Monday, December 17, 2012
There aren't many questions I cannot answer confidently when talking wine with a crowd of eager enthusiasts. Not that I'm the alpha-male of wine knowledge. Far from it. In fact, like any obsessive endeavor one jumps into, I've learned only how much I know I don't know, and the rabbit-holes of viticulture and oenology go on and on and on. Like the game of golf, or the world of Pokemon, wine expertise surely takes a lifetime to master.
That said, I think I can hold my own. So, when I really can't answer a question well, a need to investigate the subject-matter is ignited. One such instance occurred when I was presented with this humdinger a couple weeks ago at a tasting event:
"So, when you say this wine has good 'structure', what exactly do you mean?"
I found myself pausing, then coming up with an incongruent rambling, involving mentions of tannin, acidity, and blathering about the wine having "angles" rather than amorphous-ness. Whatever the hell it was, the question was poorly answered, and I probably left a wine lover- yearning for sense in this quagmire- more confused than before.
I guess I just took the concept of Structure in wine for granted. In the lexicon of the wine peddler/blogger/advocate/enthusiast, structure is just something we seem to know. Wines have it, or they don't. While generally regarded as a positive quality, digging into the "why" lends explanation. It wasn't until I came across an article from Wine Spectator's Matt Kramer (who is pretty much the only guy I care to read in that fish-wrapper) that things started to delineate for me.
The easy (and- according the Kramer- false) explanation of structure insinuates that a wine with lots of tannin has "good" structure. However, tannin is only one piece of the puzzle.
Let's think of wines as buildings. A straw hut, a teepee, a sand castle... none of these will hold up over time. However, an edifice built on a good foundation, with good materials and craftsmanship, can stand the test of time. Or huffing, puffing wolves, should you be a little piggy.
So, when considering that angle, a "structured" wine is a wine that tastes as if it has the ability to age. This could mean a wine has ample tannin, but the insinuation that tannin is necessary falls flat when we consider that many white wines are built to age (as tannins come from the skins, seeds, and stems of the vine, and- often to a lesser extent- the wood vessel in which many wines are aged). However, many age-worthy whites (fine German Rieslings comes to mind) spend little-to-no time on the skins, and never see the inside of a barrel. How, then, can they be structured; a concept determined necessary to cellar for long periods of time?
Rather, a combination of grape tannin, wood tannin, acidity (in the case of the aforementioned Riesling), residual sugar, alcohol, and phenolic ripeness comes together to provide the foundation for a wine. Sure, tannins act as preservatives, but so does ample acidity, sugar, and alcohol. When all these elements are in harmony, a wine is said to have good "balance".
To this end, "balanced" wines are "structured" wines, right? Well... not necessarily. With good reason, you probably want to punch me right now.
I've tasted excellently balanced wines that should not be aged. They drink at their peak in youth. Sticking to my guns, I cannot say that those wines are necessarily "structured", but they are "balanced". Good New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, many Beaujolais, and plenty of California wines fall into this category (to my tastes, anyway).
After distilling the information, here is the best way I can explain structure:
- Structure in wine- like a properly constructed building- is the foundation of elements within that will allow the wine to age elegantly over time.
- Some element of preservative- whether tannin, acidity, alcohol (in the case of fortified wines), sugar, or a combination of all- needs be present in good quantity for a wine to age.
- Structured wines should be balanced (or taste as if they will come into balance with age), but balanced wines need not necessarily to be structured.
With practice (meaning, tasting a lot of wine), one will be able to better understand if a young wine has the elements necessary to age well. This practical application should to a better understanding of structure. Especially since your palate is different from mine, or anyone else's.
Heaven knows that exercise will be more helpful than this sub-par attempt at explanation.