It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Structure -- The Anatomy Of Wine

I often take wine to restaurants, and if its quality warrants it, I like to share it with one or more of the employees. Recently my wife and I went to our favorite Italian restaurant, and being in the mood for something special, I took a 1997 Flaccianello, an exceptional Italian wine that ranks high in that unofficial classification of “Super Tuscans.”

Our food server gave the wine an ecstatic two thumbs up, but I was curious how the Chef—born and trained in Italy—might react to it. Smiling broadly and carefully examining the bottle between swirls and sips, he was also quite taken by it. Among his several positive assessments, and the one on which we both agreed, was the wine’s excellent structure—a special quality that made it vibrant and delicious even after all these years.

For people not into wine, the notion of structure may smack of pretense. For them, wine is simply wine—one of many beverages to accompany food. However, for those who are more than casual wine drinkers—informed wine enthusiasts—that notion underlies their buying habits. For the former, it’s a notion worth exploring. For the latter, it underlies what they buy and why.

Structure, from a tasting perspective, is the vehicle or means by which a wine achieves its impact on your palate. Structure’s major components that create the effect are alcohol, residual sugar, acid, and tannins. Alcohol provides the body and feeling of weight in your mouth (light, medium, full). Residual sugar, that portion not completely fermented into alcohol, is what determines how sweet or dry a wine tastes.

Acidity (pleasant tartness) is a most vital component, especially for whites. It provides a crisp, lasting finish, as well as the ability to age and improve. Tannins (think black tea) are mainly from red grapes but also from stems, seeds and oak and give a wine a feeling of substance and texture, as well as its ability to evolve for years. Those four, acting in unison, are what comprises a wine’s makeup and make you aware there is something far more than colorful liquid in your mouth.

So, when and how do we identify and describe a wine’s structure? After getting a handle on its appearance and aromatics, flavor and finish, you are totally armed with all you need to next judge and describe its structure. If it feels lifeless and flabby on your palate, the wine is said to be poorly structured. It is likely short on acidity or tannin (or both).

Poorly structured wines can also be described as being unbalanced or out of balance, especially those with an excess of acidity or tannins (or residual sugar). An overly acidic white (or red ) wine can taste unpleasantly citric or sour, just as the astringency of a tannic red wine can jolt the palate with its abrasiveness. Unbalanced wines are easy to perceive—something disagreeable is dominant. (Think vinaigrette with too much vinegar or too much salt.)

As you likely can guess, wines with good structure have all four elements in perfect combination. Everything is in balance, with neither acidity nor tannins prevailing. They deliver a significant and pleasing palate impression, and are a joy to drink.

Wines with great or excellent structure, however, are in a class of their own. While “approachable” in their youth, some ageing is usually required to really discover and enjoy their best qualities. When evolved, all parts will be integrated and harmoniously balanced. Their appearance will be clear and brilliant, and aromatics and flavors will entice and amaze. They will be complex wines with depth, concentration and vitality, and—more often than not—coming from time-proven, high quality winegrowers and appellations.

Even though they may challenge the purse as well as the palate, these wines—and they run the entire gamut of red, white, sparkling and dessert—certainly deserve a place on your “World Class Wines to Try” bucket list. To paraphrase the Michelin travel guides, “They are wines worth seeking out.”

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