"How do I learn to speak wine?" It’s a surprisingly common question with a terribly unsatisfactory answer I’m afraid.
During all my years immersed in the world of wine I must admit to hearing this question over and over again. It’s a question without a specific answer. In fact it’s a question that can only be answered through a series of experiences.
Unlike math or English, for example, wine cannot be learned from a book. It must be experienced. In an effort to help move people along and guide them through their experiences, I am going to produce a series of articles that can serve as a study guide of sorts.
Wine is immensely complex, but as with any field of study you have to know the basic vocabulary, so that’s where we will start off on our journey. Each category of wine (white, red, rose, sparkling, and dessert) has its own unique terms, but there are some general terms that are helpful with all wines.
In order to maximize the benefits of tasting and analyzing wines it’s imperative that you keep good notes. You can find many styles of notekeeping books on the web or download one from Snooth.
The Basics of Tasting: Swirl, Sniff, Sip, and Spit (Sometimes)In order to fully appreciate a wine it’s a good idea to get familiar with the basic steps used to taste. Swirling the wine in the glass helps to release the aromas. You taste with your nose as well as your mouth, so take a deep sniff of the wine before taking your first sip. Once the wine is in your mouth make sure to let it spread all over your tongue, reaching all of your taste buds, so you don’t miss a thing.
For our first lesson we’ll focus on the terms used to describe a wine’s structure. That simply means the acid and tannins that are found in a wine. The way a wine smells, feels, and finishes are all greatly affected by the wine's balance of acid, tannin and fruit.
AcidityThere are two main types of acidity present in wine. The first, and most common, is the naturally occurring malic acid found in grape juice. This is the same acid that gives an apple its tartness. In certain wines, such as Riesling, Chablis and Barbera for example, this intensely cutting acidity is expected and welcomed.
For most red wines, and many white wines, the malic acid is simply too much and overpowers the fruit flavors, while robbing the wine of a desirable mouthfeel. These wines are allowed to go through a second fermentation called malo-lactic fermentation. This is a bacterial fermentation, as opposed to the yeast-driven alcoholic fermentation that first created the wine. It converts that hard malic acid into softer lactic acid, which is the same acid that is found in milk.
The MLF, that’s shorthand for malolactic fermentation, reduces the impression of acidity in a wine giving it a soft, rich texture, while allowing the fruit flavors to come to the fore. It also frequently imparts a bit of buttery-ness to the finished wine, a trait that is quite popular.
Since this buttery note has proven to be appealing, particularly in the US market, many producers also choose to age their wines in new oak barrels, most frequently the 225 liter barrels known as Barriques. These can be made out of many types of wood but in general, American oak and French oak are used. French oak tends to impart a lighter, spicier flavor that can range from light buttered popcorn to butterscotch, with strong notes of dried ginger and vanilla. The flavors are greatly affected by the degree of toasting the barrels undergo. Some toasting is used simply to help bend the barrel staves into shape; most barrels are rather assertively toasted to impart these distinctive flavors.
American oak is quite common in California, in particular for Zinfandel and Petit Sirah, Australia, and historically in Spain where it helped define the style of Rioja for the past century. American oak has a less nuanced impact on wine, adding strong notes of vanilla and coconut.
In addition to imparting flavors, oak barrels can also impart sweetness; the toasting process forms a type of sugar similar to what is created by searing meat. This sugar, while not terribly sweet, can add a sweet smell and flavor to the wine. Wood barrels can also add tannins to a wine.
Barrels have their greatest impact on a wine when they are new. In general the impact fades over the first 4 years or so resulting in what is known as a neutral barrel, one that no longer contributes significant flavors, aromas or tannins.
Tannins are contributed from the grape’s skins, stems, and seeds, as well as from barrels. Grape tannins and wood tannins can contribute a different feel to the wine and are the main strucutral element that allows red wines to age well. When they are unripe or out of balance in wine, tannins can contribute bitterness to the wine and astringency. If you’ve ever chewed on a popsicle stick you’ve felt dry, astringent wood tannins.
That’s the basic run down on tannin and acid: the structure of a wine, with a brief look at barrel aging. Next time we’ll take a closer look at barrel ageing and the techniques used to minimize or maximize the impact of those barrels.
This is part one of a four part series.
Read Additional reports in this Series on Snooth.
Part Two: Wine 101 - Why Oak Works
Part Three: Wine 101 - Oak Structure and Seasoning
Part Four: Wine 101 - Toasty Oak and why it's not all good
Keep your notes on Snooth, but always be prepared to jot them down on the spot.The Wine Buyer's Record Book
Ralph Steadman, the internationally famous cartoonist who rose to fame for his gonzo-artwork is now equally famous for his works on wine, such as this handy and humorous little book that makes it fun and easy to keep track of your wine tastings.
Snooth's Wine 101 Tasting Sheet
Taste wines and record your impressions as you test out the principles discussed in this lesson. Get better at identifying the notes of oak aging in wines and begin to see how a wine's balance affect its feel. This PDF is free and easy to use, so try it today.