Understanding the basics of wine and the tastes associated comes down to much more than just the name of the fruit. Isolating and identifying the basic components of wine allows you to know immediately what you will enjoy, instead of randomly selecting wines based on generic fruit names. This article looks at some important terms to understand so you can easily choose wine like an expert.
Balance, Tannins, And Woody Flavors
Whether red or white, balance is the single most important word when it comes to describing a wine. Balance indicates the balance of fruit, alcohol, and acid in a wine. In the case of red wine, two additional components are important, tannins and (if aged in oak barrels) woody flavors. While considering these components separately, they often all overlap and influence one another.
For example, Cabernet has intense flavor, saturated color, and more tannin while Pinot Noir has a milder, but still pronounced flavor, less color, and less tannin. Zinfandel has a fruity almost sweet flavor, less tannin, and a lighter color than Cabernet so winemakers often blend it with a highly colored grape like Petite Sirah to give it more pigment. Winemakers also keep Zinfandel on the vine longer so it reaches a high sugar level that converts to high alcohol and sweet flavor.
Chardonnay also ripens longer so it will also have a sweet, fruity flavor along with low acid. Known for its high acid, Sauvignon Blanc has a mouth-wateringly crisp grassy flavor. The grainy, gritty tannin texture of red wine enjoyed by enthusiastic red wine club members comes from fermenting the skins and seeds together with the juice. White wines have a smoother consistency due to eliminating the skins and seeds before fermenting with the juice.
Oak is an important contributing flavor to wine, although sometimes it obscures the flavor of the grape. Especially for high tanning red wines enjoyed by red wine club members, oak barrel aging accomplishes multiple functions. The wood itself has tannins that leach into the wine, adding texture. Wood is porous so the wine oxidizes slightly while in the barrel, making it softer. By toasting or burning the interior of the barrels, a winemaker can impart a smoky touch or other flavor. Smaller, newer barrels impart more flavor than larger, older barrels.
Law requires winemakers to print the alcohol content of each wine on the label, but this number means more than just how much you can drink before feeling tipsy. The alcohol content influences the flavors and acid of red and white wines and the tannin in red wine. Grapes allowed to ripen to high sugar levels create wines with higher alcohol as fermentation converts sugar to alcohol. Riper grapes produce sweet and fruity wine, this ripeness flattens varietal flavor causing Cabernet, Syrah, or Zinfandel to taste similar than if picked when less ripe.
Higher alcohol wines taste smoother because they have less acid. Acid contributes a refreshing and crisp component to red and white wines, but especially important for white wines picked sooner than red wines at lower sugar levels to preserve the acid in the fruit.
Winemakers often refer to low acid wines as “flabby,” although these wines often appeal to those drinking wine as a cocktail instead of with food. Any wine you age to commemorate a special occasion should have higher acid and lower alcohol content because higher acid is the most important component in successfully aging wine.
Whether you belong to a white or red wine club or make your wine selections yourself, by keeping these elements of understanding wine in mind, you are sure to choose a wine that suits your palette every time.