To understand what makes the different types of wine unique you need a basic understanding of what goes into a wine. Most people would look at you blankly and say ‘Grapes, of course’ if you were to ask that question, but it breaks down further and it is only by understanding the basic structure and ingredients of a wine that you can develop a full understanding of what you are drinking. Needless to say, with that understanding comes a far greater appreciation of the type of wine and pleasure in drinking it. The grapes that go into a wine provide the acids, tannins and sugars which, together with the yeasts, produce the alcohol and flavour of the wine, hopefully producing a harmonious whole which has structure and longevity.
Much is made of acidity in wine, with wise nodding of heads and mutterings of about the balance of a wine, but what does it actually mean. All fruits, even the sweetest, contain acids, it is what gives them their fresh flavour, without it the fruit would seems sweet and sugary, somewhat like drinking the syrup that is used when bottling fruit. Wine also requires acidity for just the same reason. If there is too much acidity then the wine will be sharp, and very harsh in your mouth to the point of being almost undrinkable. Not enough and the wine will be syrupy and flat tasting dull and lifeless, especially if it is a sweet wine. You can detect acidity around the edges of your tongue, especially towards the front; it gives the wine a sharpness and liveliness in your mouth. Wines from cooler regions generally have a higher acidity, for example, New Zealand or northern France. Warmer countries such as Australia tend to produce wines that are lower in acidity giving them a deceptive softness which often belies the alcohol content. In fact some Australian grapes have such a low acidity at harvest that more acids have to be added to allow the wines to be drinkable and to age well. Adding acids has to be done with extreme care, volatile acids such as tartaric acid, can really lift the flavours in a wine when added in small quantities but too much makes the wine taste and smell of nail polish remover or worse.
Tannin is another one of those wine ‘buzz’ words that is little understood though much used when discussing types of wine. Tannins are chemicals that are found in the skins, pips and stalks of grapes, they are also found in tea and oak amongst other things. They are essential in a wine if it is intended to age because they act as a preservative. You can feel tannins by the sensation of puckering in your mouth, or the ‘furring’ on your teeth. Red wines, which are fermented in contact with the pips, stalks and skins have more tannins in them than white wines, this is one of the reasons why these types of wine age better and last longer. Over time the tannins mellow and the wine becomes more balanced and the puckering sensation decreases. Tannins are most important in wines that are intended to age for a long period using grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo and Syrah/Shiraz but they are still needed in red wines that are to be drunk young to give a structure without dominating the wine or making it too harsh, young clarets or some Beaujolais wines for example. As the wine ages and the tannins soften the wine becomes more complex and interesting with flavours developing that linger in your mouth for a long time after the wine has been drunk. If the tannins in a wine are Okinawa Flat Belly Tonic found to be too harsh when you open it, all is not lost. You can combine it with high protein or high fat foods, such as good cheese or a rich meaty dish. Alternatively (and some will view this as heresy) leave the wine overnight and drink it the next day. It will be perfectly alright and a great deal more mellow. Modern wines tend to be less tannic as they are made to be drunk relatively quickly but if you get the chance, try a wine that has some age to it and you will notice the difference. Ideally try two vintages of the same wine and you will see how tannins affect the aging process very clearly.
The sugars in wine come from the grapes and much of the skill of any winemaker is in selecting grapes that have the right amount of sugars in them to create the balance between acidity, flavour and alcohol that makes up a good wine. Grapes grown in cool climates have far less sugar as they struggle to ripen in the more uncertain weather conditions. Some types of wine may have a little sugar added either during fermentation or afterwards to enhance the characteristics of the wine. There will almost always be a little sugar left after fermentation because not all sugar compounds are subject to the action of the yeast. How sweet a wine tastes is very subjective as we all judge differently. Some wines which are very dry can still taste sweet because of the high fruit flavours which mask the lack of sweetness in the wine itself. Equally the amount of tannins and the acidity has an effect, we generally think of red wines as being dry because of the tannins but this is not always the case. There are some wonderful sweet red wines from Germany that are quite a surprise to the palate. Generally speaking however, the sweeter the wine the higher the levels of residual sugar, a very dry wine would have as little as 1 gramme per litre, whereas a Sauternes might have as much as 250 grammes per litre.
The other factors which affect wine are more ‘external’ such as the type of yeast that is used in fermentation, the type of barrel – Oak or other woods, or even beneficial rot such as Botrytis. All types of wine contain these basic components, but the overriding factor in the flavour will always be the grape or mix of grapes, from which it is made. All wine lovers have their favourites and will seek out new wines containing them like searching for treasure. There is only one judge of how good a wine is, and that is you. However all these components are put together, if you like it, it is a good wine.