidly approaching 2,000 hits, and I truly appreciate all those who have taken the time to read this blog so far.  If you check out this post and think it could be helpful to someone, please pass it on!  And if there’s a wine-related topic that you’ve always wanted an answer to or wanted to see discussed, let me know and it may show up in a future entry.  Thanks again for your support!
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