Elements of Wine, copyright 2004 by Ernest Valtri
Originally published in LifeStyle Magazine, May 2005
There are five basic elements worth understanding once you’re ready to taste a wine and, believe it or not, only two of them require your actual sense of taste. The five elements are acidity, sweetness, alcohol, tannin and finish. Let’s first deal with the two that require your sense of taste…sweetness and finish. Sweetness is your subjective measure of how sugary the wine is and is normally experienced at the tip of your tongue. The winemaking process primarily happens when yeast introduced to grape juice munches away at the natural sugars in the juice and yields that familiar byproduct, alcohol. Ironically, the alcohol produced by the yeast then kills the yeast (a source for some interesting metaphors!) just before the yeast consumes all the sugar, leaving behind varying amounts of sugar which you taste with the tip of your tongue. Very little sugar, we call “extra dry” (or in the case of sparkling wine, “brut”). Lots of sugar is referred to as “very sweet” (clever, eh?), with three or four levels of sweetness in between.
Finish also requires your taste buds along with that all important wine tool, your nose. To best experience finish, swish the wine around in your mouth for about five seconds then swallow it, do not open your mouth, and exhale slightly through your nose. Now concentrate on the aftertaste. A quality wine should still be tasted at this point even though it is no longer in your mouth. A long finish, that is, a lasting aftertaste, is considered a very desirable virtue and one that winemakers strive for. It is a sign of a well-crafted wine. Sometimes the finish on a truly great wine can last up to a minute and perhaps more.
Now for those other three mysterious elements snobby elitists (and real wine lovers) like to talk about. While there is in fact acid in wine, the term acidity is really another word for freshness. It is not a flavor, but a feeling, sometimes also described as sharpness, zip or liveliness. Too much acid content in a wine does actually produce a flavor… sourness, but who wants sour wine? (Vinegar costs less.) The right amount of acidity will yield the freshness winemakers look for. White grapes are naturally higher in acid than red ones, thus white wines are generally more acidic than reds. In fact, some red wines have virtually no acidity. This is not considered a flaw as it simply is not the character of red wines. On the other hand, the king of acidity is sparkling wine, or Champagne. These wines contain the highest acid levels and certainly are the best examples of zippy, lively wines. Another notable white varietal high on the acidity scale is sauvignon blanc, particularly those from New Zealand.
Alcohol also is not a flavor, but a feeling. And I’m not talking about getting plowed from consuming too much of it. The alcohol level in wine provides the amount of body or weightiness that wine will have. More body does not mean better wine. Lighter weight wines (typically white wines) can be wonderfully refreshing and stimulating and heavier wines (usually reds) can be equally excellent while being massive and “chewy”. The correlation between alcohol level and weightiness is quite consistent, so take note of the alcohol level listed on the label and compare it to the weight of what you experience in the bottle.
Perhaps no other element is so associated with knowledge of great wine as tannin. And no other wine best exemplifies the nuances of tannin than cabernet sauvignon. Tannin, like alcohol and acidity, is a sensation, not a flavor. It is that puckering affect at the rear, outside edges of your tongue and the adjacent gum area that many red wines produce. Just the right amount of this puckering is deemed perfection. The problem for winemakers is achieving that proper level. And the problem for wine drinkers is drinking the wine at the right moment. That moment in the case of some 1945 Bordeaux has yet to arrive! The best cabernet sauvignons are made with high tannin levels and are intended to mature, or age, for anywhere from three to fifty years. When the tannins have faded to nearly (but not quite) nothing, the subtle and numerous fruit flavors imparted to the wine from the grapes have likely meshed together into their ideal complexity, creating that particular wine’s flavor peak. Of course, wait too long and the wine will have passed its peak. How do you know when the wine peaks? You don’t. You must rely on your experience and that of others. It is notable that in recent years many winemakers have recognized that most consumers buy wine to drink immediately and therefore have crafted their cabernet sauvignons to mature much more quickly; in one or two years. These can be excellent and are worth finding. Although cabernet sauvignon is the king of any tannin discussion, other popular reds that can be significantly influenced by tannin include merlot, red zinfandel, shiraz and petite sirah.
Now you know! Acidity, sweetness, alcohol, tannin and finish. Next time you open that bottle of your favorite “house pour”, see if you can recognize some of these basic components!