Most of us enjoy wine with friends, family and, occasionally, strangers. Sometimes it’s just an aperitif or cocktail; other times, it’s to celebrate a birthday, anniversary, family reunion or holiday feast.
For some, the intrigue of a new wine is assessed, pondered upon and appreciated. For others, it’s a stress-reliever at the end of a hard day, isn’t actually tasted or consumed without any thought.
It’s easy to instantly decide whether one likes or dislikes a given wine. But the question should be, why? Try tasting a wine and not judging it until you’ve analyzed its components. It’s easy and can expand your wine experience.
Components of wine can be broken down into five pieces: fruitiness or ripeness; acidity; tannin; sweetness; and alcohol. For this exercise, only focus on your palate, not the wine’s bouquet. The tongue is capable of tasting sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami – and salt and umami are not found in wine. Debate among food tasters, sommeliers, wine makers and chefs regarding the infamous tongue map is ongoing. This “map” suggests where we can taste each component. I’m a firm believer; others are not.
The majority of all wines are fermented dry –not sweet. But sweetness is still a good initial metric for judging your wine. Typically, sweet or residual sugar is detected on the tip of the tongue, and this is the first thing we notice. Some popular wines contain residual sugar upwards of 15 grams per liter.
The next most notable sensation is acidity. This tart, sour or non-existent sensation reveals itself down the center and sides of the tongue. This component makes wine ageable, is desireable with food and is responsible for the wine’s finish, or length. Lower acid wines are rich, soft, smooth and have a short finish.
Tannins are the third component and are responsible for the drying effect on your tongue, cheeks and gums. Wines high in tannins need fat to smooth them out – additional bottle aging for the tannins to soften. Wines from Bordeaux, Barolo and Barbaresco are renown for their tightly-wound tannin content that enables these wines to age for decades. Tannins come from grape skins and oak barrels.
Fruitiness or ripeness is a combination of sweetness, acidity and alcohol. This sensation covers the whole tongue and is a result of the wine’s alcohol content. Wines of higher alcohol content taste fuller, richer and softer. Conversely, wines of lower alcohol content have less ripeness and higher acidity.
With each sip, see if each component can be identified. Does one stand out? Are the components equally as impressionable? Are they balanced amongst each other?
If you find the wine a bit acidic or tart, try it with a meal or some cheese. If the tannins are giving you a cat’s tongue, try it with soft cheese or lamb. If the ripeness of the wine is overpowering the meal, perhaps it’s best to save it for an after-dinner drink. Over time, you will be able to identify a wine’s components with just one sip and begin to clarify your preferences.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.