Wine terms: Structure

structureHow to identify a wine’s structure, as opposed to its flavors or tannins

Students are always puzzled when I talk about the structure of a wine. As Courtney Schiessel has written on VinePair, most of us don’t talk about structure. We talk about what the wine tastes like, and especially its flavors.

This is not surprising, since most Winestream Media tasting notes focus on flavors; we’ve been taught that it’s toasty and oaky that matter and not how the wine is put together – the way the fruitiness and sweetness, tannins, acidity, alcohol, and body mesh. Or, in a word, the wine’s structure.

I always compare a wine’s structure to a house. If a house isn’t built correctly, it will fall down. If a wine isn’t made correctly, it will be too flabby or too hot or too tart or too thin – the winemaking equivalent of a house that has fallen down.

Keep these points in mind when thinking about structure:

• Think well-made wine and poorly-made wine instead of good and bad. Good and bad are relative; what one person thinks is good – dry, rough, and with very little fruit – could be someone else’s idea of bad.

• A well-made wine, regardless of anything else, is balanced. The alcohol, fruitiness, sweetness, tannins, and acidity play off each other, and one doesn’t dominate the others. A cheap wine can be balanced; an expensive wine can be woefully out of whack.

• A well-made wine should have three components – a sensation in the front of the mouth, in the middle, and in the back. You might get fruit in the front, some sweetness in the middle, and tannins in the back. The point is that a poorly made wine doesn’t have more than one or two components, and you usually only taste it in the front. Think of New Zealand sauvignon blanc with too much grapefruit and little else and you get the idea.

Image courtesy of Wine Folly, using a Creative Commons license