Structure in wine is important–really important. By structure I mean the levels of alcohol, acidity, phenolic bitterness (white wines), and tannin (red wines). Personally, I think a wine’s structure is its very bones. It also speaks to grape variety, place of origin, climate, timing of harvest, winemaking techniques, and so much more.
It’s no surprise that assessing structure accurately and consistently is a necessity for becoming a professional taster. It’s also key for being able to judge wine quality at any level. For the student, what’s necessary is to first be able to first separate the physical sensations of the different structural elements on the palate. Then over time, to be able to quickly and consistently assess structural levels and, later, connect the dots between structure and the overall character of the wine.
One such example is making the connection between high alcohol, restrained acidity (and possible acidulation), and ripe-raisinated fruit in a Barossa Shiraz. Or the high acidity, restrained alcohol and tart fruit in a Chianti Classico.
Everything I’ve just described requires time and experience. But to get started, here are the structural elements defined, as well as some basic strategies to practice tasting for them.
Definition:Ethanol alcohol in wine is a product of fermentation. The alcohol level in table wines ranges between 5.5% to over 16%.
What does it smell like?Alcohol in wine is odorless but perceived as heat on the nose. However, smelling jammy or raisinated fruit can and should create expectations for high alcohol on the palate of a wine.
What does it taste like?Alcohol is tasteless, but as just mentioned, wines with high alcohol content have ripe, jammy fruit and lower natural acidity. Wines with less alcohol have higher natural acidity, less ripe fruit, and are tart on the palate.
What does it feel like?Elevated alcohol can give wine a fuller body as well a richer texture on the palate. High alcohol can also give the illusion of sweetness on the palate.
How do I check for it?After spitting the wine out, say the letter “O” and inhale (remember, AFTER spitting out the wine). Note the sensation of warmth or heat perceived in the bridge of the nose, the mouth, throat, and even chest cavity if the alcohol is high.
Connecting the dots:High alcohol means that the grapes used to produce the wine were ripe or even over-ripe. Thus, a high alcohol wine will show ripe, jammy, or even raisinated fruit as well as lower natural acidity. Also, a high-alcohol wine will commonly be acidulated with tartaric acid.
Reference wines:Low alcohol white wines: Moscato di Asti (semi-sparkling), Riesling (Mosel),High alcohol white wines: New World Chardonnay, New World Viognier, Southern Rhône Marsanne blends
Definition:There are four primary acids found in grapes: tartaric, malic, lactic, and citric. Tartaric acid, by far, is the most important as gives both grapes and wine balance and potential to age. It decreases as grapes ripen. If lacking, it needs to be added to the must during fermentation or the wine before bottling. Powdered tartaric acid derived from grapes is the most common acid additive.
What does it smell like?Acidity doesn’t smell like anything. However, smelling tart or under ripe fruit can and should create expectations for high acidity in a wine.
What does it taste like?Easily said: Acidity tastes sour.
What does it feel like?On the palate, acidity is sensed by increased saliva production and activity in the salivary glands. High acidity is also often felt in the front of the mouth on tongue, teeth, and gums.
How do I check for it? Pay close attention to your salivary glands and saliva production after spitting out the wine. If in doubt, take a sip of water and note the complete lack of acidity as compared to the wine.
Connecting the dots:It all goes back to place. Cooler climate places produce high acid-lower alcohol wines because the grapes don’t completely ripen. Generally, cool climate wines often have less depth of color and offer more savory character when compared to wines made from grapes grown in warmer climates that have higher alcohol, riper fruit, and less natural acidity.
Reference wines:Lower acid wines: Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Marsanne-Roussanne blendsHigh acid wines: Riesling, Melon, Chenin Blanc
Reprinted with permission from TimGaiser.com
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