Tasting Components

What do we mean when we talk about the taste of wine? Flavors, interestingly, are associated with our nasal receptors, not solely our taste buds. (Think about how dull food tastes when you are stuffed up with a cold.) Our tongues, where taste buds are located, feel the differences between four general taste groups: bitterness, saltiness, sweetness, and sourness. When we talk about the taste of wine, then, we start with these basics (and then move on to the thousands of scents in our noses that turn into flavors in our mouths).

The structural elements of wine can be broken down into four parts: acidity, alcohol, sugar, and tannins. It is helpful in tasting wine, then, to understand how these elements affect our taste buds.

1. Acidity
Acidity affects your saliva-producing glands — just imagine biting into a lemon wedge, and your mouth begins to water. It is this effect (much reduced in wine) that will make a wine feel lighter, and more focused, in your mouth. Acidity in wine also makes for fine food pairing; your tongue is cleansed and refreshed after a sip of wine, thanks to those saliva glands. The amount of acids in a grape, and therefore wine, depends on where the grape is grown. Cooler climates produce grapes with high acid levels; warmer climate grapes produce grapes with lower acid levels.

2. Alcohol
Alcohol in wine generally ranges between ten and fifteen percent. What we refer to as a "light-bodied" wine will have a lower alcohol content than a "full-bodied" wine. Alcohol also affects how we perceive sweetness; a big, intense, highly alcoholic red like a California Zinfandel, even with very little residual sugar, will taste slightly sweeter than a wine with a lower alcohol content, like a Burgundian Pinot Noir. Grapes from warmer climates tend to be riper when harvested, which translates roughly to: more sugar in grapes = more alcohol in wine = more sweetness in your mouth.

3. Sugar
Sugar is present in all grapes; it is what yeast eats to produce alcohol (and carbon dioxide). Each style of wine will have a different level of sugar, which depends on how mature the grapes were when harvested. What sugar is leftover once the wine has been fermented is called "residual sugar". Sugar will help a wine feel fuller and richer in your mouth. Imagine the difference between Diet Coke and regular Coke; the latter has more heft and richness to it. Sugar, then, gives wine body. It is also the key to pairing often difficult, spicy foods with wine — a glass of slightly sweet Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, or even a White Zinfandel will stand up to the strong spice in Thai, Indian, and Mexican foods.

4. Tannins
Tannins may seem strange to most of us, at first; our taste buds are accustomed to sensing acid, alcohol, and sugar in daily food and drink, but how often do we come across tannins? Outside of the wine world, tannins are found in things like walnut skins and tea leaves — imagine drinking a cup of over-steeped tea, and you understand the effect of tannins in your mouth. Tannins, found in grape skins, dry out your mouth, and impart a slightly bitter flavor. Salt affects how your taste buds perceive tannins; highly salted foods will make a tannic wine taste unpleasantly bitter. Tannins too affect the body of wine; a wine made with thin-skinned grapes (like a Pinot Noir) will have lower tannins and be lighter bodied than a wine made with thick-skinned grapes (like a Cabernet Sauvignon). Tannins are also found in oak, which lends extra body and weight to wine.
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Page last modified on Wednesday 31 of March, 2010 11:33:23 AM GMT