Wine descriptions can range from helpful to absurd. Most of the time, half the words that are used on a label or a wine list, are purely for marketing purposes. If you can identify the 5 main wine characteristics of a wine, then you’ll be in a better position to describe the wine, and figure out what you like and dislike about each grape variety.
Now, I go into full details of all the wine characteristics and have a step by step process for wine tasting in my Online Wine Tasting Course, but sometimes it’s helpful to see it written first. Then I do suggest enrolling and seeing wine tasting in action. This will help you pick apart each one from the other.
The 5 Basic Wine Characteristics
Wine Characteristics: #1 Acidity
Acidity in wine is how tart or sour the wine tastes. Acidity is the backbone of wine and can be the difference between a great wine and a meh wine. The pH level of wine is about a 3 which is in the range between lemon juice (very acidic) and coffee (still pretty acidic).
Types of Acids in Wine
There are 3 major types of acid in wine; tartaric, citric, and malic acid. These acids are found in the grapes themselves and are not a byproduct of fermentation. However, lactic acid is another wine acid that is the result of winemaking intervention. The process of malolactic fermentation converts malic acid into lactic acid. This process is what gives Chardonnay its buttery taste.
Acid Levels at Grape Harvest
As grapes ripen, acidity levels drop and sugar levels rise in the grapes. When a grape is ripe, it’s sweet. It is imperative to harvest the grapes before either get out of balance. If you harvest too soon, your wine will be sour with low alcohol. If you harvest too late, your wine will be high in alcohol and feel flat without the proper acidity to lift it up.
White grapes are usually harvested earlier in their ripeness than red grapes. This assures the white wine it produces will have a nice amount of acidity. Conversely, red grapes are let to ripen a bit longer in order for the grapes to reach phenolic ripeness, or for the wines to not be bitter from unripe tannins.
How Acidity Helps Wine Age
Acidity is also imperative in whether a wine can age. Acid slows down oxidation. Oxygen is the essential in ageing a wine but too much oxygen too quickly will ruin a wine. Wines with higher acid have more longevity than wines with lower acid.
Words Used to Describe Acidity in Wine
Words used to describe high acid wines: bright, sharp, tart, zesty, crisp, and fresh.
Words used to describe low acid wines: flabby, soft, limp, flat, and dull.
As you can understand from the words used to describe acidity, the preference is definitely for higher acid wines.
Further reading Wine Characteristics-Acid: Low Acid White Wines, Low Acid Red Wines, Malolactic Fermentation, and Winemaking Step by Step.
Wine Characteristics: #2 Sweetness
Sweetness in wine is pretty self explanatory….or is it? Of the wine characteristics I discuss with my students, sweetness is the wine that seems a little sneaky. You might be thinking to yourself, well grapes are sweet so therefore wine is sweet. Nope. Grapes are sweet at harvest but that grape sugar is fermented into alcohol during the wine making process.
If grape must is allowed to ferment until the yeast has eaten all the sugar, the wine will have run out of sugar. No grape sugar= no sweetness. This makes a wine dry. Now some wines have what is called residual sugar, or sugar that is leftover from fermentation. The amount of sugar that is left over will determine whether a wine is off-dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, or sweet.
Confusing Sweetness in Wine with Fruitiness
When we describe a wine we usually start by talking about the fruit aromas and fruit flavors we perceive. For example, Pinot Noir smells like strawberries, cherries, and raspberries; all fruits that we would argue are sweet. However, the essence of the fruit remains but the sugar in the fruit has become alcohol. So even though we smell sweet things, unless there is leftover sugar in the wine, the wine is dry.
Wine Characteristics: #3 Body
Body is the one of the more complicated of the wine characteristics because unlike the others, it’s not quantifiable. What do I mean by that? Well, acidity, sweetness, tannin, and alcohol can all be analyzed on the chemical level and produce a number. Body in wine cannot be measured but rather felt in comparison to the other wine characteristics. Mouthfeel is how to measure body, meaning how the wine coats your mouth or doesn’t.
Body in wine is determined by several factors that come together to give the texture and feeling of full, medium, or light bodied. They are alcohol, glycerol, and sugar. Many wine experts stick to their guns about alcohol being the biggest contributing factor to body in wine. I’m not one of them. I’ve had hundreds of 14+% ABV wines that were not full bodied. I rant more about wine body in this post.
How to Detect Body in Wine
If a wine coats your mouth and feels thick and creamy, it’s full-bodied. If the wine doesn’t coat your mouth and feels more watery, it’s light-bodied. As you can imagine, if it hits somewhere in the middle, it would be a medium-bodied wine.
Another trick is to use the milk test. Now, most adults don’t drink milk regularly so you’ll have to pull from childhood. Light body would be the texture and feel of skim/0% milk, medium body is the feel of 1% or 2% milk, and full body would be full fat or cream.
Wine Characteristics: #4 Tannin
Have you ever taken a sip of wine and felt all the moisture in your mouth disappear? That is our dear friend tannin. Tannin is the astringent and bitter element of wine. Tannins are essential to the structure of the wine as well as whether a wine can age or not. Tannin is found (almost!) exclusively in red wines or white wines with barrel ageing.
Tannins come from the skin, seeds, and stems of the grape as well as from ageing wine in a barrel. The ‘good’ tannins are from the skins and the barrels. They are less harsh than that tannins of a seed or stem. Have you ever bitten into a grape seed or any other fruit seed? Not super pleasant, is it?
During the fermentation process, red grapes are crushed and the grape must (grape juice) stays with the skins and seeds of the grape in order to extract color and tannin. The longer the grape must macerates with the skins the darker and more tannic the wine will get.
Tannins are an polyphenol that slows down the oxidation in wine which allows wine to mature at a steady pace. Tannins mellow out as wine gets older. Wines with the most tannins should be consumed years after they’ve been made so that the tannins have had the time to do their job.
Wine Characteristics: #5 Alcohol
Alcohol just might be everyone’s favorite part of wine, right? But what is it? Alcohol is one of the byproducts of the fermentation process. Yeast eats the grape sugar and essentially poops out alcohol. The alcohol we consume is ethanol.
Alcohol is in direct relation to how much grape sugar a wine has and how much of it was fermented. A grape will low sugar levels at harvest will result in a wine with low alcohol. A grape with high sugar levels at harvest will result in a high alcohol wine. Wine regions that are found in Mediterranean or warm/hot climates tend to have wines with higher alcohol levels.
Alcohol Range in Wine
The alcohol level in wine ranges from 5.5% to 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). Most of the wines we drink are between 11%-14%. The lowest alcohol wine is Moscato d’Asti; by law the alcohol level cannot exceed 5.5%. The highest alcohol wine is port which is fortified with grape spirit and hits 20% ABV.
Detecting Alcohol in Wine
Alcohol affects the body in wine as well as the wines ability to age.
Truth is, you shouldn’t be able to detect alcohol in wine. Alcohol should be seamlessly integrated into the flavor of wine. It’s only when a wine is out of balance that alcohol (or lack thereof) is perceived. When a wine is too high in alcohol in comparison to the other wine characteristics, the wine seems hot or boozy. Too much alcohol can also affect the smell of a wine; it can smell like eucalyptus or cough syrup. Conversely, a too low alcohol level just makes a wine feel wimpy and watery.
The Ultimate Wine Characteristic: Balance
Making a great wine depends solely on balance. If any of these wine characteristics are out of harmony with the others, the wine will not be great. A balanced wine is one where the winemaker has looked all at all five of the wine characteristics and been sure one of them is not overpowering the other. A wine with too much sweetness and not enough acidity will be out of balance. A wine with too much tannin or too much alcohol will be out of balance. Not enough acid or not enough tannin could also make a wine fall apart prematurely. So yup, it’s all about balancing them all out.