If you’ve read one of our previous articles on How and Why Oak is Used in Wine, you'll be ready for this complimenting article. You might remember that the aspects of wine affected by the oak elaboration were color, aromatics and body/texture. These elements are about to be discussed in further detail. While it may seem all formal and haughty, in order to understand wine on a deeper level, these elements are imperative to furthering not just your understanding of wine, but also your enjoyment.
*Alert! The result in the further education of your palate may result in the following symptoms:
- The lack in ability to enjoy "cheaper" wines (meaning those wines made with shortcuts, lesser quality ‘ingredients, etc.).
- No longer choosing a wine in your local wine merchant’s shop with eye-catching or humorous labels.
- Less space in your closet for shoes, as wine bottles are taking their place.
- Spending slightly more money on wine than normal.
- Only buying "cheaper" wines for dinner parties where those who would appreciate "better stuff" are not present.
Back to the subject at hand, the balance in wine.
While the first two elements discussed are not hugely pertinent to a wine’s balance, they are pertinent to our full appreciation of a wine. Therefore, the subjects of a wine’s color and aromatic profile will be addressed.
How Oak Affects Wine's Color
When you pour a glass of wine, sometimes it is nice just to take a moment to hold it up to some soft light and admire its color. Various hues can be noticed depending on the grape(s) used to make the wine, any oak that was utilized in its elaboration and furthermore aging in oak and the bottle.
White wines can vary in hue from pale, barely noticeable yellow, with tinges of green, into gold and amber. The deeper the color gets, the older the wine has been aged. Remember, white wine that has been oaked will take on more of a yellow tone.
Red wines will start in their youth in fresh, bright berry hues. As they age, they will take on burgundy, ruby, garnet and later on into terracotta, brick and earthier tones. While white wines gain color with age, red wines lose color.
While we look at the wine, many like to give it a good swirl and watch it as it pours down the sides of the glass. These "legs" as they are called in some parts or "tears’" (much more romantic) in others, and how they pour down the glass depend on a few things; the temperature of the wine and the current barometric pressure. It also depends on the higher alcohols levels present in the wine. This is why by simply observing the tears in the wine that you cannot determine whether it is of quality, however, with one exception; that being, if the wine washes down the glass like water, you do not have a quality wine in your glass.
This is often the fun part, outside of drinking the wine of course. Smell your wine. What smells do you notice. If you can’t identify any, take a look at the Aroma Wheel in the previous article on oak. That should give you plenty of help in describing what you might notice or help you take note of new aromas. Of course, they may be more specific from white to red wines, but there are over 10,000 (really!) different aromas to choose from, which have been identified in the world of wine.
There is a difference between aroma and bouquet. Aroma comes from the soil in which the grapes are grown and its environment and from the grapes themselves. Bouquet is implemented from any oak elaboration.
Tip: If you have trouble separating all the smells in your glass, try this: tilt your glass almost horizontal. Don’t spill out the wine! The wine should come close to the lip of the glass. Keep it in this position and bring your nose to the top of the glass just under the lip and smell. Take note. Then smell just above the surface of the wine in your glass. Do you notice a difference? Do you notice differing aromas? Try it a couple times and even with a couple different wines at one time. You notice a difference in aroma/bouquet due to the varying volatility and evaporation rates of certain aromatic compounds. However, this helps in identifying and describing what you find in your wine. Have fun!
Body and Texture
Regarding the balance of wine, this is where body/texture come into the discussion.
The body of a wine, which also involves its balance is based on three elements:
- Sugar content, if any
- Alcohol content
Much of an art or science, or the combination of the two, good winemakers have the ability to put it all into balance for the moment when it reaches your palate. So for all the average wine drinkers out there, how do you know when a wine is in balance? It begins with knowing the anatomy of one’s palate.
You might remember the tongue diagram from school where it pointed out where you taste the flavor elements of sweet, sour, bitter and salty? Well, it’s been debunked. Long ago. Fact is, each taste bud can perceive all four of these elements. They are not just found in specific regions of your palate. What your tongue/palate does identify are certain chemicals, meaning organic chemicals found in food such as acids, tannins/bitter aspects, etc. Once you know what can be perceived and where, the factors to know if a wine is in balance is simple.
Shall we take a pause on wine for a moment to talk about the anatomy of the tongue?
Each of us have bumps on our tongues called papillae. An average person has about 6,000 on their tongue. "Supertasters" have a bit more. Inside each of these papillae are the taste buds. There are a number of taste buds inside each papillae, and the shape of the papillae will determine how the taste bud are exposed to immediate or delayed contact with food and/or drink will determine how and what you taste/feel/perceive.
Now, let’s correctly label the following tongue diagram…
*For an additional note here, there would be an additional line going through the middle of the tongue from left to right.
(Image Credit: MesserWoland Wikipedia License)
Starting at the tip of one’s tongue at number 4 - if you were to say, drink a light-bodied white wine such as a Sauvignon Blanc, you would identify something tingling the tip of your tongue. You would also perceive watering on the sides of your tongue. These are two different acids your mouth is identifying. On the tip, it is citric acid. On the sides labeled 2 and 3 (except there is no real separation), this is where you sense malic acid. Citric acid can make a wine sweet and malic acid will make a wine tart. The two together in a wine will create a more balanced product than one lacking one or the other.
An additional acid, which can also be identified is lactic acid, which can also be perceived at 2 and 3 . Unlike citric and malic acid, which are naturally found in the grape and thus in the wine, lactic acid is found in certain wines that have gone through malolactic fermentation (aka, secondary fermentation). This is the process in which a certain bacteria (which naturally exists in fermented wine) will metabolize malic acid into lactic acid. Depending on the wishes of the winemaker, this fermentation may be complete or only partial. A complete secondary fermentation would convert all the malic acid into lactic and a partial would leave some malic acid. Oftentimes, it is up to the desired style of wine the winemaker wishes to achieve will determine how the second fermentation is done. Lactic acid can also be perceived on the sides. However, oftentimes it is harder to identify, as it is a softer acid, much like you would notice in buttermilk and certain fresh cheeses.
How these acids all come into play with the alcohol content will determine if the wine is in balance as well. However, if your wine is strong in perceived alcohol, especially if it is strong on the nose when you bring your glass to your mouth, oftentimes it will be overpowering on the palate as well. This aspect is sometimes not exact as different people perceive alcohol differently. Regardless, sometime certain higher alcohols have a sweet perception that can balance out harsh acidity and/or the following topic.
Next. When drinking a red wine for instance that has been elaborated in oak, for example a bold Cabernet Sauvignon, one will feel a drying sensation across the entire palate from front to back. If it is a young wine, the perception of this dryness will be much bigger. This is tannin. So how is a wine in balance with tannin. Remember the line that would be drawn in the middle of the tongue from left to right? Tannin from the fruit is only perceived at the front half of one’s palate, whereas oak tannin is perceived in the back half and all along the back and some of the sides. Have a look at the section indicated at the back part of the tongue indicated by number 1. The sensation of tannin can also be perceived all along the back and even on the periphery aspects on the back half of the tongue as well. If a wine has been elaborated with oak correctly, the level of tannin will be in balance and it will all seamlessly come together in the middle. If there is a ‘hole’ in the center of your palate, the wine is out of balance.
Wow! If you stayed with me up until there, you are a great student! Though it might take a couple times to re-read this to grasp it completely, it might help more if you have a couple of the wines mentioned at hand to taste while reading. Then it will all click. So keep drinking my friends. Ahem, responsibly.