Wine Tasting 101 (Part Three: The Five Basic Characteristics of Wine)

how-to-taste-wine-step-3.jpgApart from confirming whether the aromas you identified at Stage Two of your wine tasting are reflected in the flavour, there are five basic elements to look for once you actually take that first mouthful of wine: the sweetness, the acidity, the tannins, the alcohol, and the body.

It can be helpful to hold that first sip of wine in your mouth before you swallow, moving it around and letting it coat your entire tongue. This doesn’t have to be an ostentatious, somewhat gross swishing – it isn’t mouthwash – but can be done subtly and discreetly without undue display.

Sweetness: The fermentation of grape juice into wine relies on the presence of naturally-occurring fruit sugars, and most of these will be used up in the fermentation process, but even the driest wines will retain some degree of sweetness, however slight. The variety of grape used and the terroir in which it was grown can also have an impact on sweetness, as some grape varieties are naturally sweeter than others. In addition to a sweet taste, the sweetness of a wine might be perceived as a tingling sensation on the tip of the tongue, or as a higher viscosity, giving a syrupy or oily texture.

Alcohol: This may or may not be what you’re drinking wine for. Because alcohol is a by-product of fermentation, sweeter wines will often (although not always) be less alcoholic, and drier wines will often (although not always) be more alcoholic. As with sweetness, the variety of grape used also has a bearing on this. Taste-wise, alcohol content is what gives the spicy ‘burn’ factor to the wine. A higher alcohol content will also usually give a more intense flavour and a longer ‘finish’ (the length of time the aftertaste lasts for).

Acidity: Like sweetness, this causes a tingling sensation on the tongue, but the sensation spreads along the sides rather than being confined to the tip. A higher level of acidity may also cause you to salivate – imagine biting into a lemon and you get the idea.

red-wine-white-wine
Generic picture of two glasses of wine. They look different. Odds are they taste different too.

Tannins: These are almost exclusively a feature of red wines as the tannins (phenolic compounds) enter the wine from the grape skins and seeds and the wood of the barrels used in aging. Tannins are an astringent and create a sensation of dryness in the mouth, so it can be interesting to drink a wine like Pinotage where both the tannins and the acidity can be quite noticeable just for the physical sensation of it in your mouth! Tannins add bitterness and complexity, and also have a preservative effect, which is why red wines will often age better and can be stored longer than whites.

Body: Wines are typically referred to as ‘light’, ‘medium’ or ‘full’ bodied. It’s related to alcohol content (see above) –  a higher alcohol content makes the wine more viscous, meaning it feels ‘oilier’, ‘heavier’, or ‘fuller’ in your mouth. A lower alcohol content means that a wine feels more ‘delicate’ or ‘lighter’. It’s a quality that’s hard to describe but I assure you it’s easy to recognise when you know to look for it!

Oh dear, I guess that last point means you need to go and drink some wine. Well, it’s a hard life so salud, l’chaim, à votre santé, and cheers bro! May every glass of wine you drink be the best yet.

Always drink responsibly. One standard drink of wine is approximately 100ml (3.3 fl oz). The New Zealand Ministry of Health recommends that women consume no more than 2 standard drinks a day, and no more than 10 standard drinks a week, and that men consume no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week (note that this is slightly lower than the limits recommended by the World Health Organisation). The World Health Organisation recommends that women abstain from alcohol during pregnancy. In New Zealand the legal drinking age is 18. Do not drink alcohol if you are under the legal age to do so in your country. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of alcohol.

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