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How Basic Wine Characteristics Help You Find Favorites

By understanding the 5 basics characteristics below you’ll have a better chance of choosing great wines.

In recent history there has been an increasing focus on analyzing and rating wines. Unfortunately, wine ratings don’t really help us understand our own unique sense of taste.

The best way to learn about your taste is to learn to classify wines by their fundamental traits and then pick which traits you like best.

Basic Wine Characteristics
  1. Sweetness
  2. Acidity
  3. Tannin
  4. Alcohol
  5. Body

To understand the basic characteristics of wine it’s important to learn how to taste wine. Learning to identify wine characteristics helps to identify what you like about a wine.

Sweetness

How sweet or dry (not sweet) is the wine?

Our human perception of sweet starts at the tip of our tongue. Often, the very first impression of a wine is its level of sweetness.

To taste sweetneww, focus your attention on the taste buds on the tip of your tongue. Are your taste buds tingling?–an indicator of sweetness. Believe it or not, many dry wines can have a hint of sweetness to make them more full-bodied.

If you find a wine you like has residual sugar, you may enjoy a hint (or a lot!) of sweetness in your wine.

How to Taste Sweetness in Wine

  • Tingling sensation on the tip of your tongue.
  • Slight oily sensation in the middle of your tongue that lingers.
  • Wine has a higher viscosity; wine tears on side of glass slowly. (also an indicator of high ABV)
  • Dry red wines such as cabernet sauvignon often have up to 0.9 g/L of residual sugar (common with cheap wines).
  • A bone-dry wine can often be confused with a wine with high tannin.

Sugar in Wine Chart


Acidity

How tart is the wine?

Acidity in food and drink tastes tart and zesty. Tasting acidity is also sometimes confused with alcohol.

Wines with higher acidity feel lighter-bodied because they come across as “spritzy.” If you prefer a wine that is more rich and round, you enjoy slightly less acidity.

Acidity Characteristics

  • Tingling sensation that focuses on the front and sides of your tongue. Feels like pop rocks.
  • If you rub your tongue to the roof of your mouth it feels gravelly.
  • Your mouth feels wet, like you bit into an apple.
  • You feel like you can gleek.

Acidity in Wine


Tannin

How astringent or bitter is the wine?

Tannin is often confused with Level of Dryness because tannin dries out your mouth!

What exactly are wine tannins? Tannin in wine is the presence of phenolic compounds that add bitterness to a wine.

Phenolics are found in the skins and seeds of wine grapes and can also be added to a wine with the use of aging in wood (oak). So how does tannin taste? Imagine putting a used black tea bag on your tongue. A wet tea bag is practically pure tannin that is bitter and has a drying sensation.

Tannin tastes herbaceous and is often described as astringent. While all of these descriptors sound very negative, tannin adds balance, complexity, structure and makes a wine last longer. It’s also one most important “good for you” traits in red wines.

How Does a High Tannin Wine Taste?

  • Tastes bitter on the front inside of your mouth and along the side of your tongue.
  • Tannin makes your tongue dry out.
  • After you swallow you feel a lingering bitter/dry feeling in your mouth.
  • Tannin can often be confused with the term “dry” because it dries your mouth out.

More About Wine Tannins


Alcohol

How much does the wine warm your throat?

The average glass of wine contains around 11–13% alcohol. That said, wine ranges from as little as 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) to as much as around 20% ABV.

We interpret alcohol using many different taste receptors which is why it can taste bitter, sweet, spicy, and oily all at once. Your genetics actually plays a role in how bitter or sweet alcohol tastes.

Regardless, we can all sense alcohol towards the backs of our mouths in our throats as a warming sensation. Experts at tasting wine can guesstimate the level within 0.2%!

Alcohol Characteristics

  • Wines with higher alcohol tend to taste bolder and more oily
  • Wines with lower alcohol tend to taste lighter-bodied
  • Most wines range between 11–13% ABV

Body: Light to Full-Bodied.

Are you in the mood for a light, medium or full-bodied wine? Body is the result of many factors – from wine variety, where it’s from, vintage, alcohol level and how it’s made. Body is a snapshot of the overall impression of a wine. You can improve your skill by paying attention to where and when it’s present.

Boldness in Red Wines

Wine Characteristics Conclusions

Wine characteristics help identify and relate different wines to each other. Since over 250,000 different wines are released every year around the world, it’s helpful to think about wine characteristics in terms of the varietal and where they’re from. What’s next?


Learn how to taste wine and develop your palate.

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About Madeline Puckette

I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly