Sometimes it seems like a second language is required in order to adequately discuss wine. How can a liquid be “dry“? What do we mean by “body“? And what exactly is “tannin”? On top of all that, tasting notes, sommeliers, and wine geeks alike have a tendency toward flowery, esoteric flavor descriptors, like “early summer’s just-ripe strawberry” and “dewy morning on a spring day.” How can a wine lover bridge this language gap in order to find the right wine every time? While it may seem counterintuitive, I recommend you cut out half the battle right away and forget about flavor altogether. The secret to understanding wine is realizing that flavor just doesn’t matter. The real key to finding the perfect bottle lies in a wine’s structure.
First things first: What does “wine structure” even mean? Structure essentially refers to the major elements that can be assessed when tasting a wine: acidity, sweetness, body, alcohol, and tannin. But wine drinkers don’t typically order wine by asking for a “low acidity” or “moderately tannic” wine. Instead, they ask for a red wine that is “very fruity,” or they say that a white wine is “too sour.” These are flavor descriptors, right?
Actually, many of these “flavors” are really structure in disguise. Looking for a red that is very fruity? That means that you want a wine with low tannins, as tannins can diminish the perception of fruit, making a wine seem drier and earthier. And that white wine that is too sour? It probably has more acidity than expected, as acidity reduces the perception of sweetness and makes the mouth water, like a lemon. These components of structure are the building blocks upon which the true flavors and aromas of a wine sit, but our brains are wired to translate structure into flavor descriptors. Decoding the structure of the wines you enjoy and understanding the language used to describe them is a near-guarantee that you’ll never drink the wrong wine again.
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There are five major components of structure: acidity, sweetness, body, alcohol, and tannin. What do each of these mean, what language is used to describe them, and how are they commonly perceived when tasting wine? Let’s break it down:
Acidity is both the most important component of wine structure and the trickster of the bunch, as it can be disguised as many different things. Acidity often makes wines seem lighter, drier, and tart or sour. In order to accurately perceive how much acidity is in a wine, pay attention to how much the wine makes your mouth water; if your mouth is watering a lot, the wine has higher acidity. The words bright, refreshing, mouthwatering, thirst quenching, and zippy are all signs that a wine probably has a lot of acidity.
Old World wines typically have more acidity than New World wines, which is why they can be off-putting to some New World wine loyalists. Acidity often makes white wines seem drier than they actually are, and it can make red wines seem lighter than they are — even if they’re a whopping 15 percent alcohol!
Sweetness is probably the most misunderstood component of structure. At its core, sweetness refers to the actual presence or absence of sugar, ranging from dry (no perceptible sugar — and yes, this can be misleading, as the wine is of course still wet!) to sweet, with many levels in between. Seems simple, right? The problem is that the presence or absence of other structural components in a wine (acidity and tannin) can make a wine seem sweeter or drier. This particularly holds true for red wines, as nearly all red wine is completely dry. So if you think you like sweet reds, you probably actually like reds that are fruity, low in tannin, and low in acidity. To determine whether a wine is actually sweet or dry, try sticking only the tip of the tongue into the wine; this is where sugar is detected.
Body is probably the best place to start when dialing in on the structure of the wine you want, and luckily, it’s one of the easiest to discern, as it’s fairly straightforward. On a basic level, body refers to the amount that a wine fills up your mouth (mouthfeel) and sits on your tongue (weight). Alcohol plays a big part when it comes to body, as alcohol contributes weight to a wine. Thus, boozy wines are also going to be full-bodied wines.
Certain things can diminish the perception of body (acidity, for instance), but this is an excellent place to start when describing your ideal wine, and it’s often the first question that a sommelier will ask you: “Do you like fuller- or lighter-bodied wines?” Ever tasted a wine and thought that it didn’t taste like anything? It probably didn’t have the amount of body that you were expecting; full-bodied wines are more upfront with their flavors. Words like big, powerful, and heavy are used to describe full-bodied wines, and words like delicate, light, and easy drinking indicate that a wine is lighter-bodied. To distinguish what the body of a wine is, think of it like milk – light-bodied feels like skim milk, medium-bodied like whole milk, and full-bodied like cream.
Naturally, alcohol is a major component of any wine. But in terms of describing wine, it really only comes into play when it’s associated with body, since the goal of any balanced wine is for the drinker not to taste the alcohol itself. It can be a handy indicator when scanning the wine shelves solo, however; as a general rule, higher-alcohol wines will be fuller-bodied, and lower-alcohol wines will be lighter-bodied.
Oh, tannin, the the word used to stereotype wine snobs everywhere. While the unfamiliar word may seem scary at first, it’s actually quite simple to understand and easy to detect. Tannin has everything to do with texture. Tannins are polyphenols found in grape ligature (skins, seeds, leaves, and stems) and oak. They coat the mouth and leave a drying sensation. Because tannins are found on the ligature of a grape, this structural component does not typically factor into white wines because white grapes are usually pressed off their skins and stems immediately.
Particularly with powerful, rich wines, tannin is important because it provides structure to a wine, like a backbone; otherwise, it would seem fat and flabby. Because of the drying sensation that tannins provide, tannic wines can seem drier and earthier than they actually are, so if you tend to look for wines that seem sweeter or fruitier, seek out wines with lower tannins.
Still intimidated by the language of wine? Take structure one step at a time. Start with body, dialing in on whether you prefer fuller wines, lighter wines, or somewhere in the middle. Once you’ve got that down, move on to tannin, acidity, and sweetness one by one. Soon you’ll have a blueprint for the kind of wines that you love.