Usually we'll take this space to talk about some hot producer we love or what we feel you should be drinking given the seasonality. As I spend a lot of my time writing all of these words you [hopefully] enjoy breezing over, I do my best to avoid sommelier jargon like "mouthfeel," "finish," and foreign words like "batonnage" - honestly, most of you probably have inferred what those mean, but after a while some of those phrases can have a nails-on-a-chalkboard effect.
One that probably slips through the cracks is structure - much like "terroir", it is a concept, but in this case it's actually a tangible thing. So, I'm thinking, I'll run you through the basics, how we detect what builds a structure, and some real good benchmark examples of wines where these are detectable! Sound fair? Let's rock.
Acidity is present in all wines - big surprise, since they are from a fruit, right? When you think of acid, what comes to mind? Maybe you've got a reflux thing, or you are picturing a lemon or lime right now. What winemakers are generally after is "balance" - picture a seesaw kind of scale with acidity on one side and sweetness (we'll get there), a.k.a. ripeness on the other; you want that nicely balanced seesaw to create that beautiful verve.
When we talk about acid, it's generally in a positive context - "This wine has great acid!" Picture that lemon again - sprinkle a little sugar over it in your mind, then take a bite. Feel that salivary gland kick on and come pouring in. When we drink a great wine, we taste that perfectly ripe fruit and when the wine goes down, we can feel that same refreshing feeling, leaving us thirsty for another sip. The quicker you feel it after swallowing, the higher the acid is.
Generally speaking, white wines will have noticeably higher acidity, as they're usually lighter in body than most red wines, and thus you'd notice that acidity a bit more. Also, the cooler the temperature a wine is the less you'll sense the ripeness, and the acid pops a bit more. Great examples of this are grapes like Riesling, Chardonnay (think Chablis style; read: less oak use) and Chenin Blanc. In red grapes, of classic varietals really only Nebbiolo exhibits similarly high acidity.
That acid is a helpful item with food - a healthy amount of acidity will "cut" through fat, salt, oil, even acid in a dish.
What are low acid wines, you ask? In whites, check out wines made of Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and often Pinot Gris. For a red, the first one that comes to mind is Frappato, the native Sicilian grape - don't drink that with fish - but you could also claim Grenache and Carignan to be pretty fleshy and not too acidic.
Some of our favorite wines with higher acidity:
And with lower acidity:
When we said the word "sweet" in a restaurant, guests would shudder - "NO RIESLING!" was far too often a war cry. I think we've largely fixed that fear, with the overwhelming amount of talented German winemakers producing world-class dry Rieslings; guess what? They still smell the same! Riesling isn't inherently sweet, but it always smells ripe.
That said, a dollop of sugar often is similar to adding salt to a dish; you'd miss it if it weren't there. It can provide texture and even more clarity and framing of the wine's flavors. We see this very often with Champagne; when the no-dosage wines were first popular, you'd find producers making bracingly dry wines because that's what they thought we wanted. We really just wanted the wines to be ripe and balanced.
So, are they adding sugar to wines to make them sweet? Rarely. Usually a wine that feels a touch off-dry is just not fermented completely dry (yeast + sugar = alcohol + CO2 + heat). If a fermentation doesn't finish, that means the yeast didn't eat through all of the sugar. Therefore, usually the less alcohol (grape-dependent - some grapes have higher potential alcohol), the greater the chance for a touch of residual sugar. And boy, can that be delicious.
Residual sugar can be found in any wine, not just Riesling. You'll even find it very often in your favorite culty Cabernet from California, as it's a nice textural element. Riesling historically would have some sweetness left because the cellars got so darn cold that the fermentations would just halt. We just grew to love it so much!
Sweetness, as much as acidity, I refer to as a protective layer during the wine's extended life; over time, the sweetness will fall away very slowly, but surely; those traditional Rieslings and Sauternes were meant to age for a half-century or longer!
Sweetness comes in handy with spicy foods in particular; in lieu of higher-alcohol wines with more body, a dollop of sweetness can be a great counter to a mouth-filling dessert, as well, while generally having the bright acidity to contrast and refresh. Take the perfect pairing that exists on this earth: Sauternes and a bleu cheese like roquefort. The creamy-sweet texture of the wine matches beautifully with the creamy texture of the cheese, while the acid within cuts through the saltiness of the cheese and you've made the cheese become sweet, and it's lined your palate, setting off a triumphant victory parade of flavors you'll never forget.
Other grapes known for some off-dry wines include Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc - you usually like to have the higher-acid grapes since acid and sweetness can be a perfect pairing.
When we were taught to blind taste, we learned alcohol in terms of low-medium-high and all the half-measures in between. How do we gauge this? Well, as one Master Sommelier once taught me, "After the sip, inhale, then breathe out deeply; if you're a fire-breathing dragon, that's high."
Warmer climates generally will bring riper fruit; as we learned earlier, more ripeness. more sugar in the grape = more potential alcohol. That's why sunny California makes higher-alcohol Pinot Noir than cooler, wetter Burgundy - in California, we fight the sun, while in Burgundy they would traditionally fight for the sun.
Alcohol is directly related to body in a wine; those long, streaky legs on your glass are either alcohol or sugar, and in some cases, both. This bit of structure is one of the biggest factors in deciding how a multi-course, multi-wine dinner would be planned: lower-alcohol wines first, then increase the intensity throughout.
Higher alcohol can be an irritant to spice, but as a positive, can be an important factor in providing enough body for bolder dishes like any heavily-sauced meats, such as barbecue or things like Osso Bucco.
Lower alcohol options include:
While with higher alcohol:
If you've ever had coffee or tea, you've sensed tannin to some degree. It's that grippiness, how it sticks to your gums and cheeks. With wines, tannin will come from two sources: the skins of the grape as well as the barrel the wine may have spent time in. Typically, skin tannin, you'll feel on your teeth and your gums, and oak tannin you'd feel on your cheeks. Fermenting a wine in-barrel - and for denser, riper wines, extended aging in new(er) barrels - can create a harmonic, whole-mouth texture that feels quite luxurious in contrast to only feeling one or the other.
But why do some wines just seem to cling to your mouth while others flit on over the palate? Thicker, tougher-skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere and the fickle Nebbiolo grape will have much more pronounced tannic structure; even when the skin contact is lessened, they will still feel grippy. Other grapes with softer tannins like Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, well, you can just keep punching them down and pumping over and those tannins will be soft as silk.
Somewhere in the middle is a happy zone. Not to fear, though - if you open a wine, taste it and it feels like your gums are no longer part of your body, pour that sucker in a decanter, bash it around a little, and leave it for a while. Oxygen is a natural antidote to tannin; those tannins are super duper helpful for aging a wine, as they provide a beautifully solid first layer of protection against the elements outside the bottle. As the wine ages, the tannin will precipitate, becoming that sandy sediment at the bottom of those bottles. That's the other way to abate tannin: patience.
In terms of food, tannin is incredibly useful and impactful with foods containing fat - fattier cuts of meat, creamy pastas, risotto, et cetera. Tannin is also incredibly harsh on spices and fish oils; I would spare yourself of young Nebbiolo with mackerel; find a 50-year-old version with a soy-marinated tuna? Now you're talking.
With less tannin, look to:
With more pronounced tannin:
Probably not what you expected, right? Yes, we judge age as part of the structure. One thing you hopefully all get to experience is your favorite wine both young and as an aged version. That's really the best way to see it, as if you find one producer, one vineyard that's been around a good long while (and hasn't gone through wholesale changes) and try a young and old version, chances are not too much was wildly different in ten or twenty years' time, aside from maybe the weather and what generation of the family made the wine. You get to see how those ripe, perky fruits become dried potpurri-esque examples of the same, with more earthy, spicy and savory tones popping into the voids where once there were sweet, juicier flavors.
As we talked about with tannin, that's certainly one thing that will change with age. Often times an acidic wine will seem to have softened, and a sweeter wine will become more dry. I often relate wines to children: it starts off life with its family (in the barrel or tank) then is shipped off to live by itself (in a bottle) where it doesn't like the sudden changes and becomes quite moody (there's a reason wines aren't released directly after bottling); as it approaches the age where it would legally be allowed to drink itself, the wine begins to unkink, stretch its legs and round into form. Honestly, how many of us were well-rounded before our twenties? Hands down if you're lying.
Tasting an aged well-made wine is perhaps the easiest way I can explain the wild prices of so many wines you may see on the market: you're paying for the potential. As a wine ages, those who have come to appreciate and understand (through experience) how uniquely terrific a properly-aged top wine can become, they value those wines even more greatly as presumably so many of those bottles will have disappeared from existence by virtue of impatience.
Wines with age become very interesting pairing options; because they often become more subtle in flavor, sometimes they're worth just meditating on solo. However, here's an example of how flavors would change: take a classic white Burgundy, say a Meursault from a good vintage (ripe but good acid). Now, you've either held this wine for twenty years yourself, or Thatcher got you a good deal and tonight's the night. It opens to reveal not the citrus and orchard fruit of its youth, but now it's brown butter, hazelnuts, creme brulée, lemon curd and fleur de sel. That honestly just got me salivating for anything with a butter sauce - gnocchi, brown butter and truffles? Uh huh. Yup.
Not to worry - we won't look down on anyone for either disliking or not knowing what an aged wine is supposed to taste like. We're going to pick out some really cool examples that won't cost a mortgage payment, because if you've read this far, you honestly deserve to partake.
Some awesome aged options: