Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What to look for in a wine

So, you now have some wine in your mouth. Here are some thoughts about what you should look for. Some of these apply to red wines, some apply just to whites, and some to both. I should also point out that some of these terms overlap. What I’m aiming at here is giving you the beginnings of a language about wine. This all seems a bit technical, but it’s important stuff, and it’s worth persevering with.

1. Structure
In red wines, one of the most important elements, but one of the least written about, is structure. This is provided by two components: tannins and acidity. Tannins are the bits in a red wine that make your mouth taste dry; they are a bit astringent. They come from the skins of red grapes; white wines don’t usually have much in the way of tannins. Too much tannin is undesirable, because the wine can seem excessively dry, but tannins also serve a useful purpose, in that they provide a counter to the sweetness of fruit, making a red wine taste more interesting and savoury. Tannins can also vary in their nature: they can be smooth, fine-grained, coarse, green or robust, for example. They are such an important component of red wines we’ll give them their own section. Acidity also provides a counter to sweetness, and helps make a red wine taste fresher. We’ll discuss acidity in its own right further below. Structure is what enables a red wine to age well. Part of the skill of red wine making is to get the structure right, bearing in mind the style of wine that is being made.

2. Texture
Texture is related to structure. In part, it is the structure that helps determine the texture, but there’s more to texture than this. Both reds and whites possess texture: it is the way that the wine feels in the mouth. Another term for this might be ‘mouthfeel’. For reds, they can be silky, smooth, coarse, robust, chunky, velvety or even thick. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and some of the terms used to describe texture can overlap with terms used to describe actual flavours. For whites, they can be thin, fat, oily, piercing, smooth or drying. Again, this isn’t meant to be a complete list.

3. Fruit
Grapes are a sort of fruit, so it isn’t surprising that they often taste of fruits. Fruitiness is probably the easiest thing to describe in a wine, although I wonder about how many people will have a good point of reference for some of the more exotic descriptors used by some wine writers. I can’t tell you what a star fruit, or a pomegranate taste like, for instance, even though I’ve had both before. In white wines, commonly encountered fruits include grape, peach, pear, apple, apricot, grapefruit, lemon and lime. In reds, it’s common to see the fruit profile described broadly as red fruit or black fruit; more specific descriptors such as blackcurrant (and the related cassis), blackberry, raspberry, dark cherry and plum. All rosés seem to taste of strawberries, or so it seems, although they can also taste of raspberries and cranberries. It’s also possible for fruit to be fresh and bright, or rich and jammy. Red wines from hot climates often have jammy fruits.

4. Balance
A critical element in wine quality is that the wine should be balanced. This is hard to describe in words: I reckon you know a balanced wine when you meet one. It’s when all the components of the wine sit easily with each other, with nothing sticking out terribly much. Some examples? Well, a bit of spicy vanilla oak can sometimes balance out sweet fruit in red wines. The richness of Chardonnay can also be offset in this way, with oak spice and acidity providing a counterpoint to the broad, fat fruity flavours this grape variety often displays. With German white wines, the best show a delicate balance between a little bit of sweetness and acidity. Tannins work in red wines to offset sweeter fruit: a more sweetly fruited red can get away with more tannin than a red that has quite lean, savoury fruit.

5. Oak
Oak is important in wine – it’s a topic that deserves separate treatment, which it will get. For now, it is enough to say that oaky flavours, derived from barrels (or, these days, commonly from oak alternatives such as barrel staves bolted into tanks), can act as a sort of seasoning for wine. The famous Spanish wine Rioja is an excellent example: frequently, Rioja wines display sweet coconut and vanilla characters that are derived from the barrels that the wine is aged for long periods in. Many Australian and Californian reds also display spicy the vanilla notes imparted by new oak barrels. Most Chardonnays tend to have some oak influence, with toasty vanilla notes meshing well with the richness of flavour that Chardonnay from warmer regions displays. Like all seasonings, though, oak can be overdone. Personally, I find a strong oak influence in a wine to be a bit off-putting: I want it to support, not dominate the fruit.

6. Freshness
Wines are much better when they taste fresh, as opposed to tired and stale. Bright, focused flavours are usually better than mushy, diffuse ones. How fresh is the wine you are tasting?

7. Complexity
Complexity is a word that often crops up in tasting notes, and it’s always a positive descriptor. A complex wine is one where there’s lots going on. You take a sip and you ‘get’ something from the wine; later, you return to the wine and you ‘get’ something different. A complex wine is one that makes you pause as you taste. ‘What is going on here?’, you may ask yourself. Like a many-faceted diamond, the best wines tend to respond to the light of your attention by revealing many sides to their personality. It’s like the difference between a field of wheat and a meadow in summer – there’s much more going on in one than in the other.

8. Elegance
Ah, elegance: a tricky descriptor indeed. I suspect that some people just add the term ‘elegant to their tasting notes simply because they really like the wine and want to say something else positive about it. Elegance, like balance, is quite subjective. And, as with balance, you kind of know elegance when you meet it. An elegant wine for me is one where there’s a smoothness and sense of assuredness to the nose, and most particularly, to the palate. A showy, demonstrative wine that shouts ‘me, me’ to you is not an elegant wine. Neither is a young, tannic red that clearly needs time to develop. Pinot Noir, when done well, often shows elegance. I guess you could say that elegance is the opposite of power and intensity.

9. Power
A powerful wine is one with impact. It has lots of flavour. It will typically be quite concentrated, but not all concentrated wines are powerful. Some people love their wines to be powerful. ‘Muscular’ is another term that is often used for powerful wines.

10. Concentration
Concentration in a wine is a highly prized attribute. Perhaps too highly prized? No one really wants their wines to be dilute, but mid-bodied wines can often be very alluring. A concentrated wine is one that has lots of flavour, but more than this it is a wine that just seems to have more substance, because it is possible for a wine to be concentrated yet elegant.

11. Length
Length is one of those words that is frequently used in tasting notes, but which runs the risk of merely being a bit pseudy. It’s the sort of term that people can use simply as a reinforcing, affirming descriptor when they really like the wine. A ‘long’ wine is one where the flavour persists in the mouth for a significant period after the wine is swallowed or spat out, which is known as the finish. I often find that older Sherries and Madeiras have long finishes. Cheap wines often have short or abrupt finishes. Sometimes you’ll see references to how long the finish of a wine is in seconds or minutes: personally, I think timing the finish is a slightly absurd practice.

12. Body
Body is quite a useful tasting term. Just as we all have bodies of differing physical attributes, wines come in different shapes and sizes. What we are trying to do by using this sort of term is to give a mental picture of the flavour of the wine, I suppose. A full-bodied wine has richer, more intense flavours than a light-bodied wine. Medium bodied wines lie somewhere in between. I guess it’s kind of obvious. I suppose we could describe an intense but fresh, focused wine as being lithe or slim, but being athletic with it, rather than sort of weedy.


Anonymous Mike said...

As nobody has commented, I thought I would say thanks for this very interesting article, loving your site so far as I search for a deeper knowledge of my favourite drink!

July 11, 2008 2:08 PM  
Blogger Mihnea Mironescu said...

This is the first time I see the term body used as a reference to flavours instead of weight. A wine's body or viscosity is related to weight as perceived by our trigerminal system. It has nothing to do with flavours as far as I know.

November 10, 2008 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Trigeminal system also conveys taste fibres from the anterior 2/3 of the tongue via a nerve called 'chorda tympani'. Cranial nerve V also carries those nerve impulses responsible for detecting volume or 'weight' as you put it. So maybe you are both right?

August 8, 2009 11:24 PM  

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