Understanding the nine basic essences of wine
There are hundreds of different wines made throughout the world. With each type of wine comes a set of varying essences. For example, the aromas of a chardonnay (white Burgundy) may suggest essences of pineapple, apple, fig and oak. Tasting this wine may reveal the same essences, plus essences dealing with the texture of the wine in your mouth, i.e. buttery (smooth). Even though each different grape varietal has its own set of essences, many of these overlap from one wine to the next. There are nine basic essences characteristic to all wines: sweet, bitter, sour, smooth, acetic, flowery, fruity, oak and tannin. These essences, although sometimes barely noticeable in some wines, should be understood, both literally and physically, to better understand and determine the reason you either like or dislike a wine.
Sweet is often confused with fruity when describing a wine. Sweet (opposite of dry) is the amount of sugar the wine contains. All wine contains sugar in varying amounts. The amount of sugar isn't usually indicated on the wine label; however, the percentage of alcohol is. The higher the percentage of alcohol, the lower the sugar content and the dryer the wine. Wine labels will sometimes indicate the percentage of residual sugar in the wine -- sugar left in the wine after fermentation. Residual sugar can be less than one percent (bone dry) to as much as 20 percent in a late harvest dessert wine.
The integration of sugar with wine's other constituents is intriguing. Sugar masks the effect of tannin in wine, subdues the alcohol and is sometimes used to disguise (hide) defects in lesser quality wines. That's why "jug" wines are usually fairly sweet -- to hide flaws caused by using inferior grapes. Sweetness is not undesirable in wine -- it should exist in an amount appropriate for each specific type of wine. Much more significant to the quality of a wine than sugar content is the balance between all its components: sugar, acid, fruit, tannin, etc.
Bitter is one of the four basic tastes recognized by organoleptic science, the others being sweet, sour and salty. Among novice wine tasters there is often some confusion between bitter and sour.
Bitter is sensed almost as an after-taste. A slight bitterness in wine can give an appealing aftertaste and is found in higher levels in wines like Valpolicella and Bardolino from Italy.
The sharp, tart, tangy taste of wine comes from its acidity. Although there are more than one hundred different types of acid in wine, malic and tartaric are the most important. Malic acid has a distinct sour taste and is at its maximum level at the beginning of the grape's ripening process. As the grape size increases, the concentration of malic acid decreases. Warm temperatures, rainfall and a long growing season continue the process of reducing malic acid levels and result in a softer, smoother wine.
At one extreme, low acidity results in a wine that's flat and flavorless. At the other extreme, high acidity causes excessive sharpness.
Many wines, particularly chardonnay, may suggest an aroma of fresh apples. Malic acid's responsible for this characteristic. Apples, basically, are balls of malic acid. The word malic is derived from the Latin word malum, meaning apple.
Malic acid, the sour essence, is at its most pronounced when wine is young. Winemakers who wish to moderate the sharpness this acid causes may induce a secondary fermentation known as malolactic fermentation. In this process, the austere malic acid is converted to lactic acid by inoculating the wine with a strain of lactic bacteria. The lactic bacteria break the malic acid down into lactic acid, thus "smoothing" the harsh acid out. Basically, it's like converting apples to milk.
Acid's indispensable to a sound, stable, balanced wine. It also intensifies any bitter taste present. Excessive lactic acid leads to an unpleasant flavor and instability and shortens the life of the wine. Hence, many wines that have undergone 100 percent malolactic fermentation MAY not age as well as those that have not undergone any malolactic at all.
A small amount of volatile acetic acid enhances the development of a wine's bouquet and also produces a taste similar to that of the sour essence. Excessive acetic acid causes accentuated sharpness or sourness and, at the extreme, turns wine into vinegar.
New wines normally contain about .02 - .03 percent acetic acid. (This can rise to as much as 1.5 percent in some wines.) Generally, the cause of an acetic wine is overexposure to air because of a leaking cork or barrel. However, this isn't a common problem today thanks to modern winemaking technology in which, for example, the addition of sulphur dioxide (in small amounts) reduces the amount of acetic acid formed.
This essence is noteworthy for its fragrance rather than for its taste. The perfume of flowers is common in all wines, particularly white wines. A sauvignon blanc may suggest aromas of lemongrass and citrus flowers, while a muscat wine is redolent of honeysuckle and rose petals. A good red, like cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux, will suggest violets in its aroma or its "nose."
Again, the aroma of this essence is more important than its taste. Fruitiness is a quality winemakers strive to achieve in their wine. Zinfandel is renowned for its raspberry aroma and flavor, while cabernet sauvignon reminds tasters of cherries and blackberries. Chenin blanc brings to mind pears and melons, while chardonnay exhibits tropical fruit, citrus and apple. An experienced wine taster will recognize a wine by its aroma and bouquet before even tasting it. For the perceptive wine drinker, the nose and the imagination can inspire the discovery of a score of fascinating associations.
Aging wine in oak barrels imparts unique tones of taste and fragrance in wine. Depending on how long the wine's aged, barrels impart varying amounts of oak, vanilla, clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, chocolate and some bitterness. Quality white wines gain an added dimension with moderate barrel aging, while reds are sometimes matured in oak for several years. Other woods, such as redwood, are used for aging wine, but oak's generally the wood of choice. The type of oak's important, too. French oak gives a taste and texture different from American oak. American oak, generally, is more pungent than French.
While aging in wood can give a wine added complexity, additional depth, softness and roundness, an oaky or woody quality should complement a wine's flavor, not dominate it.
With wines, especially young reds, there is often an astringent, tart, puckering sensation felt particularly on the gums, roof and back of the mouth. This sensation is caused by tannin (tannic acid). Tannin is derived from grape skins, seeds and stems and can also be leeched from oak barrels during aging. Tannin is about five times higher in red wines than whites, and, interestingly, the tannin content of a wine from the same vineyard can double of halve from year to year, depending on the weather. Tannin involves the sense of touch or feel rather than taste. It's often confused with bitter or sour. A young wine with excess tannin may be too rough to drink today, but it's this same tannin that helps the wine to mature well. Tannins, over time, soften, allowing the fruit and other essences of the wine to surface. A wine with insufficient tannin will be insipid and flat. As mentioned above, the balance of tannin, acidity and sugar is very important in determining wine quality.
Something to remember: Tannin isn't the only component responsible for the ageability of wines. Acids play a significant role in a wine's aging process. So just because a wine has a lot of tannins doesn't necessarily mean it will age gracefully.