This means that instead of heavy-handed prose, I’m using a simple scale to explain how high or low I think a wine’s acid or tannin levels are. Hopefully, this will be a useful change in wine reviewing, but I've realized that it would be helpful to all if we defined those things that are likely to objectively measured.
This isn’t going to solve all of our problems, you might find my medium acidity to be on the high side, for example, but I hope you will at least be more able to calibrate your palate against mine! Take a look at some of my recent reviews and let me know what you think. Does this approach help you to better understand wine?
Wines image via Shutterstock
Acid: low, medium-low, medium, medium-plus, high
Acidity is naturally occurring in grapes, but it can also added during the winemaking process in order to try to achieve a balanced wine. One of the two pillars that make up a wine’s structure, along with tannins, acidity leaves wines feeling fresh and bright in the mouth. If the acidity is too low, the wine can feel heavy and dull. If it is quite high, the wines are often described as crisp and vibrant.
Tannins: sweet, dry
Tannins are another naturally occurring element in wine that can be added through the winemaking process. Wines with low tannins are generally described as soft and/or supple, though tannins only play a supporting role in most cases. Wines with high tannins are described as being hard, tough and sometimes chewy.
The naturally occurring tannins that grapes contribute to wines are generally, but not always, of the softer variety. You encounter this type of tannin all the time when you chew on grape or apple skins. On the other hand, wood tannins, which come from aging wine in wooden barrels, are sometimes added to a wine as powdered tannins. These can be both sweet (in the case of toasty wood barrels, in particular) or dry. In extreme cases, dry tannins can be reminiscent of chewing a Popsicle stick.
Generally, fruit tannins are felt towards the front of the mouth and on the gums, while wood tannin emerges on the back of the tongue.
Several factors create the impression of sweetness in wine. Sugar is the most obvious cause of sweetness. Residual sugar, or sugar left in the wine after production, can be there intentionally to help balance out high acid. This is often the case with German Riesling, for example. Residual sugar (RS) can also be left to lend richness and body in the mouth. This often happens with California Zinfandel. In either case, the sweetness accentuates the fruit flavors of the wine and helps to cover up acidity, tannin and potential flaws.
Sweetness can also be added to wines from substances that are alternate forms of sugars, such as the toasted inside of a new barrel or high alcohol. Both of these add an impression of sweetness to a finished wine. In addition, very fruity wine tastes sweeter than equally sweet but savory wine, simply because our brains make the association between fruitiness and sweetness.
Oak is a common flavoring element that typically contributes flavors and aromas of vanilla, smoke, toast, cedar and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and dried ginger. Other, more subtle oak influence often comes across as coconut, dill, coffee and milk chocolate.
There are two main categories of oak, referred to as American oak and French oak. The American oak adds more sweetness and vanilla flavors to the finished wine, with coconut and dill being very typical indications of its use. French oak is generally more subtle in its effects, adding cedary elements, spices and cigar box aromas.
Spicy flavors come from both oak and fruit. Some common examples of grapes and their spicy flavors include:
Syrah + Black Pepper
Cabernet Sauvignon + Jalapeno
Pelaverga + Pink Peppercorn
Carmenere + Green Chilies
Mourvedre + Middle Eastern Spices
Nebbiolo + Liquorice
Gewürztraminer + Spicy Flowers
Muscat + Spicy Flowers