David’s article as prepared for the Duluth News Tribune for the article which ran on 5/13/2015:
The Key Components of Wine, Part V: Putting it all together and reading the wine label.
Alcohol, acidity, sugar and tannin are the key components in wine. If you’ve been following this column for the last two months you’ll know why these components are important and if not here is a quick summary.
Alcohol is the by-product of yeast and sugar. It can be perceived as heat or as sweetness and has a very distinctive aroma.
Acidity is perceived as having a puckering effect, a tartness in the mouth. High acidity also increases salivation which causes a lifting effect of the palate and this enhances the flavors of food.
Sugars are often found in small amounts in wine (the yeasts eat most of them) but any residual amount is very noticeable.
Tannins are the most noticeable ingredient in red wine and give red wine its signature grip. This is a feeling rather than a flavor.
The struggle becomes knowing how to use these concepts when selecting a wine for purchase and wine bottle labels are not very helpful. Most of them contain advertising copy and a pretty logo. At worst they entice you to buy the wine because the label is cute or funny. I’ve found that cute and funny often equals bland and poorly made. Avoid cute and funny labels or buy them because you think the label is an appropriate gift for a friend, or to share, but don’t expect the wine to be anything but intoxicating.
One of the most useful things printed on a wine label is the alcohol percentage. Often this number is printed extremely small and may be placed on a corner of either the front or back label but it can tell you a lot about the liquid inside. If the label states 15% to 14% alcohol this means the grapes were grown in a warm climate. Berries grown in a warm environment get a lot of sun and made a lot of sugar but as they ripen the acidity falls. The wine might be hot tasting, even spicy, but it will be relatively low in acid. Often warm climate reds will be high in tannin as well. These red grape varieties could be cabernet sauvignon, syrah, grenach or merlot. High alcohol whites could be California oaked chardonnay and occasionally gewurztraminer.
If the label states 13% to 12% these can be a wine from a cooler climate, or a wine that was picked earlier. Less alcohol means there was less sugar and the acidity will be higher. Often these are white wines or light bodied reds such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc. These grapes have thin skins and since tannin is extracted from the skin, less skin means less tannin. This makes these red wines good for pairing with less robust foods, think roasted chicken rather than steak. White examples would be pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay.
If the label states 11% to as low as 6.5% you can be certain that the wine will be slightly to very sweet. Obviously these wines were either grown in a cold place like Germany (famous for their sweet wines) or the winemaker stopped fermentation to preserve the sugars. If the wines were grown in a cold place then the acidity level should be very high. A high acid, sweet wine is the hallmark of a German riesling. Other white wines examples are the slightly sweet chenin blancs from France’s Loire river valley or the wonderful light sparkling wines from Italy’s Piedmont region called Moscato d’Asti. Sweet red wines often have cute labels and should be avoided with the exception of Italian Lambrusco, some sparkling red wines, and the surprisingly refreshing “sweet red” from Texas.
Understanding the relationship between alcohol, acid, sugar and tannin will help you pick a wine based on knowledge rather than chance. Experiment with different wines based on the alcohol level printed on the label and see how they pair with your dinner or even your lunch.
David Devere is a certified specialist of wine. He teaches wine classes mainly in the Duluth, MN area. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.