by Stephen Reiss, Ph.D., C.W.E.
Wine is all about balance. It is primarily a balance between the three main components of wine: fruit, tannin and acidity. It can also be a balancing act with food, or special circumstances. If someone shares a special bottle of wine with you, the circumstance and the situation may make the wine more memorable.
Acidity and acid are the words you will come across everywhere wine is discussed. Some people cringe when acid is mentioned. Perhaps they conjure up images of battery acid. The acid in wine is like lemon juice, it tastes sour. Lemon has to be balanced by sugar when you make lemonade. Too much lemon, or too much sugar, and the lemonade will be out of balance.
As the grape ripens, the amount of sugar in it increases, and the amount of acidity decreases. This is true for all fruits. The wine maker wants the grapes to be picked when they are at their perfect balance between sugar and acidity.
The sugar will be turned into alcohol by the yeast during fermentation. Too much sugar and the wine may be alcoholic, or have problems during fermentation (stuck fermentation). If there is too much acid and not enough sugar, you will get a wine that is sour and unpleasant.
The same balancing act is what we are paying attention to when we taste wine. We want to determine if the wine has a pleasing balance between sweet and sour, and something not quite bitter – tannin.
When you taste a red wine that you would call heavy or hard or rough, it is the tannins you are tasting. These come from the grapes themselves, and you have tasted them if you have ever peeled a grape and eaten the skin. It is bitter, but not really, it is almost more something you feel than taste.
Tannins soften with time. A young wine that is intended to be aged will often have tannins out of balance with the rest of the wine. That is because tannins soften with time, and the wine is not ready to drink yet. That is what that whole aging wine thing is primarily about. A well aged wine has very soft tannins, and one that is too old has lost all of its tannins. Most wines are not made to age, or at least not for very long. These wines usually have less tannin, and they either have more fruit, or the impression of fruit is more noticeable.
Fruit is the third part of the wine balancing act. One could characterize fruit as everything that is pleasant in wine. It is what balances the sour acids and bitter tannins. Fruit is a catch-all phrase for the smells and flavors that you find in wine, even if they spell more like wood, or anything other than fruit.
Different kinds of grapes have different characteristics. Some are tart and firm, some sweet and juicy. The flavors the wine ends up with are due in part to the grapes that are used, where the grapes were grown, how the wine is made, and even who the person is that made it. These all contribute to the style of the wine. The acidity and the tannins are part of that style, but it is the fruit you notice.
The list of things people have smelled or tasted in wine is endless. The important thing to remember is that these smells and tastes are fleeting and subtle. Few wines strongly resemble any single type of fruit. It is usually a mix of things you smell and it is often difficult to put a finger on exactly what it reminds you of. Whatever it is, in wine, we call it fruit.
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