Introduction to Wine Structure

Most of us have some idea about which wines they like and which they don’t. But when we’re asked why- why you like Merlot, or why you like Shiraz- often we don’t have a good answer for it. Wine structure is what you get when you strip away the appearance and flavours- the texture, it could be called. It’s really important to the quality of the wine- a bottle of wine might cost a lot more just for a longer finish, for example. I’ve always preached that it’s important to drink wine you like, so you need to know what wine you like. Learning about wine structure can help you identify why you like a wine.

Similarly, for identifying wine blind, structure is very important. A tasting note might say “dry, medium body, medium acidity, long finish, medium alcohol, evidence of new French oak”, and you’ve probably whittled it down to only several grape varieties already. I’ve often blind-tasted a wine and had no idea what it was from the smell, but figured out the structure, and guessed the most likely grape variety from the structure, and what do you know- that’s what it was. Structure doesn’t lie.

Also important to mention is how important wine structure is to food-wine pairing. For example, if you’ve bought a nice delicate fish, and cooked it properly, you’ll want to drink a nice wine with it. But pick a full-bodied, highly acidic, over-oaked white? You’re not going to taste that fish over the wine. Equally, if your delicate pinot noir gets drunk with steak, it’s not going to be delicate anymore. Making the right wine match will make or break a dish, and learning about wine structure will help you to do that.

Here are the seven main structural components that we focus on in blind tasting. Next time you try a wine, try to figure out how much it has of each of these components, and see whether or not that is what you like. Because at the end of the day, it’s figuring out what you like, and why you like it, that is important.

When a wine is really acidic, you’ll know it- like drinking lemon juice. Acidity is important in the wine, it’s a bit like the wine’s backbone. It’s also key for food-wine pairing, as acidity cuts through fat, so if you have a fatty meal, then  you’ll want an acidic wine. It tends to be that cooler climate wines with lower alcohol and lower body have high acidity, with a couple of notable exceptions. If you like acidic wines, you might like riesling, some chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or pinot noir. If you like less acidic wines, you might like sémillon, merlot, or some malbec.

Alcohol is one of the structural components that’s easier to find out- it’s right there on the bottle. But if you don’t have the alcohol, you can detect it by considering how much heat you get on the back of your throat when you drink the wine. High alcohol wines will feel hot, lesser alcohol wines less so. You want to have the alcohol in balance with the wine- too much alcohol relative to, for example, the body will be unpleasant. It’s worth figuring out whether you like higher alcohol wines- just because it has more alcohol in doesn’t mean it is better!

One of the most common questions I get asked when giving wine tastings is what is meant by a “full-bodied” or “light-bodied” wine, and it is actually surprisingly hard to answer. Often I answer in terms of viscocity. Full-bodied wines will be more like honey, whereas light-bodied wines are more like water. But when you taste a light-bodied wine together with a full-bodied wine, it’s pretty obvious which is which. So have a think about whether or not you enjoy big wines or smaller wines. If you like big wines, you might like new world malbec, merlot, or viognier. Similarly, those who like lighter bodied wines might like pinot noir, riesling or French sauvignon blanc.

Finish is how long the flavours and texture of a wine stays in your mouth. A wine’s finish can either be short, medium, or long. Sometimes a long finish is very pleasant, but sometimes strange flavours can come out in the finish, like bitterness, spice, or sweetness. As with the alcohol, you want the finish to be in balance with the rest of the wine. A full-bodied wine with lots of alcohol might feel very strange if all the flavours fell away very quickly. It’s also easy to confuse acidity with finish, as the acidity can often linger. The finish is sometimes a mark of the quality of a wine.

A lot of wines will be fermented in oak barrels. There are two common types of oak used in barrels: French and American. French oak gives a sweet, vanilla, buttery toast note, whereas American oak is more intense and spicy. Oak provides flavour and tannins, which are useful for ageing of wine, but how much you detect the oak will vary considerably. Some wines- particularly new world chardonnay- can have, in my experience, too much oak to be pleasant; when tasting the wines, I have found it hard to taste much more than the oak. Over-oaking can hide other problems with the wine, which is sometimes why wines are made in this style.

Sweetness isn’t whether or not you get sweet flavours like peach or honey, but whether or not there is actual residual sugar in the wine. Most wines don’t have residual sugar, so would be classed as ‘dry’. Common wines which might be ‘off-dry’ or ‘sweet’ are dessert wines like muscat or Sauternes, some riesling from the Mosel in Germany, or some chenin blanc from the Loire in France. Sweet wines are often very pleasant- not alcoholic fruit juice as often thought- but for some reason are out of fashion at the minute. Some new world producers are actually leaving a small amount of residual sugar in wines that are typically left dry, trying to create a style popular with modern tastes. If you haven’t had a proper sweet wine, they are a lot of fun, and worth trying.

It’s also tricky to try and explain tannins. Tannins are chemical that are in grape stalks and wood, and they produce a drying effect in your mouth, sucking out the saliva. They coat the inside of your mouth, and build up as you drink the glass, their drying effect increasing. Tannins soften over time- they are actually what polymerise into sediment in the bottle- so an older wine often won’t have such a harsh feel to it. Tannins can have a lot of character, being long, silky, round, small, grippy, chewy, green, or rustic, for example, and this character can be quite important when identifying a wine blind. Some grape varieties naturally have more tannins, like cabernet sauvignon or the aptly named tannat. Equally, some grape varieties like pinot noir or any white grapes have few tannins.

If you are interested in other posts on wine, I’ve written an Introduction to French Red Wines, an Introduction to French White Wines, and food-wine pairing posts on Fine Dining, Wines for a Wedding, and Food to go with Sweet Wines. I’ve also done reviews on The Wine Society and wine books Essential Winetasting and Judgment of Paris.


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  1. Trackback: Varsity Wine-Tasting Preview « oxfood

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