Wine Basics: Wine Structure

If you've ever watched Somm or Uncorked or heard a wine buff describe wine, it seems like they inevitably use the words "balanced" or "structured". I always want to say, "What in the world are you talking about?" If you're in that boat with me, I hope this post will help you with two things... I hope it helps you understand what the heck those wine buffs mean and I also hope it helps you understand more what characteristics you like and dislike in a wine. The ultimate goal of learning about wine is to be able to accurately describe what you like, right?

Wine Structure

The four traits that comprise a wine's structure are:

  • Tannin
  • Acid
  • Sugar
  • Alcohol

Tannin

Way back in the day, I wrote a short post on tannin and what it was. You can find that here. Tannin seems to always be associated with the word "astringent", but basically it's referring to the compound in wine that dries out your mouth and seems bitter. It can also be described as the "biting" sensation that hits the sides of your tongue and back of your jaw. Tannin is a product of the contact between the seeds, skins, and stems and the grape juice during pressing and/or fermentation. High tannins can typically be found in varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Nebbiolo. 

Acid

Acid is easier for most people to understand because we're familiar with acidic things like citrus fruits, coffee, and soda. I always hear acid described as, "Think about taking a bite of a lemon." For me, my mouth immediately begins to water as I imagine the tartness. This is the key difference between acid and tannin... acid makes your mouth water where tannin causes your mouth to dry. Acidity is typically felt as a zing on your tongue and is commonly found in wines grown in cooler temperatures. A great example of a wine that is commonly thought of as acidic is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Sugar

Residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation is what causes wine to be sweet. Sweetness is identified by the tip of your tongue. It is common for people to confuse sweet and fruity since we typically associate the actual fruit with sugar and sweetness (think of a ripe strawberry). You can truly tell if a wine is sweet by holding your nose and trying the wine... if you can still taste the sweetness, then the wine is actually sweet. Otherwise, it's likely just fruity. Rieslings, especially nice German Rieslings, are often on the sweeter side of the scale and low in alcohol.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a byproduct of yeast eating sugar. Therefore, low alcohol wines tend to be sweet given the residual sugar left in the juice. Low alcohol wines are usually less than 10% ABV while a wine is typically considered a high alcohol wine when it's over 15% ABV. I'd say you probably see that most wines have a 13.5% ABV, which is considered "medium-high" alcohol. High alcohol can be a result of several things, but examples of wines that are commonly high in alcohol are Australian Shiraz and California Zinfandel.

The goal with the traits above is to get them in balance, or rather to not have one that stands out. An unbalanced wine that has too much alcohol will likely burn when drinking and not be pleasant. Or an unbalanced wine whose tannins are out of whack may taste bitter, and who wants bitter wine?! Balance is key!

What do you look for in a wine? 

 

Wine Basics: What is wine?

For a long time, wine was simply a tasty drink I enjoyed at the end of a long day. I never really thought about what it was or where it came from, nor did I care really. I think it was my first trip to Napa that really made the whole wine making process interesting to me, and that's really where I learned what wine was. I always knew it was fermented grape juice, but the process, while simple at the core of it all, is much more than that. So, how does it work?

  1. Grapes, specifically Vitis vinifera, are grown.
    There are a bunch of factors that contribute to the success of the vines, including but not limited to climate, soil, and weather patterns. Some varietals are easier to grown than others, but overall, it honestly seems like a stressful process.
     
  2. Grapes are harvested.
    When grapes are harvested affects how the grapes will taste. Timing of the harvest can affect sugar levels (among other things) in the grape, which then affect the amount of alcohol after fermentation.
     
  3. Grapes are pressed for their juice and fermentation begins.
    This process is actually different depending on if you're making red or white wine. Red wine is typically pressed to break the skins and then fermented with the skins, seeds, stem bits, etc. This mixture is called "must". All of that stuff is what gives red wine its color and flavor. Once the wine is fermented, the must is pressed to get the flavorful juice. On the other hand, white wine is made from grapes that are pressed and separated from their skin before fermentation. For both, fermentation is caused by the yeast eating the sugar in the juice producing alcohol and CO2. The yeast is found naturally on the vines, but sometimes winemakers add particular strains to help control the process.

    Did you know? White wine can be made from red grapes. Grape juice is mainly clear whether it's from red or green grapes, so it's actually the skins that transfer color to the wine. For example, Champagne is usually made from Pinot Noir grapes.
     
  4. Wine is moved to barrels to age.
    Once fermentation ends, the wine is moved to oak barrels to age. This time can vary widely, but oak is almost always used. Oak helps develop the wine's aroma and flavor, as well as softens the tannins, mostly due to oxygen reaching the wine. 
     
  5. Wine is bottled.
    Once the winemaker is satisfied with the aging (if any), the wine is bottled. The bottles provide a sterile and neutral environment where the wine can continue to develop flavor, but only by mixing with itself since oxygen can no longer get to the wine (assuming the cork is good). The winery may choose to age the wine in the bottle for an extended period of time before releasing. That's why you can get 2012 vintages coming out in 2015.
     
  6. We get to drink it.
    My favorite part!

Here are some other wine terminology you may hear when discussing the process of making wine:

  • Viticulture - The process of growing grapes
  • Vinification - The process of wine making
  • Racking - A method of removing particles in wine. These particles settle to the bottom and winemakers transfer the particle-free liquid to different aging barrels.
  • Fining - Another method of removing particles. This method adds agents to the wine that cause the particles to coagulate and fall to the bottom, leaving the particle-free liquid on top.
  • Sulfites - Ah, the infamous sulfites. You'll see "Contains sulfites" on most bottles in the USA. Sulfites are sulfur dixoide, a compound that naturally occurs during fermentation, but is also added by winemakers. It acts as an antioxidant and preservative.  Despite popular belief, they do not cause the "wine headaches". 

As you can see, the process, at its core, is fairly simple. However, there is a lot of artistry within the steps that can make a wine great or not so great. For example, when do you pick the grapes, or how long do you age the wine? My favorite part about going to wineries is to hear the story of their wine making and hopefully understand the decisions they make and to see how it shows through the wine you taste.

Have you ever visited a winery that had a great wine-making story? If so, please share!

Tannins: What are they?

If you've been enjoying wine for a bit, one word you've most certainly heard, especially when people are discussing red wine, is tannin.

So what is tannin exactly?

Tannin is actually a natural substance found on plants, or specifically related to wine, the grapes' skins, stems, and seeds. Since red wine is fermented with all of the stems, pips (seeds) and skins, red wine becomes tannic. Red wine can also get its tannins from being aged in barrels, particularly oak barrels.   

How would you describe tannin in a wine?

It will be very beneficial for you to know whether or not you enjoy tannic wines or not. If you're at a store or ordering wine from a restaurant menu, it'll help whoever is giving the recommendation know which route to go as some grapes are known to be more tannic than others. So how would you describe tannins in wine? Tannin is what provides that sense of bitterness or astringency in red wines. Have you ever had a sip of red wine and your mouth feels dry after? That drying feeling is actually tannin!

If you'd like to find out if you enjoy tannic reds, I'd give a bigger and bolder red a try such as cabernet sauvignon or bordeaux. If you do enjoy tannic reds, I'd be sure to pair them with a hearty meal such as steak or beef stew!

 

Dry vs. Sweet

One of the most difficult things to learn about wine, in my opinion, is how to describe it. You not only have to rely on all of your senses and pay attention to the tastes and smells of the culinary world and beyond (freshly opened can of tennis balls, anyone?), but you have to know what "wine lingo" to use. The "wine lingo" is a huge barrier to entry into the wine world. We do not want to seem incompentent or uninformed when ordering a bottle of wine at a restaurant, so people either shy away or only stick to wines they know.

If you do ask for a recommendation, usually one of the first questions after "white or red" is do you like dry or sweet wines? So what do these words dry and sweet actually mean in the wine world?

I used to think that dry meant the wine actually gave the feeling of drying out your mouth a little bit, but this is not the case. Usually that is attributed to alcohol content or tannin. Dry actually means that there is no residual sugar left in a wine after the fermentation process, and therefore, it is not sweet. Dry is simply the opposite of sweet.

Another key thing to remember is that sweet and fruity are not necessarily the same. Sure, sweet wines can be fruity, but cou can also taste fruit flavors in a dry wine, it just won't be sweet. As I read somewhere during my research on dry wines, think of sweet as like apple or grape juice. Dry wines will still have a fruit flavor, just not the sugary sweet taste of a fruit juice.

This topic can be very difficult to describe without having wines in front of you to taste and because sweetness is subjective, but I hope that this helped clear up the dry vs. sweet debate at least a little bit.