Wine has multiple characteristics in its personality

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Image: Heidi Butzine

           What is a wine’s personality?  Well, just as you size up your friends based on your interactions with them and whether they are pleasant or not, wines can be said to have a personality in much the same way.   A wine’s personality is made up of different characteristics; body, acidity, texture, aroma, flavors and finish.  Using our smell, taste and sight we explore these dimensions to decide what we like or don’t like about the wine and can even tell how the wine was produced.  Here we will review some of the elements and terms that apply when getting to know your wine.

 Body

            The body is the weight of the wine in your mouth and on your tongue.  It is what is usually described light, medium or full bodied.  You will notice that wine can feel light, like water on your tongue or be full like milk.  Knowing the body of the wine helps you to choose a wine that’s going to suit your preference or balance your meal.  You may want to have lighter bodied wines during the warmer months or you may want to have a full bodied wine to go with your steak and potatoes.

 Acidity

            Acidity in wine can help bring out the flavor in the same way adding a bit of lemon to food often brings out the flavor.  Acidity is most noticeable in wines with a tart flavor, such as Sauvignon Blanc.  It causes a slight tingly sensation at the tip of your tongue.  This is not to be confused with tannins in a wine, which causes a drying sensation.  Wines with high acidity are often described as tangy, racy, zippy, tart, and zesty.

            Acidity in wine must be in balance with its other flavors.  A wine that doesn’t have enough acidity will taste bland.  A dessert wine without enough acidity will taste syrupy and cloying.  When a wine has too much acidity it has a sour taste like lemons or a sharp salty flavor.

            Acidity comes into the wine through the acidity of the grapes.  Grapes grown in cooler climates tend to have higher acidity.  Wine makers also adjust the level of acidity in the wine by blending with other wines and by malolactic fermentation.  Malolactic fermentation is a secondary fermentation that can be induced in some wines which converts malic acid into lactic acid.  Malic acids are sharp, like the acid found in green apples.  Lactic acids are smoother and softer, like the acids found in milk.

            Wine with a well balanced acidity can go very well with some kinds of foods and help bring out their flavors.  Acidic wines like Chianti pair well with acidic tomato sauces. The tart flavor of both the wine and the sauce serve to restrain each other.  Also a tart wine can help clean your palate of a creamy sauce or gooey cheese.  Acidic wine does not pair well with sweet foods though.

            Acidity is also what allows some white wines to age.  When a red wine ages, it uses the tannins as a structure which slowly breaks down, increasing the complexity of the wine.  For some white wines acidity can work in a similar way as it ages.

Texture & Tannins

            Grape skins, stems, and seeds all contain tannins.  Tannin is mostly only found in red wine, because the juice from the grapes is fermented in contact with the grape skins.  The tannin moves from the skins into the wine.  White wines are very low in tannins because they are not fermented with the skins or seeds.  The tannins in white wines are usually so low as to be undetectable.  Oak also contains tannins, so sometimes tannins are imparted into wine as it is fermented or aged in oak barrels.

            Tannins add a bitter flavor or can leave a drying out feeling in the mouth.  To test how much tannin is in a wine, try rubbing your tongue against the roof of your mouth after drinking the wine.  Does your tongue have a dry feeling?  Does it make you want to pucker?  Is it bitter?  Does it feel soft?  This all relates to a wine’s “texture.” 

            A big question is, if tannins taste so bad, why do we want them in our wine?  The answer is that tannins provide structure to allow the wine to age.  This is why white wines generally don’t age very well over long periods of time.  They are lacking the tannins and structure of the reds.  White wines that do age well use acidity for the same purpose.  As the wine ages, it looses its tannic quality and gains in complexity.

            Some wines benefit from tannins as they give the wine more power by balancing the ripeness of the fruit flavors.  Some wines just taste too plain without the right amount of tannins.  Also, tannins help cleanse the palate from sticky fats and oils.  This is why heavier red wines are good with red meats.  This food pairing concept also works well if a wine has too much tannin.  You can pair it with meat or cheese, especially a strong cheese like Roquefort.

Flavors & Aromas

            Wine flavors and aromas are endless and certainly pertinent to each person’s individual palates, senses and experiences.  Typically, natural materials are most often used to describe wines including fruits, herbs, earthy products such as woods, but there are other chemical based descriptions that can appear in wine tasting notes.  The aromas trigger the brain to process what the nose smells and put a label on it like fresh cut grass, forest floor, and tobacco.  Flavors are what your taste buds pick up when tasting and again, your brain will process this as tasting like tart berries, peaches or melon.

A word about dryness

            Many people order a dry wine without exactly understanding what the term means.  Normally we think of dry as the opposite of wet, but all wines are wet.  As far as wines are concerned, dry is the opposite of sweet.  The dryer the wine, the less sweet it is.

            Wines are sweet because of the sugars in the grapes they are made out of.  As the wine ferments, the sugar is turned into alcohol.  In dry wines, a higher amount of sugar becomes alcohol than in sweet wines.  The sugar that does not convert to alcohol is called residual sugar.  Wines can be ‘dry’ if they have hardly any residual sugar and are ‘off-dry’ if they are only slightly sweet.

            The varying degrees of dryness apply to all wines.  Dryness is used to refer to the level of sweetness of the wines.  So for example, a ‘bone dry’ white wine is a brut champagne.  Most white wines tend to be ‘dry’ including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio.  ‘Off-dry’ white wine examples include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Chenin Blanc. 

           In warm places, such as Australia and California, the grapes can get intensely ripe.  When grapes such as these are made into wine it gives the impression of a slight sweetness, even though it is not due to residual sugars.  Shiraz from Australia, and California Chardonnay and Zinfandel are some examples of dry wines that can taste sweet.  Also, aging in oak can make a dry wine taste a bit sweet, because the oak gives a sweet vanilla flavor to the wine.

           For red wines, ‘bone dry’ examples include Chianti Classico, Barolo, Medoc.  Again, most red wines are ‘dry’.  ‘Off-dry’ include Merlot, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel. 

Seeing the oakiness through the trees

            Oakiness in a wine can be a bad thing or a good thing, depending on how the wine is produced.  Finding the right balance of oakiness to complement the wine is also very subjective to individual tastes.  First, wines pick up aromas of oak in one of two ways.  They can either be fermented in oak barrels or aged in oak barrels after fermentation.  Wine that has no oak component is usually fermented in stainless steal or other non-oak vat, which doesn’t add any flavor to the wine. 

            The degree of oakiness is related to how and what kind of barrels are used.  New barrels give a much stronger oak flavor to a wine than used barrels.  Also, barrels from American oak are said to impart stronger flavors than those made from French oak.  Also, the inside of the barrel may be treated with fire, which induces a smoky flavor in the wine.  Since costs of oak barrels can be quite expensive for a winery, sometimes oak chips are added to the wine instead. 

            Storing in oak can impart many different flavors to a wine.  If you see wine descriptions that say things like vanilla flavor and creaminess, these are indicative of having some contact with oak during the wine’s production.  So many good wine tasting notes won’t simply say it has a nice oakiness, but rather identify such flavors as butterscotch, caramel, crème brulee, cinnamon, nutmeg, coconut, smoke, and toast. 

            For some wines, oak can add a lot to its overall personality.  Other times increased oakiness is a hindrance to the wine.  It depends on the wine involved, and the personal taste of the drinker.

Finish

            Finish is just what is says…does the wine hang on your tongue for awhile or does it just vanish away into nothing?  Some wines may overpromise and under deliver on finish, say having a big fruity and strong berry aroma, then you taste tart cherry but once you figure this all out, the wine flavors go away right after you swallow rather than hanging out for awhile.  This is a short finish.  Now this is all about balance so you can have a fantastic wine with a short or long finish.  And you can certainly have a wine with a long finish but you really would like for it to go away.  Finish is just another way to understand the wine’s personality.

Saving color for last

            While observing what’s in your wine glass and making sure that there are no foreign flying objects or sediment you’re gulping down, the color is part of the overall experience but is not as critical to identifying what you like or don’t like about wines which is why I’ve put this at the end of the article.  I always take a moment to acknowledge the wine’s color, especially observing a beautiful rose or the bubbles in champagne, but it doesn’t give me any indication on how it will ultimately affect my taste buds.  So appreciate the wine visually but don’t get too caught up in this and concentrate on the important stuff…body, acidity, texture, aroma, flavor, finish.

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