Five Key Wine Components and How to Detect Them

A lesson on the basic words and phrases you need to know about wine

How often have you run across these phrases when you’re reading a wine review: “highly structured," “crisp,” “bright," “firm tannins,” “fine-grained tannins.”

How do they translate into your flavor experiences?

It’s nothing too mysterious. “Structure” is most often used in reference to relative levels of acid (especially whites) and/or tannin (reds). But there are other things that come into play such as alcohol, sweetness and body.

Isolated, none of these components are tasty or interesting. Think of them as the framework of the wine, just waiting to be fleshed out by delicious things like fruitiness, fermentation character, oak, floral character, herbaceousness, minerality, etc.

Fortunately, Mother Nature has made it remarkably easy to detect the relative levels of the main wine components. Grab a glass of red wine and taste as we go and you’ll see what I mean.

Photo courtesy of shutterstock images

Alcohol is the only one of the main components that has an aroma, so you’ll have to rely on your palate to differentiate between the rest. Using the slurping technique will really help.

For the uninitiated: Take a little sip of your wine. Taste good? Now, all you have to do is take another small sip and hold it in your mouth. Purse your lips and pull some air in through your teeth and over the top of the wine (kind of like whistling in reverse). Swish it all around your mouth, like mouthwash, and chew on it a little. Wow – flavor explosion in your head, right? Now, we’re ready to get started. Important: All of us have different sensitivities, so you might detect alcohol more readily than I do – I’m a cheap date. And, I might notice acid more easily than someone else.

Let’s start with acid:
Of course, acid has a tart flavor. Incidentally, if you refer to high-acid wine as sour you’re going to get a very sour look from the winemaker. In wine parlance, sour means spoiled, as in gone to vinegar!

If you want to become acquainted with the tart flavor of relatively high-acid wine, some common white examples are sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Northern Italy turns out a lot of lean, zippy reds.

Some wines, especially reds, are so flavorful that it’s difficult to taste the acid. Usually, you can still gauge it. As you taste the wine, notice the way your mouth begins to water, especially along the sides of your tongue and under it. Thus, the birth of the phrase “mouth-watering acidity.” Now that you’ve noticed it, you’ll begin to differentiate the levels as you taste different styles of wine. Generally, white wines are higher in acid than reds. Well-made dessert wines can really turn on the water works in your mouth because the sweetness needs to be balanced by a high level of acidity.

Why do you care? Acid is important because it keeps the wine fresh and lively on the palate. It has a cleansing effect and makes the wine easy to pair with food. Acid is a great, natural preservative! Wines that are high in acid (but balanced) will have fairly long lives and a better chance of retaining their fruitiness and freshness as time goes by.

The source: The grapes, although acid additions are permitted in many wine regions. As the grapes ripen, the sugar increases and the acid decreases. At harvest time, timing is everything!

Descriptions: Crisp, lively, bright, racy, nervy, vitality
Antonyms: Flat, flabby, soft, dull, insipid

Do you have a sudden urge to brush your teeth after tasting red wine? Then you recognize tannin – it’s that simple. It runs around your mouth seeking out protein and then clings to it, which explains the drying sense of grip on your gums – all over your mouth, really – and the furry teeth. The flavor of tannin is extremely bitter, so winemakers try to craft the wine in such a way that you feel it, rather than taste it. As you taste your wine now, you will probably remember other wines you’ve tasted that were more tannic or less tannic, so you'll begin to recognize relative levels.

Acid accentuates the hardness of tannin, so high-acid wine that’s also tannic can be hard to enjoy when it’s young. As the wine ages, the tannin enlarges with oxidation and gradually falls out of the wine as part of the sediment. So, the wine gradually softens and the texture becomes more velvety over time.

Why do you care? Tannin is an important part of the texture of red wine – when managed properly it gives it a nice chewiness. Like acid, tannin is a natural preservative. It's part of a group called polyphenols, which are anti-oxidants that prolong the wine's life. The more tannic the wine, provided it's well made and well-balanced, the longer its life in the bottle when stored properly.

The source: The biggest source of tannin in wine is the grape skins. Other sources are the seeds, stems and oak (wine barrels contribute wood tannin if they're relatively new). Red wines are almost always higher in tannin than white because the winemaker must ferment the juice and skins together to get the purple color. Whites receive little or no juice to skin contact.

Descriptions: Astringent, drying, grippy, chalky, chewy, hard, coarse
Antonyms: Soft, smooth, silky, round, velvety, mellow

Isolated, alcohol smells sweet. Give the wine a good swirl for a few seconds and pop your nose in the glass. If you actually smell something sweet that reminds you of rubbing alcohol or feel what seems like a heat-driven tickle in your nose, the alcohol is too high for the style of the wine – it’s not balanced. You’re not supposed to notice the alcohol, it’s just supposed to be there.

The mouth-feel: Do you notice that your mouth feels warmer than it did before you sipped the wine? That's the alcohol talking and in a very pleasant way. If it's quite warm, or almost hot, the alcohol content is on the high side. If you actually taste the alcohol or feel like a fire-breathing dragon, it’s too high, not balanced. It seems to be most noticeable in the back of your throat. The alcohol also adds an oily, viscous sensation.

Why do you care? Alcohol gives the wine a great deal of its body or “heft.” A wine that’s meant to be robust in style feels thin and unsatisfying on the palate if the alcohol is too low. Alcohol is yet another preservative, which explains why Port-style wine can live so long in the bottle and actually keeps better than table wine once it’s opened (sugar also helps in that regard).

The source: The sugar in the grapes at harvest. In many parts of the world adding sugar is permitted. It’s called Chaptalization. During the fermentation the sugar is converted to alcohol.  

Descriptions: Warm, hot, weighty, sweet

Well, this one’s easy – we all know sweetness, right? And that “dry” is the opposite of sweet? Sweetness also has a pleasant, slippery sort of mouth-feel.

Since sugar is so familiar, this is a good time to talk about perception vs. reality. The level of acidity can really play games with your head in gauging sweetness. It makes the wine seem less sweet than it is. Sparkling wines called "brut," for instance, are considered dry, but they may actually have as much as 1.5 percent sugar (our threshold for noticing sweetness in wine is most often at about .5 percent). They taste dry because they are so high in acid.

Try making some overly-tart lemonade and give it a taste. Then add a little sugar. Keep tasting and adding sugar until you reach a pleasant balance. Notice how the sugar has softened and rounded out the acid sensation? The acid level hasn’t changed, but your perception of it has.

Fruity flavors can also trick your palate into detecting sugar that isn’t actually there. The phenomenon is called auto-association.

If dry is .5 percent or less, off-dry can be up to about 4 percent sugar, medium sweet up to 10 percent sugar and anything over that is very sweet, indeed. But our perception? That’s another matter.

Why do you care? Who doesn’t love something a little sweet from time to time? Plus, besides its rounding effect on overly tart wine, a bit of sugar can cover a lot of sins in the production of inexpensive wine, and it’s another of Mother Nature’s natural preservatives.  

The source: The grapes. In most cases the sugar in wine is residual, unfermented sugar because the fermentation was stopped before the yeast converted all of the sugar to alcohol. In some cases, the winemaker ferments to dryness and adds back grape juice or grape-juice concentrate to sweeten the wine.  

Descriptions: Sweet, syrupy, off-dry, cloying, doux, Extra-Dry (sparkling wine), demi-sec (sparkling wine)

Antonyms: Dry, austere, Brut (sparkling wine), Extra Brut (sparkling wine), Brut Nature (sparkling wine), Zero Dosage (sparkling wine)     
It’s all about mouth-feel and weight. Milk products make a good analogy:

•Light = skim milk
*Descriptions: Light, hollow, thin, lean, watery
•Medium = whole milk
•Full-bodied = heavy cream
*Descriptions: Heavy, full, fat, fleshy, lush, unctuous, concentrated, substantial

When the wine is balanced, the flavors, body and the relative level of the components interact harmoniously. Since alcohol gives wine body, a glass of red Bordeaux from a poor vintage that’s only 10.5 percent alcohol may feel thin and unsatisfying on the palate. Conversely, a Napa Cab from a hot vintage better have plenty of flavor and body to stand up to 15 percent alcohol. Otherwise, you will have spent a lot of money on something that makes you feel like a fire-breathing dragon.

The source: Mainly the alcohol and grape extracts (red); barrel-aging can increase the body due to evaporation.

For more wine tasting information from Nancy, check out her blog:

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 143,876

    Thanks for this great article. It's a topic that's not covered often enough and can really help people understand what they're tasting. Well done!

    Aug 15, 2012 at 12:57 PM

  • Snooth User: bassogary
    790815 13

    this was a great article again i learn a lot more thank you!!

    Aug 15, 2012 at 1:23 PM

  • An excellent article. I learned a few new things I didn't know and intend to pass it on.

    Aug 15, 2012 at 2:09 PM

  • Snooth User: TomG
    40947 44

    I want to echo what's been said - an excellent article. If there's anything I'd like to have seen more of, it would be an elaboration of smell. I realize that you were talking about five major taste components, but in terms of the experience, the smell/nose/bouquet/whatever of a wine is, or can be, incredible. My first "wow" moment with wine was a 2001 Rioja that provided a hit of tobacco and saddle leather that I still remember. How can wine do that?

    Aug 15, 2012 at 2:36 PM

  • Snooth User: jtryka
    Hand of Snooth
    312799 1,933

    Great article, nice way to explain these things in more layman's terms.

    Aug 15, 2012 at 2:39 PM

  • Snooth User: Tim4C
    875219 21

    This is great. It fully, and easily, explains some of the more esoteric terms and descriptions used for wine tasting. Thank you.

    Aug 15, 2012 at 3:18 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 2,748

    Nicely done with a balance of comparisons to everyday experiences, scientific facts, and vocabulary that often goes unexplained but is really pretty straightforward.

    Aug 15, 2012 at 3:32 PM

  • Snooth User: lakenvelder
    Hand of Snooth
    544484 493

    Nice article, The vocabulary is often not something most beginners understand and are explained to.

    Aug 15, 2012 at 5:11 PM

  • When I taste unknown wines for the first time I focus on the alcohol content, tannin levels, acidity and residual lingering taste and more on how it stays on the palate. the bouquet is of less important for me (poor smell ability) but after reading this post it is an important step in the enjoyment process. Get more tips on wines from le Marche by visiting this useful blog:

    Aug 16, 2012 at 2:13 AM

  • Thanks to all of you for taking the time to make these lovely comments! You've made my day! TomG, yours is a really great question that's hard to answer since there are so few absolutes in wine. But - I think you've given me the inspiration for my next post! Thanks! Nancy

    Aug 16, 2012 at 1:46 PM

  • Very didact and clear. I loved it!

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  • Snooth User: mjapka
    656126 44

    This was a very interesting article. I appreciate the section on acidity and tannins and oxidation, leading to eventual softening. My wife and I lived in West Germany and Southern Italy for quite a long time, and we are often amazed at what we call "the big red California thing." A very high percentage of the CA cabs, in particular, just seem so uniform and less distinct to us, like there is a mouth feel that everyone is striving for. We have encountered it in some French reds and in the Cusomano family Noa and some 100% cab sauv from Sicily -- and we like that smooth velvet -- but it just seems that the red cab blends we drink now that we have moved back to the US are almost standardized. I think, now, that it must be because of that combo of high alcohol and the tannins from grape sources and the newer oak. We were beginning to assume that Michel Rolland had somehow taken over the entire state of California and was micro-oxygenating everything.

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  • Snooth User: ps
    70694 347

    Great article! I had a wine day before yesterday that made my mouth feel warm and I thought of this article. I wouldn't have noticed it otherwise. I still have trouble with dry vs. sweet though.

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    549743 54

    this is a great article, thank you so much for that

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  • Well done I always find it hard in the tasting room to have the time to explain all the points you put in this report. The new taster wants to know which wine is best? Hard to answer I feel the best wine is the one you love to work with the food you intend to serve We all benefit from listening. Often one of my servers seems to jump the gun and start talking about the wine before the taster has really had a chance to take it all in. The tasting room can be a good place to learn about wine and tasting. Never be afraid to ask questions.

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  • I agree, Geneventiv. I used to do an hour-long class to go over these things. No way you could get it done in a tasting bar situation. Looks like we have similar backgrounds - I've spent a whole lotta time in tasting rooms. I wish people would trust their palates to tell them which wine is best. Thanks for the comment! n

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  • Thanks to all of you for taking the time to make these lovely comments! You've made my day! TomG, yours is a really great question that's hard to answer since there are so few absolutes in wine. But - I think you've given me the inspiration for my next post! Thanks! Nancy

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