Both philosophical thought and common sense tell us that in order to understand a thing fully, we need to be acquainted with its opposite. We identify light because we experience darkness. We recognize attraction because we know revulsion. The concept applies to wine in important ways.
We often hear that a certain Chardonnay is “oaky.” The only way to identify the “oaky” characteristic of Chardonnay or any other white wine depends on having tasted wines that are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks without any contact with oak barrels. “Secondary malolactic fermentation” is another term often associated with white wine and means that more pronounced malic acid has been converted into softer lactic acid. Once again, we would not be able to identify those white wines unless we knowingly tasted wines without malolactic fermentation. Do you prefer your whites crisp with an acid zing or round and fruity? After you purposefully taste both, you’ll find out. And your taste could evolve to prefer one or the other or embrace both.
The other simple condition that a drinker can observe in both white and red wine is the alcohol content. Whether the wine is 12.5% alcohol or 14.5% has a huge impact on flavor, and learning the difference is a simple matter of reading the label on a bottle. Lower alcohol whites will have more acid while higher alcohol produces a fruitier, seemingly sweeter wine. Developing the ability to make those distinctions goes a long way toward establishing preferences for different types of white wines and makes the process of selecting a wine a lot less random.
Red wines have different characteristics. They tend to have more complex flavors and to be tannic to one degree or another, which is to say that they have a certain grainy texture that white wine lacks. While smooth is good, too smooth is not because wines that are made to be too smooth tend to loose the flavor of the grape from which they are made. Also wine without texture begins to resemble grape juice. Certain grape varieties are naturally less tannic like Grenache and Zinfandel so will be smoother whereas Cabernet Sauvignon is more tannic.
Winemakers control tannins in various ways, but two pervasive techniques can be major predictors of flavor, especially allowing the fruit to ripen to high sugar levels and aging the wine in oak barrels. Barrel aging is important because wood is porous, and the wine softens slightly from slow oxidation. Also during the aging period, tannins fall out of solution and remain in the barrel. For this reason, older wine is smoother than a current vintage, but older wine ages in the bottle. Instead current vintages age in barrels, and those barrels can add to the complex flavors of red wine. But when barrels have an exaggerated influence, they impart woody flavors that mask the character of the grape. When you know that all of the wine is aged in 100% new oak barrels over a longer period of time, you can expect that a lot of the taste will come from the wood.
The more grapes ripen on the vine, the less obtrusive tannins become. So once again, look for the alcohol content. Very ripe grapes can easily produce alcohol levels at 15 to 16% or more. Such a wine will be smooth, but it will taste less like the grape from which it is made and instead more raisiny because grapes that spend a lot of time on the vine dehydrate. A high alcohol wine can also impart a burning sensation. But if you’re very sensitive to tannin, you’ll want to choose either higher alcohol or grape varieties that are less tannic.
Knowing how long a red wine has been aged or how much of it has been subjected to new oak barrels is not information that you’ll find on a label. So you’ll have to go to the website and look for fact sheets. But in these pages, I almost always print that information. Many red wines are aged only in stainless steel tanks, so the wine will taste intensely like the grape from which it is made.
You can be mindful of these issues without being geeky, and just this amount of information will diminish disappointment when you shell out the substantial amount of money that premium wine demands. Also expect that your taste will change over time. Like other pleasures in life, what you enjoy now may well be different in five years.