The world of wine is as deep and complex as a good Syrah. When someone starts talking about wine, the terminology can give you that “I’m sitting in a 400-level class of some other major” feeling. Wine, simply, is rotten grape juice. Grapes are picked, pressed, and fermented by yeast. Those grapes come in over 10,000 varieties and you’ve probably heard of a few, like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc.
While you can read about wine until you legitimately need a drink, thankfully, the best way to learn about it is to drink it. But to learn, you must be somewhat analytical. So let’s learn how to taste wine.
At some point or another, you’ve heard some bizarre and pretentious words used to describe wine. While they seem silly and nonsensical, they’re quite useful when you know what they mean and how to use them. Ever heard some snob in a movie sneer that they only drink “dry” wine? A dry liquid sounds like an oxymoron. And that character is probably a real moron.
A number of jargon terms such as “dry” are used to describe the palate of a wine, which is divided into structure and flavor. Structure describes the more physical attributes of a wine and can be difficult to understand, so that’ll be the focus here. The structure palate of a wine is generally analyzed on five points. Sweetness is the easiest to detect and a cheap white will typically hit you in the diabetes with its sugar content (try the terrible Barefoot Moscato).
Dryness refers to the sweetness of a wine. During the fermentation process, grape sugar is converted to alcohol. A wine with little to no residual sugar is considered to be dry, while a wine with lots of residual sugar is called sweet.
The second point, tannin, is most frequently used in reference to wine, but is noticeable elsewhere too. Tannins are complex biomolecules that taste bitter and add texture to wine. Tannins are often identified by their astringency and are much more noticeable in red wine than white. The physical feeling of tannin can be described as silky, velvety or grippy and are a primary contributor to the mouthfeel of a wine. Mouthfeel — another common term — is literally just how a wine feels in your mouth. If you want to experience tannins outside of wine, try egregiously over-steeping black tea. The chill-inducing bitterness is tannin that was able to seep into the beverage.
Many wines have a significant pucker factor that stems from their high acid content. A number of acids are naturally present in grapes and, depending on the variety, growing conditions and ripeness, can contribute more or less acid to the final fermented product. All wines contain some amount of acid, but a balanced wine can make that acid less noticeable.
Wine enthusiasts are a weird bunch. They’ve given wine both body and legs. Wine legs are those little drippings slowly sliding down the glass. They’re also called tears and, fun fact, actually led to the discovery of a whole branch of fluid physics. Body is another structural element of wine that contributes to mouthfeel. This one is pretty obtuse and more difficult to get the hang of describing. It takes quite a bit of practice, though this is the homework you’re probably not too upset about. Body is a broad term that refers to the weight of a wine, which is another ill-defined word. A good analogy is skim versus whole milk, where skim has less body or substance than whole. Wines are often put on a scale of full-bodied, medium-bodied and light-bodied. You may hear full-bodied wines described as “big” and light-bodied wines described as “delicate.”
Alcohol — one of the most treasured components of a wine — is another point of assessment. It’s a safe assumption that we all know what alcohol tastes like. This trait can often be pretty accurately sniffed out before the first sip. I call it “booziness” — when I can tell that this glass will put me to bed. Though, to be clear, the actual percentage of alcohol in most wines doesn’t vary too much and hangs between 10-15 percent. But it can be more prominent in some wines than others. Alcohol prominence can sometimes add sweetness to dry wines and can help balance sweet wines.
Balance is a highly desirable quality in a wine and bolsters some of the vino greats. Balance is exactly what it sounds like: there’s not too much acid or sweetness; nothing dominates. It’s Goldilocks’ pick, sans subsequent bear attack. While a desirable trait, balance doesn’t dictate great wine.
This basic overview should get you started. The most important thing is to constantly explore. Try every variety, every style, every region (responsibly). I recommend taking notes, too. With that, good wine and good luck.