Is that a piece of sandpaper in your mouth? Or are you just happy to see me?

Tannin: Not actually this complicated

In my work, finding the right glass or bottle of wine for a consumer is mostly an act of translation. Wine professionals use semantic devices to describe attributes in wine. We use them as a common way to talk about wine, which is a totally non-narrative, sensory experience…essentially, when you sip a glass of wine, it’s just that. The wine isn’t a book, it doesn’t have words. It’s just an experience, which is a beautiful occurrence in this modern, mimetic world where narratives and experiences are generally spoon-fed to us.

Exactly like Plato’s Cave, I often find that myself and my customer can agree on the “ness” of a certain sensation, but we use different words to describe it. Tannin is a great example of this. Tannin, in wine, according to the wine professional, is a chemical compound (derivative of either skin, stem, or wood contact with the wine) that creates a textural sensation on the palate. I like to say that tannin is the roughening sensation on your tongue, kind of like someone is taking a piece of sandpaper and gently (or violently, in the case of young Bordeaux or Oaked California Cabernet) rubbing the middle of your tongue and possibly gums. It’s not a flavor.

But often, when I’m behind the bar, I have guests who tell me that they don’t like a wine that’s “too dry” or “too peppery”. By a technical, industry definition dry is the opposite of sweet. It’s talking about the presence or absence of sugar in the wine. Likewise, pepper is a flavor, rather than a textural sensation. Grenache, Syrah, and Gruner Veltliner are grapes that often have black pepper and white pepper elements to them. Nine times out of ten, the person I’m talking to is actually asking for a wine low in tannin, rather than dryness or pepperyness.

Now, this isn’t their fault, or stupidity. They’ve simply developed different semantic devices from the ones which are codified within the industry. My tannin is their pepper. It’s my job to make sure that we’re talking about the same thing. We can both agree that wine X has a roughening sensation on the tongue. Because my customer and myself are both equipped with similar tools for experiencing the wine (a mouth), we can agree on certain aspects of the wine, but the language we use to describe those specifics may be very different.

The following is a list of terms which are commonly confused between consumer and salesperson.

Dryness/Sweetness:

This is simply the presence or absence of residual sugar in the wine. There’s no real aroma associated with sugar. Have you ever picked up a bowl of refined sugar and smelled it? Really not much going on there aeromatically. We have a large concentration of sugar-oriented taste buds on the tip of our tongue, so unless the tip of your tongue lights up like a lightbulb when you take a sip, the wine is dry. White wine is drastically more likely to be sweet. Grapes like Riesling,Chenin Blanc, and Gerwurtztramminer are most frequently done in a sweeter style, but there is a large amount of wine made of all those grapes in a bone dry style. 99.5% of all red wines on the market are bone dry…which leads me to my next point.

Fruit Character:

I often have people smell a glass of wine and say, “Smells sweet.” As I mentioned before, sugar doesn’t have an aroma. So start to separate the quality of the fruit from the presence or absence of sugar. Is it under ripe? Ripe? Jammy? or all the way out in pie fruit/compote land? There are wines that have under ripe fruit aromas that have lots of residual sugar in them (Mosel Riesling). Likewise, there are wines that are bone dry that have very dense, jammy fruit aromas (Australian Shiraz, Argentinian Malbec). Generally, hot climate wines have riper, denser fruit character and cold climate wines have ripe/under ripe fruit aromas.

Tannin:

A textural sensation and only a textural sensation. You can’t smell tannin, only feel it. See above for more details.

Acidity:

A lot of people are scared of this, but it’s a necessary component in wine. Most people accurately describe this, but I’ll talk about it anyway. I often find that people associate “crisp” with high acid. Acid plays down the side of your tongue. When you take a drink of a wine, and your mouth immediately starts watering and it feels like someone’s playing piano on the sides of your tongue, that’s acid. Acid is necessary to keep a wine directional, to keep it driving through your palate, otherwise it will feel “short” or “flabby” and just sit on your palate. Generally, cool climate means higher acid, warm climate means lower acid.

Alcohol:

Known in the biz as “heat”. You can make a determination by inhaling through your mouth after swallowing. If it feels a little bit like you were drinking scotch rather than wine, then you know it’s high alcohol. Wines around %14/15% or greater alcohol by volume will start to demonstrate this quality, generally. Again, if you read back to my fermentation post you’ll see why hot climate wines (more sugar) have more alcohol than cool climate wines (less sugar).

That’s all I have time for, but I’m sure I’m missing some other common misconceptions. I’ll write in some more if I think of them.

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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