How to Taste - Identifying 'structure' in wine
Structure is often overlooked in beverages. Learning how to distinguish structure on the palate will change the way you taste, forever!
There is, quite literally, a systematic approach to tasting wine. But don't worry, I won't bore you with those details just yet, I'm only going to address one part of this approach: assessing your palate.
Your tasting palate. Courtesy of Miro.Medium.com
The Five Flavor Sensations
Study the image above. Got it? Great... It's hard to believe that's all your tongue is good for, but what we perceive as "Flavors" are more often than not, aromas wafting around your mouth and nasal cavity. To be even more confusing, Sommeliers do describe these "aromas" as flavors found on the palate. That's because they are noticed most distinctly upon consuming a food or drink, as opposed to just smelling. The five "tastes" you can identify on the palate alone, (without a sense of smell), are Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty, and Umami (or richness). Some consider Spiciness to be one, but it is more of a reaction on your nerve endings than your actual tastebuds. Other experts today claim this image is somewhat obsolete, and suggest that your tongue has over 50 different receptors. For the time being, we should stick with the older material while learning the basics.
Clarkson admiring his bottle of Château Léoube Rosé.
Structure is Identified on the Palate, not the Nose
Climate, grape varietal, and winemaking techniques all contribute to a wine's structure. The following are what characteristics to look for in a wine to understand structure.
Acidity is best noted when using your "sour" receptors. Wines vary from low acidity, like warm climate Zinfandel, to high acidity, like what you find in cool climate Riesling. It's the sensation that makes wine feel and taste vibrant. Without acidity, wines tend to fall apart on the palate. It also attributes to the refreshing factor in white and rosé wine. In the most extreme cases, high acidity wines can even make your jaw tingle.
Alcohol is something you can feel throughout your mouth and into the back of your throat. High alcohol wines like 15.5% Paso Robles Zinfandel tend to be immensely heavy on the palate. Whereas cool climate Rheigau Rieslings are usually no more than 12.5% abv, and quite light. Alcohol will also attribute a feeling similar to heat, and have a noticeably different viscosity than lower alcohol wines.
Is the wine dry? Not in flavor, but on the finish. Does it have any residual sugar? This is a difficult one to identify accurately. Sweetness varies from Dry to Luscious. Icewien and Tokaji are lusciously sweet, whereas most wines are dry to off-dry. Certain mainstream brands maintain their "smoothness" by having excess residual sugar, like Kendall Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay or Meiomi Pinot Noir. Just remember where sweetness is identified, on the front of your tongue. Wines have the ability to be very fruity, and easily mistaken as sweet, but your palate will ultimately tell your nose if that's correct. For example, Gewürztraminer, even at its driest, will still have an aromatic linger of sweetness because of the grape's intensity. But don't be fooled into thinking they are all sweet wines.
A Short Recess
May & Hammond drinking. Courtesy of Driftwood Estate's Pinterest
Tannins are a structural and textural component in nearly all wine, but most detectable in reds. They are extracted from the seeds, skin, and stems of the grape during fermentation. Oak barrels and staves are also a contributor of tannins. You can notice a wine’s level of tannins by the gritty-drying mouthfeel it leaves on your palate. The back part of you tongue that indicates bitterness when drinking tea or coffee will be triggered as well. Certain wines like cool climate Pinot Noir have very soft and round tannins when modestly extracted. Warm climate Cabernet Sauvignon, on the other hand, has the potential to be very course and astringent due to its thick skins, if not carefully managed in the winery.
This one is rather easy to measure in comparison to the other characteristics. Body has to do with a wine's viscosity. If cheap Pinot Grigio can be described as watery, it's probably very light. Milk, in comparison to water, is very heavy, and therefor, fuller bodied. Alcohol content is usually relevant to body, meaning the higher the alcohol, the more viscous the wine.
...and if you don't like reading, here's a video of James May talking wine.
I leave you with an episode of Oz & James's Big Wine Adventure, to better expose actually how knowledgable "Bim" is, when it comes to wine. Cheers!
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- The Angry Somm