Sweetness, body and tannins

Every wine has unique qualities and sweetness, body and tannins are three of the fundamental aspects that dictate how a wine tastes and feels in the mouth. Jacques Scott Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle discusses these important wine elements.

Like human fingerprints, all wines are different and more importantly, they all taste different.

The number of variables that determine what a wine tastes like are many. The grape used to make the wine plays a huge factor. Terroir – essentially the earth and climate where the wine-making grapes are grown – also plays a part, as does growing, harvesting, fermentation and aging methods. These factors all determine how much acidity, sweetness, body and tannins a wine has, which in turn determines taste.

Acidity in wine is another important aspect of taste, and was the subject of an article in the June 2011 edition of The Journal. Jacques Scott Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle, along with Senior Wine Sales Representative Sergio Serrano and Marking Assistant Jo Austin discussed sweetness, body and tannins during a tasting lunch at Casanova Restaurant.

Sweetness

Simply put, the sweetness of a wine is determined by the amount of residual sugar left in a wine after fermentation. Wines that have no or just trace amounts of sugar left after fermentation are called ‘dry’, a term that doesn’t reflect wine quality at all.

“Sweetness versus dryness is a huge factor many people don’t understand,” said Royle.

All grapes have natural sugars in them and when yeast is added to the juice of grapes, the process of fermentation converts the sugars to alcohol.

“Fully fermented wines will be less sweet that partially fermented wines,” Royle said.

But the lack of sugar doesn’t mean that wine cannot still taste sweet, especially wines that have a lot of fruit flavours.

In addition, red wines like Zinfandel can seem sweet to some people even though they’re dry because they have less acid and a higher alcohol content. Conversely, high levels of acid – which makes a wine more tart – can mask residual sugar in wines like Champagne, Riesling and Chenin Blanc.

When a sweeter wine is desired, as is the case with dessert wines or with wines like White Zinfandel, winemakers will use methods like lowering the temperature of fermentation to stop the process and leave more residual sugar.

To demonstrate the taste difference, two different Rieslings were tasted at the lunch, one a medium-dry offering from one of the oldest Riesling producers in Germany, Schloss Johannisberg in the Rhein district, and the other a medium-sweet auslese – late harvest – wine from Wehlener Sonnenuhr in the Mosel region of Germany. Grapes used in late harvest wines will have spent more time on the vine creating natural sugars, making the juice sweeter to begin with.

There were distinguishable differences in aromas in the two wines – for instance the Schloss Johannisberg ‘Silberlack’ Erste Gewaechs ($61.95) had a faint smell of kerosene – typical in traditionally made Rieslings – to go with the aromas of peaches and other summer fruits. The Wehlener Sonnenurh ($41.99) on the other hand, displayed more mineral aromas with summer fruits.

But Royle cautioned about assuming sweetness from the bouquet.

“Sweetness is something you can’t tell by nose,” he said. “You can only get sweetness on the palate.”

Indeed, the Wehlener Sonnenurh was noticeably sweeter and thicker on the palate, almost to the point of being slightly syrupy.

“These wines are made with the same grapes, only one is fully fermented and the other is not,” said Royle.

Because the Schloss Johannisberg is fully fermented, it has a higher alcohol content compared to the Wehlener Sonnenurh, which only had 8.5 per cent alcohol.

Body

Another aspect of wine taste is body, which is directly linked to the alcohol content of a wine. The more sugar that is converted to alcohol in fermentation, the higher the alcohol content and, generally, the ‘fuller’ the body of the wine, Royle said, adding that other factors like grape variety and acid levels also play a role in body.

“As sugar levels go up, acid levels go down,” he said.

In the case of the two Rieslings, both were medium-bodied even though the Schloss Johannisberg had a higher alcohol content. Because the grapes used in the Wehlener Sonnenurh Riesling were allowed to be touched by Botrytis cinerea – a fungus that concentrates the flavours in the grapes – it has a fuller feeling in the mouth, even without the higher alcohol content.

In red wines, full-bodied wines like New World Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, Syrah and Zinfandel are often called ‘big’ and usually have an alcohol content of 14 per cent or higher.

Sometimes it’s the grape that makes a wine more apt to be full-bodied, but more often it’s the wine-making technique. Burgundy is a medium-bodied red wine because of the way French winemakers create wine from the Pinot Noir grape. On the other hand, some New World Pinot Noirs from places like New Zealand, California and Oregon are being made with alcohol contents as high as 15 per cent or more, resulting in wines with more body.

But other taste factors also come into play when considering a wine’s body.

For the purposes of the lunch demonstration, two wines with identical 14.5 per cent alcohol content were chosen, one 2009 Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir ($21.99) and the other 2005 Mount Veeder Winery Cabernet Sauvignon ($43.99). Though equal in alcohol, the Cab was full-bodied while the Pinot medium bodied. The reason had to do with the grape type and their tannin levels.

Tannins

Tannins are naturally occurring compounds found in the seeds, stems and skin of grapes. They also occur in many other fruits and vegetables, and tea is another tannic beverage.

Since only the juice of grapes is used when making white wine there are not much tannins in white wine, although some can be imparted into the wine by aging in oak casks

. However, oak contains hydrolyzable tannins as opposed to condensed tannins, so they’re not quite the same.

Red wine, however, is fermented with skins and seeds and even some stems. This process gives red wine its colour and some of its flavour. It also leaves tannins, which, along with acidity, gives structure to wines.

Tannins create a sensation of dry, puckering astringency in the mouth rather than a taste. Wines from some grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo have high tannin levels, while wines from grapes like Pinot Noir or Barbera have low tannin levels.

As wines age, the tannins change, said Royle.

“Over time, the tannins actually bond with the colouring pigments of the wine and drop as sediment,” he said, noting that red wines will naturally start turning a brownish red as they get older.

Other changes occur to the tannins as well.

“They get softer as time progresses,” he said. “The prefect example is Bordeaux.”

When comparing the Rodney Strong Pinot with the Mount Veeder Cab, the difference in tannins was immediately noticeable.

“Pinot Noir grapes have super thin skins,” Royle said, adding that because of that, the wine made from Pinot grapes has less colour and fewer tannins.

Even though red wines generally could use aging in the bottle, most are consumed when they are young.

Royle suggests decanting a young tannic wine because the tannins will start breaking down when exposed to air. T

here are a lot of opinions on how long wine should be decanted before consuming it, but somewhere between 20 minutes and two hours should do the trick.

Food

The lunch at Casanova was a four-course tasting of multiple menu items, some of which went well with the wines, some of which did not.

The dryer Schloss Johannisberg Riesling went best with the tuna sashimi, while the Wehlener Sonnenurh Riesling went best with the dessert course.

The Mount Veeder Cab paired well with the lamb pops.

“There’s a reason for that,” Royle explained. “The coating of fat in the mouth counters the astringency of the tannins.”

Somewhat surprisingly, the Rodney Strong Pinot Noir worked very well with a creamy scallops and calamari pasta dish, showing why Pinot is considered a good food wine.

“Pinot Noir is almost a fail safe [for food pairings],” Royle said, noting that it could also be paired with fish like salmon, halibut and sea bass, as well veal and pork.

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