The Five Dimensions of a Wine
Happy (day after) National Wine Day! To celebrate, we are posting our first wine post!
Five structural elements compose a Wine’s palate; sweetness, acidity, body, tannin, and flavor notes. The palate describes how a wine tastes and feels as you drink it. Keep in mind, while assessing and describing wines, that no additional ingredients (other than yeast) are ever added to the grape mash during the winemaking process. All flavors and characteristics in wine arise naturally from the grapes themselves and the container in which it is aged, i.e, the barrel, as well as those which develop naturally through time in the bottle and exposure to air once the wine is opened and poured.
Sweetness may be the first aspect that one notices after sipping a wine. The amount of sweetness detected indicates the sugar level present in the wine. Again, there is no added sugar. Grape juice used in wine making naturally contains fructose and this contributes to the sweetness level of a wine. During fermentation, yeast eats sugar and coverts sugar to alcohol. A wine maker may achieve a sweeter wine by intentionally stopping fermentation early before all of the sugar is converted. Also, very ripe grapes used in wine making can make slightly sweet tasting dry wines. The scale of sweetness is described with these key words, dry (very low sugar and not sweet), off dry (slightly sweet), medium (moderately sweet), and sweet (sweet as in a dessert wine).
Acidity provides the bright, tangy, exciting dimension that causes wine to be delicious when found in proper balance with the sweetness. Imagine if your bartender forgot the lime juice when shaking your margarita! It would taste like sweet syrupy tequila and would not be refreshing or delicious at all. In a wine however, the acidity comes from within the grape juice itself. Major factors determining the acidity levels are grape varietal and climate in which the grapes are grown. Wines with higher acidity typically come from growing regions with cooler climates. A wine’s acidity may be described as low, medium, or high.
Body is described as the physical feeling of a wine in the the mouth, or the “mouth feel”. Wines can range in body from light and thin to heavy, big, viscous, or full bodied. Words indicating weight are often used as descriptors. A wine’s body is derived from a combination of alcohol level, sugars present, tannin, and flavors. An example of two wines on polar ends of the spectrum could be a very light New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc vs. a bold and heavy Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Choose your body style according to the feel of the occasion, food being served, or even your current mood.
Tannin contributes the bitter aspect of wine found mostly in red wine only. Wines that are high in tannin create a drying sensation in the mouth that feels like the moisture is being wicked away from the gums and teeth. High tannin reds are usually categorized as “food wines” as they will appear softer and more drinkable when properly paired with salty, savory foods like cheeses and red meats. The reason why they appear in red wines is that tannins are found in the skins of the grapes and red wines are fermented with the grape skins. White wines and rose wines are typically made with the skins removed so there is little to no skin contact during production, resulting in wines that have either very low tannin or none at all. Furthermore, the grape skins of red wine grapes is what causes red wine to be red.
A wide spectrum of flavor notes will appear in different wines. Some tasters will be able to pick out as many as eight or more flavor components in a single wine. You may often hear flavor descriptors in the form of different fruits, herbs, flowers, and minerals. For example you may hear a taster describe a good Pinot Noir as having notes of strawberry, tart cherry, vanilla and a hint of baking spices. A taster must realize that none of these items are actually present in the wine, rather the wines themselves develop flavor notes that are reminiscent of these things and are described as such in order to articulate what the taster is experiencing. The major aspects that may contribute to the flavors present in a wine include grape varietal, region of origin due to the local climate and soil composition, year of harvest due to specific weather experienced that particular year, stage in which the grapes were harvested, harvest and production methods, barrels or tanks used to age the wines, amount of time the wine has been in the barrel, amount of time the wine has been in the bottle, as well as amount of time the bottle has been opened and poured.
These five elements lead to a balanced wine. When tasting wine, think about these five elements to understand the wine and its structure. This can help you figure out what you like and don’t like about a wine. What we didn’t mention above is the finish. The finish describes how the taste of the wine lingers in your mouth after you’ve finished your sip. Wines with a long finish can be an indicator of a good quality wine. The balance of all these elements can lend itself to a beautiful tasting wine.
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