Is This Wine Any Good? The Five Most Important Structural Components to Know

BY MARSHALL TILDEN III

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How do you determine whether a wine is ”good”?

The first rule of thumb is to drink what you like. If you enjoy it, then it must be good!

However, if you want to gauge the technical quality of wine, there are five major structural components to assess. After you examine those levels, you can determine if and how they balance each other and lead to an intense or expressive wine with complexity on the nose, palate and finish.

Here are the five most important structural components of wine and how to understand them in the glass.

Sweetness

Just because a wine is fruity doesn’t mean it’s sweet.

Sweetness indicates the amount of residual sugar in wine. So, when people say they prefer a “dry wine,” it’s not to say they don’t enjoy fruity wines, just wines without any real sugar content.

There’s no direct correlation between sweetness or dryness and quality. Sure, you would be hard-pressed to find a 100-point White Zinfandel on Wine Enthusiast, but there are plenty of 100-point sweet wines, like Port and Tokaji, that are some of the most sought-after wines in the world.

Acidity

You know that mouthwatering feeling you get when you bite into a fresh pineapple or sip freshly squeezed lemonade? That’s acidity, and it’s one of the most important components of wine.

Derived from grape pulp, acidity accounts for less than 1% of the composition of wine. (Water comprises 80–86%, and alcohol typically 11–16%.) Acidity helps to make cool-climate white wines zippy and refreshing and helps rich reds, like Saint-Estèphe in Bordeaux or Rioja Gran Reserva, to age gracefully for decades.

While acidity will tend to be lower in red grapes than white, without medium to high acidity in a wine, it will appear as flabby or flat and it will be nearly impossible for it to exhibit balance or harmony.

Tannin

A great exercise to understand tannin is to peel the skin off a red grape and eat it by itself. That drying feeling in your mouth that sucks your cheeks in is from the tannin.

Extended maceration, in which winemakers press the grapes with their skins intact, is one way to impart tannins to wine. Since most white wines are produced without skin contact, the vast majority has little to no tannins.

However, tannins can also come from oak aging, so you will notice a bit of tannin in those big, buttery Napa Chardonnays and gloriously complex Sauternes.

Tannins are more prevalent in red wines because there is more skin contact with the juice during fermentation and when the juice is pressed, or when liquid is separated from solids. The more contact the juice has with the skins, and possibly stems, the more the tannins can be detected in a wine.

Without a healthy dose of tannins, it’s very difficult for a wine to improve and evolve over time. Conversely, a wine that is oversaturated with tannins, and that doesn’t possess enough fruit or acidity to balance it out, will feel astringent and come across as particularly bitter on the finish.

Alcohol

The cat’s out of the bag: Wine has alcohol, and it’s a critical component of the body and weight of your pour.

Alcohol is a byproduct of the fermentation process. The more sugar in whatever grapes are fermented, the higher the wine’s potential alcohol. Grapes develop sugar as they ripen, which explains why high-alcohol wines can come from generally warmer regions like Barossa in Australia, Priorat in Spain and many regions in California, while cool-climate white wines from Vinho Verde in Portugal or the Loire Valley in France tend to have lower alcohol levels.

Lower or higher levels of alcohol are not surefire signs of quality in wine, though. There must be a minimum level of around 8% alcohol by volume (abv) for even the lightest of white wines. And, for those big, high-alcohol reds that exceed 15% abv, there should be a hefty dose of fruit, ample tannins and at least moderate acidity to keep everything balanced.

Body

Residual sugar, tannin and alcohol work in tandem with fruit concentration to determine the body or weight of a wine. The denser the fruit and higher the alcohol, the heavier and fuller-bodied a wine will feel on the palate.

A great way to judge body is to think about water and milk. A light-bodied wine like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will have a consistency similar to water, whereas a full-bodied wine like an Argentine Malbec will be closer to heavy cream. The collaborative effort of all these structural components leads you to determine whether you’re drinking a light-, medium- or full-bodied wine.

So, What Makes a ‘Good’ Wine?

Once you have made your assessments of all these structural components, you can then determine how they complement one another. Does the acidity balance out potentially high tannins?

Does the alcohol complement the high fruit concentration, leading to a long and pleasing finish? Does the combination of these components then culminate in an intense, expressive and potentially complex wine?

If the answer to all these questions is yes, you probably have a good, or possibly outstanding, wine on your hands.

Most important structural elements wine tasting
BY TOM ARENA

Published on October 26, 2021

How to Understand the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Aromas in Wine

As featured on Wine Enthusiast

Wine has three levels of flavors and aromas that evolve over the course of its life: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Younger wines display primary fruit flavors and aromas. These include black, red and dried fruit in red wines. For white wines, they can offer scents and flavors of green apples, plus citrus, tropical and stone fruits, and underripe fruits of all kinds. Primary aromas are the most obvious to detect in young wines, and they’re often what sparks interest in wine drinkers. Herbs and spices, like mint, pepper or licorice, are also part of the primary category.

How To Taste Wine - Wine Tasting Tips from Wine Enthusiast ...

Secondary aromas and flavors derive from winemaking processes like fermentation and aging. These can include the biscuit and yeasty notes that appear from lees stirring and autolysis (the effect when yeast dies off), or the very distinct buttery popcorn aroma that’s a byproduct of malolactic fermentation in many Chardonnays. It also encapsulates the wonderful characteristics that are imparted by oak aging, like vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut or even coffee.

The last of the three levels of aromas and flavors is tertiary. These complex components occur when wine is aged in an ideal environment.

In red wines, fresh ripe fruit starts to transform into stewed or dried fruit, like raisin or fig. Tertiary aromas of tobacco, earth and mushroom will come about, too.

Primary secondary tertiary wine aromas

White wines start to develop dried apricot, orange marmalade and sometimes even maderized qualities, or Sherry-like notes of almonds and candied fruit. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas as well as complex spice components like nutmeg, ginger and petrol.

It’s important to note that wines with tertiary aromas and flavors are not “better” than those with primary and secondary ones. Around 90% of wines are meant to be consumed young and fresh, while a small percentage of wines improve with three to 10 years in the bottle. Only a tiny amount of wines (some estimate as low as 1%) are meant to age 10 years or more.

If you are drawn to wines with fresh fruit, powerful tannins and a mouthfilling finish, you might generally prefer primary and secondary flavors and aromas. Be honest about your palate and preferences, and be confident to drink whatever and whenever you like.

Learn the Five S’s of Wine Tasting

Don’t be intimidated by all of those fancy wine descriptors or the swishing and swooshing sounds that the pros make while they taste. To evaluate wine, it all comes down to the “five S’s.”

Illustration by Ryan McAmis

 

 

Illustration of man with glasses looking at wine
Evaluating the wine’s visual qualities / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.

Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.

Illustration of a couple swirling red and white wine
It’s all in the wrist / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.

Illustration of a man evaluating a white wine's aroma
Technique that’s right on the nose / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”

Illustration of standing woman sipping red wine
A matter of good taste / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.

When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.

Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.

Illustration of couple savoring wine after sipping
Don’t forget to enjoy / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.

Final tip

If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.

Published on April 15, 2019
TOPICS:Wine Basics
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.

How to Taste Wine Like a Pro

Ever feel like the pros at wine tastings are speaking their own secret language? In a way, they are. Learn the ins and outs of “tasting grids,” which set the standard for how we evaluate wines and the words we use to talk about them.

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Ever wonder how the pros tackle a wine tasting?

Whether it’s the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) Systematic Approach to Tasting, the Court of Master Sommeliers’ Deductive Tasting Format or any other wine education system, most have a common element: The tasting grid.

The tasting grid provides a guide for an objective description of a wine’s character and quality. While there are differences between various grids, they allow the taster to gauge a wine based on appearance, nose and palate, which leads to an unbiased conclusion of quality, age and development.

So how do wine tasting grids work, and what should you do when you approach a new pour?

Lineup of red wine glasses
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Judging appearance

The first step is to look at the wine against a white backdrop, like a blank piece of paper. This ensures that wines are not distorted by external colors.

In addition to the color, there are various levels of intensity to gauge. White wines gain color as they age, ranging from lemon and gold to dark caramel. By contrast, reds lose color and intensity with age, as they progress from purple to ruby to deep tawny. So while a typical aged Barolo might be described as pale or medium garnet (a hue between ruby and tawny), a young Australian Shiraz may lean toward deep purple or ruby.

Approaching the nose

Here’s where it starts to get fun. First, you swirl. Swirling allows for increased oxygenation, which can bring out more complex secondary aromas.

The first assessment is to determine if the wine is clean or faulty. Faults can include excess levels of brettanomyces, cork taint, volatile acidity or oxidization. Once you’ve determined a wine is free of faults, the next step is to gauge intensity.

Intensity is usually measured on a scale of low, medium or high. If you can smell a wine from a few inches away, it’s generally regarded as high intensity. If you must put your nose slightly inside the glass, that would equate to a medium intensity. Medium-minus and medium-plus cover the ranges in-between. If you can detect the wine’s aroma with the glass just below your nose, it might be considered medium-plus.

Aroma characteristics are where much obscure wine-geek jargon originates. Aromas of pencil shavings, cat pee, rubber hose or wet dog? The tasting grid tries to eliminate these subjective and eccentric descriptors with specific, standardized terms for each aroma cluster.

Wine tasting notes
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Evaluating the palate

The description of the palate, or what you taste, is by far the most in-depth category. A complete tasting note would include levels of sweetness, acid, tannin, alcohol, body and intensity. Once again, these are all graded at low, medium and high levels, with plus or minus used as modifiers for the medium range. Flavor characteristics and finish are factored in as well.

With flavor, the wine is to be described in terms of primary attributes like fruit, floral, herbal or spice. Secondary characteristics include oak, earth, and flavors that result from production techniques like malolactic fermentation and lees contact. Tertiary factors can be bottle age, oxidation and long-term fruit development. Just as with the aroma descriptions, fruit should be organized in clusters.

For example, a young Napa Cab could boast black fruit flavors (black cherry, blackcurrant), where a Sonoma Coast Pinot would more likely exude red fruit character (red cherry, strawberry and raspberry).

Once you’ve nailed down the flavor profile, determining the length of the finish and the wine’s overall complexity is the final step.

Drawing conclusions

For the Court of Master Sommeliers’ grid, there are two conclusions to be drawn. The initial conclusion is to deem a wine as Old World or New World, examining the type of climate, possible grape varieties and country of origin. This gives way to a final assessment of vintage, grape, country, region and designation.

The WSET conclusion starts with an assessment of quality and readiness to drink. That leads to a similar final assessment of grape variety and origin, but also includes style and method of production.

While some variance exists between programs, the premise remains the same for any tasting grid. Dissecting a wine using a formal system based on sight, smell, taste and feel can be equal parts art and science, but the first time you’re able to guess a vintage or variety at a blind tasting accurately, the payoff is worth it.

Check out these samples of the WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers tasting grids, and see if you can taste like a pro at home.