Now that you know how to evaluate wine by sight, smell, and taste, the last piece of the puzzle is to evaluate it by how it feels in your mouth. The “feel” of a wine is what we call its structure, which we break down into the following components: body, sugar, alcohol, acid, tannin (in red wine), and finish.
But before we get into the specifics of these components, let’s first talk about tastes.
In the mid-1800s, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote about four tastes that our tongues perceive: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. While most of you are probably familiar with these four tastes, did you know that there are actually two more?
In the early 1900s, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered a fifth taste called umami. While it is difficult to define, umami generally refers to a savory taste, which is present in foods like soy, fish, mushrooms, and cheese. Umami tends to make your mouth water and serves to enhance and balance the flavors of food. It is the taste that many simply refer to as deliciousness.
Then in 2010, Japanese researchers discovered an unofficial sixth taste called kokumi, which is best described as minerality, calcium, or chalkiness. Unlike the other five tastes, the tongue actually detects kokumi as more of a mouthfeel than a taste. But like umami, it serves to enhance flavors, particularly sweet, salty and umami flavors.
Although umami and kokumi aren’t necessarily tastes you find and describe in wine itself, they are worth mentioning because both are considered wine-friendly tastes and are important considerations when it comes to food and wine pairings.
Given the types of tastes that our tongues detect, let’s now focus on the structure components in wine and how some of these tastes are detected.
For starters, how many times have you swirled your glass to look at the wine’s legs, but had absolutely no idea what the legs indicated? Well, join the club. For the longest time we thought that the thicker the wine’s legs, the higher the quality of the wine. But the truth is that a wine’s legs really have nothing to do with quality. They are simply indicators of the wine’s alcohol or sugar level (and possibly its varietal).
Alcohol and sugar give a wine weight, so when you swirl your glass and the legs are thick and fall slowly, it likely means the wine has a higher sugar or alcohol content. If the legs are thin and drop quickly, it likely means the opposite. Also, when looking at the legs in red wine, if they fall slowly and leave some color behind on the glass (which we call staining), it means the wine is made from grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, which we know produce wines that are darker in color and fuller-bodied.
The weight that alcohol or sugar gives to a wine is referred to as its body. Body is how thick wine feels in your mouth and is usually described as light, medium, or full. Generally, the more alcohol or sugar a wine has, the fuller-bodied it will be. Here’s where knowing what climate a wine comes from can help. Cooler climate wines tend to be lighter-bodied because grapes from those regions don’t get as ripe and therefore have less sugar to convert to alcohol. Warmer climate wines tend to be fuller-bodied because of the opposite.
Sweetness in wine is determined by the amount of sugar that remains after fermentation. This is what we call residual sugar and is what determines whether a wine is dry, off-dry (meaning semi-sweet), or sweet. This is perhaps the one component of a wine’s structure that people confuse most often. Many people taste a wine and if it’s fruit-forward, they call it sweet. But it’s not! Believe it or not, the majority of all non-dessert wine is dry, which means that little to no sugar is left after fermentation. The main exceptions to this rule are sparkling wines and Rieslings, which both have unique rules regarding residual sugar, but outside of these it’s pretty safe to assume that the majority of the wine you drink is dry. However, if you’re ever unsure, take a sip of wine and hold your nose. If the wine is actually sweet as opposed to fruit-forward, you’ll still be able to taste and feel the sugar on the tip of your tongue.
Alcohol is best described as that warmth or burn you feel when you drink. Think about the difference between drinking a shot of tequila versus a margarita—the shot burns a whole lot more going down than the margarita, right? The same idea can be applied to wine. Some wines like German Riesling have very low alcohol levels with little to no burn when you swallow. Other wines like Argentinean Malbec are the opposite, where you can almost smell the alcohol before you sip it.
Evaluating the alcohol level in a wine is one of the hardest elements of structure to explain, only because people feel it in different ways. Some feel it in their throat, others in their chest, and others simply in their nose when they smell it. For us, we feel it in our bellies—the farther down we feel that burn, the higher we determine the alcohol to be!
Sourness or tartness in wine is what we call acid, which shows itself by how much your mouth waters when you drink it—the more your mouth waters, the higher the acid. You’ll often feel this sensation in your cheeks or on the sides of your tongue.
There’s a common misunderstanding that acid in wine is a bad thing, but it’s not! A healthy level of acid is actually desirable. It helps bring balance to wine and brighten its flavors in the same way that adding a squeeze of lemon to certain foods does the same thing.
Bitterness in red wine is what we call tannin. While oak barrel aging can add some tannin to wine, it primarily comes from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes that red wine soaks in during fermentation—the longer the juice soaks, the more tannic the resulting wine will be. Unlike some of the other structure components, tannin is more of a sensation than an actual taste. It’s what dries your mouth out or makes it pucker. The drier your tongue, teeth and gums feel, the higher the tannin is in the wine.
The finish of a wine is how long all of these structure components last in your mouth after you swallow. Do the taste and feel of the wine disappear right away? Or do they last for a while after you swallow? This is the difference between a short finish and a long finish. Simpler wines tend to have a shorter finish, while more complex or older wines tend to have a longer finish.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Have you ever tasted a wine and decided you didn’t like it based on how it made your mouth feel? We certainly have. But that’s because we didn’t understand that it wasn’t necessarily the varietal we didn’t like. It was just that the wine was out of balance.
A balanced wine is one in which its structural components complement each other instead of competing with each other. That’s why structure is important. Paying attention to how a wine feels when you drink it can lead you towards wines that create harmony in your mouth and help you avoid those that do the opposite.
So next time you drink wine, take a mouthful, swish it around so that it covers your cheeks, teeth, and tongue, and pay attention to what you’re feeling:
- Is the wine light, medium or full-bodied?
- Is it sweet or simply fruit-forward?
- Does the acid make your mouth water excessively or does it have a softer effect?
- Do the tannins dry your mouth out or does the acid balance the tannins?
- How long do the tastes and sensations linger after you swallow?
- Do you like the way the wine feels?
A wine’s structure is just as important as its aromas and flavors in determining what you like and what you don’t. So if you can hone in on the sensations you enjoy and pick out the smells and tastes you like, you’re well on your way to identifying the style of wine that’s right for you!
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As we mentioned in our very first article, understanding wine is like putting together a puzzle—you can’t do it if there are pieces of it missing! So our goal thus far has been to help you start putting together the pieces of your own wine puzzle and as we wrap up our fundamentals series, we sincerely hope that we’ve helped you do so. To recap what we’ve talked about thus far:
Part 1: Viticulture—growing grapes and the impact of climate, soil and terroir
Part 2: Viniculture—making wine from harvest to barrel
Part 3: Old World vs. New World—understanding the differences in style and determining your preferences
Part 4: FEW—what to look for when you smell/taste wine and how to describe it
Part 5: The Look of Wine—evaluating wine by its color
Part 6: The Feel of Wine—evaluating wine by its structure
We hope you’re feeling confident about the basics and ready to dig deeper. With the holidays upon us, we have some fun things lined up to share, so keep reading (and of course sipping!) along with us—there’s lots more to come!
Allison Albanese has worked in the finance industry for the last seven years as Director of Investor Relations for a hedge fund in NYC. She is also the founder of Parched: NYC, a website launching soon that is dedicated to all things cocktail, wine and beverage-related in NY. Allison is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Advanced Sommelier certification.
Melissa Diaz has spent over 12 years working in the media industry and is currently the Consumer Insights Director at Parade Media Group. Prior to joining Parade she worked at the New York Times in Advertising Market Research. Melissa is a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Advanced Sommelier certification.
For questions about Allie & Mel Uncorked, please contact Allison and Melissa at [email protected].