by Paul Bressler
seems to be some confusion among our customers about the meaning of
these terms, and the relationship among them. I will try to ease that
confusion with some simple explanations. Hopefully, it will help us
find the right wine for each customer.
What weíre talking about
are actually three different things. Two are flavors registered by the
taste buds and the other is a physical reaction of the tongue, lips and
helps to have a basic understanding of how wine is made. The sugar
(mostly fructose) in grape juice is converted by yeast into alcohol in
the process we call fermentation. If the fermentation is stopped (by
raising or lowering the temperature or by adding brandy) before all the sugar is converted to alcohol, the wine will be sweet. These wines are considered dessert wines. If all of the sugar is consumed by the yeast, the wine is considered dry. While all of the sugar is never really converted, in well made table wines,
the amount of sugar left behind is small enough to be imperceptible.
The major exception is German Riesling, but weíll leave that discussion
for another time. Tannin comes from the grape-skins, -seeds, and -stems, and also from new oak barrels.
are the technical definitions. How they translate to taste is the most
important thing, and there begins the confusion. There are only five
sets of taste buds; sweet (sugar receptors), sour (acid receptors),
salty (mineral receptors), bitter (25 different receptors), and umami
(glutamate receptors). Most of what we call taste really comes from our
sense of smell. There are receptors for approximately 350 different
scents in our nose.
Dessert wines contain sugar, which hits the sweet taste buds. Thatís a pretty simple concept.
table wines, since there is no (perceptible) sugar, what we taste as
sweet is really an inference we make from the fruit. Since we expect
fruit to be sweet, and we taste the fruit (from the aroma), it seems
sweet. Check out this definition of sweet from WineKakis.com glossary:
Sweet: A term applied not only to wines with significant residual
sugar, such as fortified or dessert wines, but also to those with
intense, thoroughly ripe fruit flavors, which can convey a sweet
impression even though they may be technically dry.
The degree of sweetness we taste in both dessert wines and table wines is determined by the acidity level of the wine. Sour
is the antithesis of sweet. The more acidity present, the less sweet
the wine seems to be. Higher acidity wines appear to be drier. Dry
in this case is also the opposite of sweet. Hopefully, we donít have
any truly sour wines in the store, because that would be a real flaw.
We have plenty of wines, however, that we would consider tart, or higher than normal in acidity. On a continuum, our definition of dry would be between sweet and tart.
without sufficient acidity doesnít just taste sweet, it can also taste
fairly dead in your mouth. Acidity brings wine to life, and allows more
intense fruit flavors to come forward without becoming cloying. Thus a
wine can be fruity, yet still be dry.
Finally, we come to tannic
wines. Tannin affects wine in three ways. In the bottle, tannin acts as
a preservative. Tannin soaks up oxygen, allowing wine to develop the
complex flavors that come with age without becoming oxidized. On the
taste buds, tannin is bitter. In proper proportions, it allows us to
perceive flavors like coffee and chocolate in our wines. Finally,
tannin causes a physical reaction in the mouth that is separate from its effect on the taste buds. Tannin is astringent, which means that it dries out the tissue
of our tongue, lips and gums. Over time, as wine ages, the tannins form
long chains and fall out of the wine as sediment. Wine thus becomes
less bitter and less astringent as it matures. Tannin will bind to
proteins. Thatís why a tannic wine always tastes better when consumed
with food rather than by itself. The tannins can bind to some of the
proteins from the food, rather than to the tissues of the mouth.
often hear our customers ask for a wine that isnít too dry, when they
really want a wine that isnít too tannic. They arenít looking for a
sweet wine. They just want a wine that isnít going to cause that dry
mouth sensation you can get from a wine that is high in tannins. The
other thing we are often asked is to recommend a wine that is ďsmoothĒ.
While everyoneís definition is a little different, we usually interpret
that to mean a wine that is neither tart nor tannic.
Side by Side Comparison
the sidebar, youíll find three wines that will help your understanding
of these terms. The first is a sweet wine made from the Grenache grape,
from the French appellation Banyuls, named Domaine de la Casa Blanca.
In Banyuls, the fermentation is stopped by adding brandy to raise the
alcohol level. Once the alcohol level gets high enough to kill the
yeast, the fermentation stops with residual sugar remaining. This wine
is a favorite of mine Ė a great value in a dessert wine, and Banyuls is
(in my opinion) the best wine in the world for chocolate.
The second selection is a wine made in the Cotes du Ventoux by Domaine de Cassan.
Itís a dry wine, and a very tasty one at that. It has plenty of fruit.
This wine is one that can be called smooth. It is neither tannic nor
uncomfortably tart. This is higher in acidity than the typical
California Merlot or Australian Shiraz, but is very much in balance
(the acidity level is in proper portion to the level of fruit.) It is
made primarily from the same grape as the Banyuls above, but is a very
The final choice is an Ocone Aglianico del Taburno.
This southern Italian has obvious tannins, yet is perfectly accessible.
It has moderate acidity. Compared to the Cassan above, one should be
able to make out the distinct texture and astringency of the tannin.
hope this clears up the confusion. Our goal at 67 Wine is to make
buying, serving and drinking wine a pleasurable experience. We want you
to enjoy every step along the way. Arming you with the information you
need will help us reach that goal.
 ScienceDaily (Apr. 20, 2007)
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