Let’s talk about how we talk about wine.
No, not the outlandish, flowery stuff of wine reviews, a category so obviously absurd that it’s given rise to more than a few mocking and hilarious tasting-note generators (here, here and here, for example).
What we want to focus on, instead, is terminology that gets used frequently and legitimately but that might not be precisely understood by non-wine pros or geeks. These are terms you could encounter in reading about wine, or when talking to a sommelier or a wine merchant. Knowing how they’re used and how to use them can help ensure that you end up with wines that meet your preferences. For instance, there’s….
Acidity – Acids are a natural component of fruit that differ in level depending on the grape variety, but that generally diminish as ripening proceeds. Winemakers carefully monitor acid levels when deciding when to harvest their grapes. Acidity lends a tart, zesty element to wine, ensuring the wine doesn’t become flabby and helping keep it in balance.
Balance – This is the holy grail of winemaking, signifying a wine whose components fit together into a harmonious, seamless whole. Think of balance like a dish that you love for its spectrum of sensory delights, and yet you struggle to pick out any particular herb or spice. It all comes together. Balanced wines are ones that have the right combination of flavor and structure.
Structure – Structure is a bit of a buzzword in wine, but it’s a pretty good one. It’s contrasted with the flavors of a wine, and more about what a wine feels like in your mouth, how the various tactile components of wine mesh to present the wine’s flavors. So acidity is a factor, as is alcohol level. And a really big factor is tannin.
Tannin – Another natural component of grapes, like acidity, and sometimes confused with acidity. But there are key differences. First, tannin is largely absent in white wines, in part because their skins and seeds naturally contain less tannin, and because white wines are rarely fermented with their skins and seeds. Whereas acidity brings brightness, or tartness, tannin brings astringency, or grip. Done right, tannin can be a pleasing counterpoint to lush, ripe fruit. Overdone, tannin can leave a wine feeling excessively dry. And speaking of dry….
Dry/sweet – OK, this is two terms, but because they play so closely off each other, we’re lumping them together. Technically, dry and sweet refer to how much residual sugar is in a wine after fermentation, the process that transforms natural sugars into alcohol (and carbon dioxide). But here’s the thing: How dry or sweet a wine tastes is as much dependent on other factors – like acidity and alcohol and tannin – as it is on residual sugar. A red wine with virtually no residual sugar made from very ripe fruit with low acidity, little tannin and high alcohol very well could strike you as sweeter than a German Riesling that balances its residual sugar with piercing acidity. So better to describe the kind of wine you’re seeking, than to rely on the simple dry/sweet dichotomy.