Blackberry patch, ripe cherry, and cassis sound awesome. Maybe such descriptions of red wine speak to you, but maybe they don’t. Regardless, the better way to understand wine is more fundamental and more important than the names of fruit. Isolating and identifying the basic components of wine allow us to understand what we like and what we could be enjoying instead of the crap-shoot that choosing wine can be when we can’t taste before buying yet don’t want to drink the same wines again and again in a world awash with infinite shades of red and gold.
The single most important word that describes a given wine whether red or white is “balance,” the balance of fruit, alcohol, and acid. And in the case of red wine, two additional components are important, tannin and possibly woody flavors if the wine has been aged in oak barrels. At the same time that we consider these components separately, they all overlap and influence one another. To simplify, I’ll use California wines as examples because they are most familiar.
Fruit flavors may be the easiest to identify. Cabernet Sauvignon tastes different from Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, and from Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, and all taste different from one another. Cabernet can have very intense flavors, saturated color, and more tannin. Pinot Noir has milder but nevertheless pronounced flavor, less color, and less tannin. Zinfandel has fruity almost sweet flavors, less tannin and lighter color than Cabernet so is often blended with a highly colored grape like Petite Sirah to give it more pigment. Zinfandel is often kept on the vine so that it reaches high sugar levels, which convert to high alcohol and sweet flavor. Chardonnay, America’s sweetheart wine, is often mass produced to be a crowd pleaser so will also be left to ripen with the consequence that it will have sweet, fruity flavors and low acid, like any apple that remains on a tree. Sauvignon Blanc is distinguished by its high acid and in many cases can be mouth-wateringly crisp with grassy flavor, again like an apple but one that has been picked before fully ripening, a Granny Smith for example.
By law, the alcohol content of a wine must be printed on the label. But the alcohol content is not just a number that tells us how much we can drink before getting tipsy. It influences flavors and acid and, in red wine, tannin. Grapes that are allowed to ripen to high sugar levels have higher alcohol, because the fermentation process converts sugar to alcohol. While riper grapes produce fruitier, sweeter tasting wine, the ripeness can also flatten varietal flavor so that Cabernet, Syrah, or Zinfandel may be more similar in flavor than they would be if they were picked when less ripe. The alcohol itself has a sort of oily, unctuous quality that at higher levels creates a smooth sensation on the palate in both reds and whites. Higher alcohol wines can also taste smoother because they have less acid, again like a riper apple although winemakers are allowed to add acid when it falls short in the fruit. Unlike white wines, red wines are fermented with the skins and seeds, where they get their color, and reds that are made from riper fruit are smoother because the skins and seeds, which produce grainy tannins, are baked by the sun and loose some of their grit.
Acid contributes a refreshing, crisp, sometimes mouth-watering component to wine, which is important to both red and white wines but especially important for white wines, which are often picked sooner than reds at lower sugar levels in order to preserve the acid in the fruit. Wines that are low in acid are often referred to as “flabby,” a quality that inexpensive whites might have in order to appeal to masses of people, especially those who might be drinking the wine as a cocktail instead of with food. Any wine that you might want to age to commemorate a special occasion, for example, should be higher in acid (lower in alcohol) because higher acid is the most important component for successfully aging wine.
Tannin texture, that grainy, gritty feeling that red wine imparts, comes from the skins and seeds, which are fermented together with the juice and give red wine its color and much of its intense flavor. Instead, white wine is fermented only with the juice. Back in the day, highly tannic red wines were aged over long periods, because they were undrinkable until at least some of the tannin molecules aggregated together, got heavy, and fell out of the wine solution, becoming that gravely substance that rests at the bottom of the bottle after a number of years. Today, winemakers have many tools to tame tannins, but they sometimes exaggerate, especially for lower-priced, mass-produced wines, which are designed to appeal to beginning wine drinkers. Imagine the difference between water and wine or between grape juice and wine. Only wine has that grainy texture, and that texture together with acid make wine brilliantly suitable as an accompaniment for food because apart from the flavors of wine, both tannin texture and acid clean and refresh the palate between bites of food.
Finally, oak can be an important contributing flavor to wine, sometimes too important so that it obscures the flavor of the grape. Oak barrel aging especially for red wines has multiple functions. The wood itself has tannins that leach into the wine and can be helpful when a wine needs added texture. Wood is porous, so the wine slightly oxidizes while it remains in the barrel and is softer as a consequence, much like wine becomes after it is decanted and exposed to air or remains in the glass during the course of a dinner. The interior of barrels is toasted or burned to some extent, so the barrel can impart smoky notes in addition to its own flavors, often vanilla. The amount of exposure that a wine gets to wood is related not only to the length of time that the wine remains in barrel but also to how new and how large the barrels are. Smaller, newer barrels will impart much more flavor to the wine. Oak barrels are an important tool for winemakers but can abuse a wine and rob it of its intrinsic fruit flavors, especially white wines, which are more delicately flavored.
The next step to isolating these basic components of wine would be to taste a white wine without barrel aging against one that had been in oak, or to contrast a white at 12.5% alcohol with one at 14.5%. Making the same contrasts and comparisons with red wines would be helpful. I normally point out whether or not and for how long a wine has remained in barrel and whether the barrels were new or not. Contrasting a red at 15% alcohol with one at 13.5% would be highly informative for analyzing the difference between riper fruit and lower acid, ideally with the same grape varietal. Italian whites are usually low in alcohol, high in acid, and kept in stainless steel before bottling whereas Californian whites can be much higher in alcohol, lower in acid, and aged in barrel. Some of the Italian reds are totally without oak flavors because they are aged in large, old wooden puncheons and would be a great contrast with California reds that are typically aged in mostly small oak barrels, a large percentage of which are new. These would be great themes for a wine tasting party. In the meantime, I’d like to take off my professorial hat and grab a drink of wine. In my case, it’ll probably be lower in alcohol and higher in acid, probably Italian. Long live differences.