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Three Ways to Understand Wine

We have a New Year’s resolution for you that’s easy to keep—how about learning more about wine in 2018? In this month’s “Ask Missa,” our top taster, Director of Sommology Missa Capozzo, gives you three ways to understand wine (and unleash your inner sommelier).

Pour Some Sugar (Knowledge) on Me

The terms “dry” and “sweet” often cause confusion for those new to wine and wine tasting, but the difference is quite simple! Dry wine has no detectable residual sugar after fermentation is complete, which occurs from the yeast converting all the sugar in the grapes to alcohol. A sweet wine has significant residual sugar after the fermentation is complete. There are also levels in between dry and sweet, such as off-dry and semi-sweet, which have some degree of detectable residual sugar—enough to not be considered dry, but also not incredibly sweet. Where the confusion tends to lie is in the perception of sweetness.

Factors other than residual sugar such as acidity, tannins, and alcohol content can often affect this perception of how “sweet” or “dry” a wine is. Many dry wines give the perception of sweetness. In my experience, some people might confuse a dry, fruit-forward wine with a sweeter wine, but the reality is you can have a very fruit-forward wine that still has no detectable residual sugar. So, although it is technically a dry wine, it tends to be perceived as off-dry or even sweet.

On the other hand, naturally high-acid wines, such as Rieslings, can have a degree of residual sugar, but can appear drier due to the extremely high acid levels. I have also found that when someone asks for a “very dry red wine,” what they truly desire is a highly tannic wine, which can give the perception and feeling of dryness on the palate. Most red wines are dry, so when asking for “the driest red you have,” you’re asking for the driest feeling wine on the palate, which can be achieved with a high level of tannins in the wine.

Tell Me More About Tannins

Tannins are naturally occurring compounds called polyphenols, which are found in the skins, seeds, and stems of a grape. When making a red wine, the skins are left in-contact with the juice to extract the color and tannins from the skins into the juice. Tannins give an astringency and dry feeling to a wine in the mouth. These tannins add complexity and character to a wine. Because a red wine is made by allowing the juice to macerate on the skins for a given length of time (meaning to soak), red wines have more tannins than white wines. The skins of a white wine are usually removed from the juice very soon, if not immediately after, crushing.

As mentioned earlier, tannins contribute to the perceived dryness of a wine. A wine higher in tannins will feel drier on the palate than a wine lower in tannins. Higher tannin content in a wine will also have a more complex structure and heavier body, which will stand up to bigger, bolder dishes. Typically speaking, a wine that is more complex with higher tannins and acid has greater aging potential than a wine with less complexity, tannins, and acid.

Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

When discussing a wine’s “body,” we’re talking about the mouthfeel of the wine, or how heavy or light the wine feels in your mouth. I like to compare the levels of body to how we experience the different types of milk. For instance, a light bodied wine might feel similar to the weight of a skim milk on the palate, where a medium-bodied wine might feel similar to a low-fat milk on the palate, and a full-bodied wine might feel similar to a whole milk on the palate. There are several factors that contribute to the body of a wine, including alcohol, acid, residual sugar content, tannins, glycerol, and various extracts.

Typically speaking, a fuller-bodied wine will have a higher alcohol content than a lighter-bodied wine, but of course that’s not always foolproof. A wine with significant residual sugar can have a heavy mouthfeel, yet still be lighter in alcohol. A good rule of thumb is that with dry wines, the fuller the body, the higher the alcohol content; and the lighter the body, the lower the alcohol content.

So why do we care about body? When it comes to food pairing, matching the weight of your food to the weight of your wine is a great idea! Let’s use a light-bodied Pinot Grigio and a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon as two examples. The light-bodied Pinot Grigio will match beautifully with lighter, crisper foods, such a shrimp cocktail, green salads, light seafood dishes, and so forth. Imagine pairing that light, crisp Pinot Grigio with a prime rib? That heavy steak would overpower the wine, resulting in an unbalanced pairing. On the other hand, if we were to pair a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with that same prime rib, you would have a more balanced pairing, as the tannins, acid, and alcohol content would be able to stand up to the fat, salt, and savory quality of that prime rib.

Anyone else craving prime rib and red wine? For more wine wisdom, host a wine tasting party this year with a Traveling Vineyard Wine Guide near you. Cheers to savvy sipping in 2018!

Featured Image Credit: Tracy Robinson, Spryart Photography.

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