We can all safely agree that if you enjoy the wine that you are having, then it must be good.
However, if you want to gauge the technical quality of wine, there are essentially five components to access. After you examine those levels, you can determine if and how they balance with each other and lead to an intense or expressive wine with complexity on the nose, palate and finish.
Here are the five most important structural components of wine and how to understand them in the glass.
Just because a wine is fruity, it does not mean that it is sweet.
Sweetness indicates the amount of residual sugar in wine. So, when people say they prefer a “dry wine”, it is not to say they do not enjoy fruity wines, just wines without any real sugar content.
There is no direct correlation between sweetness or dryness and quality.
You know that mouth-watering feeling you get when you bite into a fresh pineapple or sip freshly squeezed lemonade? That is acidity, and it is one of the most important components of wine.
Derived from grape pulp, acidity accounts for less than 1% of the composition of wine. (Water comprises 80–86%, and alcohol typically 11–16%.) Acidity helps to make cool-climate white wines refreshing and also helps rich reds complexity.
While acidity will tend to be lower in red grapes than white, without medium to high acidity in a wine, it will appear as flabby or flat and it will be nearly impossible for it to exhibit balance or harmony.
A great exercise to understand tannin is to peel the skin off a red grape and eat it by itself. That drying feeling in your mouth, especially noticeable in your cheeks is from the tannin.
Extended maceration, in which winemakers press the grapes with their skins intact, is one way to impart tannins to wine. Since most white wines are produced without skin contact, the vast majority of white wine has little to no tannins.
However, tannins can also come from oak aging, so you will notice a bit of tannin in those big, buttery Napa Chardonnays, for instance.
Tannins are more prevalent in red wines because there is more skin contact with the juice during fermentation and when the juice is pressed, or when liquid is separated from solids. The more contact the juice has with the skins, and possibly stems, the more the tannins can be detected in a wine.
Without a healthy dose of tannins, it is very difficult for a wine to improve and evolve over time. Conversely, a wine that is oversaturated with tannins, and that does not possess enough fruit or acidity to balance it out, will feel astringent and come across as particularly bitter on the finish.
Alcohol is a by-product of the fermentation process. The more sugar in whichever grape is fermented, the higher the wine’s potential alcohol. Grapes develop sugar as they ripen, which explains why high-alcohol wines come from generally warmer regions, while cool-climate white wines tend to have lower alcohol levels.
Lower or higher levels of alcohol are not guaranteed signs of quality in a wine. There must be a minimum level of around 8% alcohol by volume (abv) for even the lightest of white wines. For the big, high-alcohol reds that exceed 15% abv, there should be a hefty dose of fruit, ample tannins and at least moderate acidity to keep everything in balance.
Residual sugar, tannin and alcohol work in tandem with fruit concentration to determine the body or weight of a wine. The denser the fruit and higher the alcohol, the heavier and fuller-bodied a wine will feel on the palate.
A great way to judge body is to think about water and milk. A light-bodied wine will have a consistency similar to water, whereas a full-bodied wine will be closer to heavy cream. The collaborative effort of all these structural components leads you to determine whether you are drinking a light, medium or full-bodied wine.
What determines a ‘Good’ Wine?
Once you have made your assessments of all these structural components, you can then determine how they complement one another. Does the acidity balance out potentially high tannins?
Does the alcohol complement the high fruit concentration, leading to a long and pleasing finish? Does the combination of these components then culminate in an intense, expressive and potentially complex wine?
If the answer to all these questions is yes, you probably have a good, or possibly outstanding, wine on your hands.
In keeping with the theme of assessing good wines …