Words help shape the way we live and enjoy our lives. Before we learn language, we have little memory and understanding of the world. When we start relating words to our lives, we develop a heightened consciousness and appreciation for life.
This is also true with wines. Before we can start transforming our feelings of experiencing wines into words, we have little grasp of why we actually like or appreciate a wine. When we start associating our drinking experiences with words, we are on the road to true wine understanding and we can communicate and share our experiences.
Three key words to describe and understand wine are balance, structure and finish.
As in life, so in wine — balance is good. When all the elements in a wine are harmonious and no single element dominates, we call that wine balanced. The primary elements are fruit, acidity, tannins, alcohol and sweetness. Some connoisseurs stress balance between mid palate and finish, meaning a wine resonating from start to finish.
Depending on the style of wine, different aspects of balance are desired. In dry whites we look for a balance between fruit and acidity. Beginners tend to prefer more fruit and less acidity while wine old fogies like myself prefer a very healthy dose of acidity. Slight variations in either direction are fine and more about stylistic preference than right or wrong.
Extremes are a no-no. A white wine dominated by fruit with little acidity is more like fruit juice, while highly acidic wine with little fruit may taste like vinegar.
In reds, we seek balance between fruit and tannins. Again, beginners often prefer fruity wines with less or softer tannins; more experienced drinkers like a good tannic backbone. In all cases, we need a balance.
Three wines with impeccable balance are the Marlborough, New Zealand, white Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, the Veneto, Italian red Masi Camporfiorin IGT, and the Penedes, Spanish red Torres Mas La Plana.
Structure is essential. When we talk about well-structured wines or wines with firm structures, we’re usually talking about acidity and tannins. Structure doesn’t describe flavors and doesn’t indicate balance; instead, it refers to a solid foundation.
The firm assembly or architecture of the acidity and tannins, and to a lesser extent, the fruit and alcohol, make it more age-worthy and interesting.
Structured wines in their youth may be overly acidic or tannic and difficult to drink but as they age these qualities soften and become more integrated into other elements of the wine.
Many of the world’s best wines are too aggressive or austere in their youth but as they age they develop a wonderful complexity of flavors and textures.
Because it imparts longevity, structure is critically important when you buy wines to cellar or for investment. Well-structured wines are often more expensive.
Two French wines that beautifully typify good structure are the white wine Simmonnet Febure Chablis Premier Cru from Burgundy and the Chateau de Pez, a Cru Bourgeois from Saint Estephe, Bordeaux.
A much-misused term in “winespeak,” finish is the impressions left on your palate as you finish swallowing wine. What’s a good finish? A simple finish is fine but a complex finish is always better and may denote greatness. A short finish is decidedly bad while a long finish is a prerequisite for all very good and great wines.
The terms finish and length are sometimes used synonymously, but this is erroneous. Finish describes the total experience at the end of drinking and after we swallow wine, while length only refers to how long the sensations last in your palate. Length is almost always good, though there are a few unpleasantly persistent exceptions All great wines have great length.
A good finish may include pleasant silky or velvety textures and have a symphony of complex flavors. Red wines with extraordinary finishes include my favorite first growth wine Chateau Haut Brion, the Napa classic Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Gaja Barbaresco DOCG. Arguably the longest and most complex finishes come from very old Amontillado Sherries like the Bodegas Tradicion Amontillado 30 Year Old VORS.
Remember the three words as you pursue greater wine wisdom and enjoyment.