Is this wine good? The five most important structural components to know
How do you determine if a wine is “good”?
The first rule of thumb is to drink what you like. If you like it, then it must be good!
However, if you want to assess the technical quality of wine, there are five major structural elements to assess. After looking at these levels, you can determine if and how they balance out 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.
It is not because a wine is fruity that it is sweet.
Sweetness indicates the amount of residual sugar in the wine. So when people say they prefer “dry wine,” that doesn’t mean they don’t like fruity wines, just wines with no real sugar content.
There is no direct correlation between sweetness or dryness and quality. Of course, you would be hard pressed to find a 100 point white Zinfandel on Wine lover, but there are many 100 point sweet wines, such as Port and Tokaji, which are among the most sought after wines in the world.
Do you know that tantalizing sensation you get when you bite into a fresh pineapple or sip a freshly squeezed lemonade? It is acidity, and it is one of the most important components of wine.
Derived from grape pulp, acidity represents less than 1% of the composition of the wine. (Water is 80-86% and alcohol typically 11-16%.) Acidity helps make cool-climate white wines lively and refreshing and helps rich reds, like Saint-Estèphe in Bordeaux or La Rioja Gran Reserva, to age gracefully for decades. .
While the acidity will tend to be lower in red grapes than in white grapes, without medium to high acidity in a wine, it will appear flabby or flat and it will be almost impossible for it to exhibit balance or harmony. .
A great exercise for understanding tannin is to peel the skin of a red grape and eat it on its own. That feeling of dryness in the mouth that sucks your cheeks comes from the tannin.
Prolonged maceration, in which winemakers press the grapes with their skins intact, is one way of giving wine tannins. As most white wines are produced without contact with the skin, the vast majority have little or no tannins.
However, tannins can also come from aging in oak barrels, so you’ll notice some tannin in these great buttery Napa Chardonnays and gloriously complex Sauternes.
Tannins are more present in red wines because there is more skin contact with the juice during fermentation and when the juice is pressed, or when the liquid is separated from the solids. The more contact the juice has with the skins, and possibly the stems, the more tannins can be detected in a wine.
Without a good dose of tannins, it is very difficult for a wine to improve and evolve over time. Conversely, a wine supersaturated with tannins, and which does not have enough fruit or acidity to balance it, will be astringent and will appear particularly bitter on the finish.
The cat is out of the bag: wine contains alcohol, and it is an essential part of the body and the weight of your drink.
Alcohol is a by-product of the fermentation process. The more sugar there is in fermented grapes, the higher the alcohol potential of the wine. Grapes develop sugar as they ripen, which is why wines high in alcohol can come from generally warmer regions like Barossa in Australia, Priorat in Spain and many parts of California, while cool climate white wines from Vinho Verde in Portugal or the Loire Valley in France tends to have lower alcohol levels.
However, lower or higher alcohol levels are not sure signs of wine quality. There should be a minimum level of around 8% alcohol by volume (abv) even for the lightest white wines. And, for those big alcohol-rich reds that exceed 15% abv, there should be a healthy dose of fruit, ample tannins, and at least moderate acidity to keep it balanced.
Residual sugar, tannin and alcohol work in tandem with the concentration of the fruit to determine the body or weight of a wine. The denser the fruit and the higher the alcohol, the heavier and more full-bodied a wine will be on the palate.
A great way to judge your body is to think of water and milk. A light wine like a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will have a consistency similar to water, while a full bodied wine like an Argentinian Malbec will be closer to heavy cream. The collaborative effort of all of these structural elements leads you to determine whether you are drinking a light, medium-bodied, or full-bodied wine.
So what makes a “good” wine?
Once you have done your assessments of all of these structural components, you can then determine how they complement each other. Does the acidity balance the potentially high tannins?
Does the alcohol complement the high concentration of fruit, leading to a long and pleasant finish? Does the combination of these components then result in an intense, expressive and potentially complex wine?
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, you probably have a good wine, if not a great wine on your hands.