Very accomplished oenophiles are able to determine a wine’s grape and region from a single taste – and indeed sometimes just a smell – but you needn’t have such a skilled palette to determine your own unique preferences. A simple understanding of wine’s five fundamental characteristics will set you in good stead for a lifetime of tasting enjoyment.
This refers to the level of residual sugar left in the wine after its creation. A sweet wine will have a higher level of residual sugar, while a dry wine will have had all of its sugars converted to alcohol during fermentation.
Often, our very first perception of a wine will be its sweetness, and while everyone’s sensitivity to it is different, you’ll experience it first on the very tip of your tongue. A slight tingling sensation is a good indicator of sweetness. Sweet wines tend to have a higher viscosity, which means they’ll cling to the glass for longer.
Often confused with a high concentration of alcohol, a wine’s acidity is what gives it sharpness – high acidity wines are often tart and zesty, and may feel lighter-bodied as they come across as ‘spritzy’. A ‘well-balanced’ wine is so called as it has acidity, sweetness and tannin in perfect harmony.
How can you identify acidity? You’ll feel a tingling sensation on the sides of your tongue, which may feel rough if you rub it along the roof of your mouth. Your mouth will also feel extra wet, and you might find yourself ‘gleeking’ – the term given to inadvertently spraying saliva while yawning!
A wine high in tannin is often mistakenly labelled as a dry wine, because tannin has a drying effect on the mouth. Frequently described as astringent, tannin is the presence of phenolic compounds that add bitterness to a wine – despite these characteristics, though, tannin adds balance and structure, and helps wine last longer. A lot of research suggests the tannin in red wine is good for your health, too.
It’s usually quickly apparent if a wine has high tannin levels, as it will make your tongue feel dry and can leave a lingering bitter feeling in your mouth. A high-tannin red is a great accompaniment to red meat, though – the tannins work to help break down meat proteins, thus exacerbating their flavour profile even further.
Alcohol levels will have the biggest impact on a wine’s character, body and classification. While the average wine contains around 11%-13% alcohol by volume (ABV), it’s not uncommon for wines to have as little as 5.5%, or as much as 20%.
Everyone tastes alcohol differently. Bitter, sweet, spicy, oily, and sometimes all at once – a lot of our perception of alcohol is actually influenced by genetics. Higher alcohol wines tend to taste bolder and oilier, while lower-alcohol wines feel lighter. It’s almost universally-agreed, however, that alcohol wields a warming sensation at the back of the mouths and throat.
Body is the result of many factors, from variety and vintage to alcohol level and region, so it’s something of a generalised term. To simplify matters, it can help to think of a wine’s body like milk, with skimmed milk representing a light wine, and cream representing a full-bodied wine. As a rough rule of thumb, if a wine’s taste lingers in your mouth for more than 30 seconds, it’s almost certainly a full-bodied wine.
This classification plays a major role in food pairing: light-bodied wines suit lighter dishes, while rich dishes such as steak call for a full-bodied wine with strong flavours that will hold up against the meat’s bold aromas.