There are three basic flavors in wine: fruit, alcohol, and acidity. Four if you count sugar, but all wines are not sweet and sugar in wine is a by-product of the fermentation process. All these flavors create the “balance” in wine.
All wines, for the most part, have flavors of fruit. The grape is the backbone for wine. One fruit flavor that is seldom used to describe wine is grape. Ironic, isn’t it? Cider tastes of apple, so why shouldn’t wine taste of grapes? Fermentation, chemicals, and the aging process change the basic wine/grape flavor.
Wine cannot be achieved without alcohol. Sugars are converted into alcohol during fermentation and the winemaker can control the sweetness, or lack thereof. Alcohol gives the wine “body.” Too much alcohol masks the flavor of the wine. The wine that clings to the glass after swirling is “body,” or the alcohol content, often referred to as “legs.” Think of the relative “body” weight of 1 percent milk, as opposed to heavy cream to determine the “body” weight of wine. The higher the level of alcohol does not necessarily mean a better wine. Again, it is the balance of all components.
All wines contain acidity and all wines need it for flavor and preservation. Acids occur naturally in the soils of vineyards, in grapes and through fermentation. There are three acids in wine: malic, lactic, and tartaric acid. Malolactic fermentation in Chardonnay, the secondary fermentation in wine, creates more malic acid (malic means fruit in Latin) than lactic acid (lactic means cream in Latin). Grapes need acidity to ripen. Acidity increases in cool weather and decreases in hotter weather. That is why cooler climate wine grapes make more crisp wines. A wine containing too much acid will taste sour or like vinegar. Acids are measured on the pH scale – positive (p) charged hydrogen (H) ions. The higher the number, the more positive charged ions. This results in greater concentration of acid.
Yeast will ferment all sugars into alcohol. Sweeter wines have more “residual sugar.” The winemaker controls the residual sugar; he or she can cease fermentation at any time, thus leaving residual sugar. Wine with no residual sugar is “dry.” A wine with residual sugar and a high acid count may not taste sweet. It all goes back to balance.
Two other tastes, not flavors, you will find in wine are tannin and oak. Oak in wine is a wine maker’s option, and is used to age wine, and impart a vanilla-toasty finish to the wine. An oak barrel is porous, allowing air to flow in and out, creating oxidation. Too much air or oxidation ruins a wine, turning it to vinegar. American oak adds more vanilla flavor, whereas French oak is toastier. A Chardonnay that completes 100 percent malolactic fermentation and is aged in oak may have no original flavors of the grape.
Tannin in wine is the astringent, puckering-mouth sensation and derives from the grape skins and seeds. Tannins are needed in red wine more than white wine. Tannins eventually, through aging in oak, mellow and are evident in young wines that need aging.
Next time you swirl your wine, note how it clings to your glass. Savor the grape flavor. Taste the alcohol and the acidity and try to distinguish acid from tannin. The sweetness will be apparent, as will the oak. If you can identify these basic flavors and tastes, you are on the right path to better wine appreciation.
– Peter Arcuri is the Tahoe Daily Tribune’s food and wine writer.