A Wine Tasting Breakdown
It is fair to say that wine tasting can be a bit overwhelming the first couple of times you try it. It is one thing to sit down and enjoy a glass of your favourite red, but to actually zone in on each element of a wine and comment on it? Tricky. So, here is a bit of a breakdown of the components that we find in wine, where they come from and how we taste them.
Possibly the most focussed upon in wine tastings are the smells, flavours and characteristics that a wine possesses. For example, Syrah is well known for its classic peppery aromas. This does not mean that pepper has been used in the process of making this wine! The reason that specific aromas arise in wines is that the same aromatic chemical compound that is responsible for the aroma of the descriptor, is also present within the wine. In the case of Syrah, the compound that gives the peppery characteristic (in both pepper itself and in the wine) is rotundone. Wine will present aromas that originate from different sources: some come from the grape itself – which is why certain grape varieties are known for a particular characteristic – and some will come from winemaking processes that add these chemical compounds, such as oak ageing. Other aromas from the grape may be “activated” by fermentation. Therefore, the final expression of the wine will have resulted from the grapes themselves in combination with winemaking choices.
A hugely important structural component of wines, the level of acidity has a large impact on the ability that a wine has to age. It needs a high level of acidity in order to retain its structure and drinkability over time. The effect that acid has on us is making us salivate, which is why it is responsible for wine being refreshing. For this reason, a good way to access the acidity of a wine is to take a sip and then tilt your head forward; the more saliva that gathers in the front of your mouth, the more acidic the wine is (lovely, I know!). The acidity of a wine likely comes from grapes themselves, which contain tartaric and malic acid, although it can be added to/reduced in winemaking as well. As a general rule, cooler climates will produce wines with a higher acidity that warmer climates; this is because heat decreases the amount of acid that is present in a grape as it ripens.
Tannins are present in the skins, seeds and stems of all grapes. However, we usually only comment on tannins when tasting red wines, as winemaking for white wine avoids the incorporation of tannins. This is because tannins may come across as bitter, which would be more noticeable and mask more delicate flavours in a white wine. The best way to taste tannins is to swish the wine around your mouth, up over your teeth and gums. The sensation that they give is the dryness or stickiness on your gums and tongue. The more intense this sensation, the higher the tannin content of the wine. Like acidity, tannins are a very important contributor to the age-ability of the wine. Over time they become less bitter and more approachable, allowing the wine to develop complexity. Tannins can also be added in powdered form during winemaking, or by using oak, which imparts tannins into the wine and softens them at the same time.
The odd one out a bit here, the body of a wine is not strictly one component of wine that you can pinpoint. Simply put, the body is the weight of the wine in your mouth. Think of the difference between semi-skimmed and full fat milk. The body is impacted by many wine components, such as the residual sugar, glycerol, alcohol and acidity levels.
Sugar adds sweetness to a wine, which we can taste on the tip of our tongue. Even in dry wines there is often 2-3g/L of residual sugar, which gets left over from fermentation (see below). Sweet wines have much more, regularly reaching levels of 150 g/L. Sugars also contribute to the body of the wine, with more sugar increasing a wine’s body. In order for a wine to be in balance, residual sugars must be met with a good level of acidity to retain the freshness of the wine.
Alcohol is created during the fermentation of sugars by yeast. Therefore, the more sugar that is in the grapes when harvested, the more alcohol will be in the final wine. There are also winemaking methods that can increase or decrease the amount of sugar and consequently the amount of alcohol in the wine. The impact that alcohol has is to add some sweetness to the wine, as well as bitterness and a mouth-warming feeling. And, yes. This will be the source of your sore head the morning after. To make that head worthwhile, the alcohol should be balanced by fruity flavours in the wine which make it more pleasant and drinkable.