The wine business throws around a lot of terms, and when overused, some terms begin to become vague and to make wine more confusing. My apologies for committing this crime; I know I have been a perpetrator of this sin. I thought I’d try to clear things up a bit. And with the help of one blog I do find the time to follow, Wine – The View from Orlando, I’ve been inspired to write more extensively on this topic—I’d urge you to read its recent piece “Wine Balance As A Quality Measure.”
Like most jargon-filled enterprises, wine holds a few terms that are the proverbial “beaten horse,” and one that is perhaps the most important to collectors but still often misunderstood is the term “structure.” Lots of people use “structure” as another term for “body,” which is incorrect. Although the degree of “body” a wine possesses influences the overall structure a wine will have it, that’s not the full story.
If it helps, you can think of the basic concept as an algebraic equation that goes something like this: Structure = Residual Sugar + Acidity + Tannins
The term “structure” encompasses all the elements in a wine that act as preserving agents. In no particular order these components are residual sugar, acidity, and tannins. These three components need to be in balance with one another for a wine to feel interesting to the nose and mouth. Too much acidity and the wine is too sour, too much sugar and it’s syrupy, and too much tannin and your mouth will dry out. Likewise, too little of any of these elements also means a wine with poor age potential, usually one that feels flabby, weak, or boring.
Along with having to be in balance these three components must also act in the best benefit of the wine’s style. Thus it is the winemaker’s objective to bring out the best of each component in order to prescribe a lifeline to the wine’s cellar potential. Collectible wines such as Sauternes and late-harvest Riesling have high sugar concentrations that allow for extensive aging, but they also need really nice acidity to be at their best. French Burgundy has an incredibly short growing season, so the importance of acidity to a good year cannot be more important. In very hot and ripe years like 2005, Burgundy winemakers had to ensure their grapes got maximum ripeness without sacrificing acidity and age potential by harvesting too late. Likewise, if a growing season is cold and short, winemakers have to coax the last warm fall days before harvest in order to get riper, more sugar-filled grapes. This sort of precision is part of why we love Burgundy–and why we pay for it.
Tannins too have a role to play—though much more in red wines whose grapes are higher in tannins and whose winemaking styles and typicity call for marked tannins. Tannins act as a natural preservative, but they also have an incredible amount of influence on wine’s flavor and aroma. For example tannins come from nearly all points in the winemaking process–from the grape seeds or pips, the skins of the grape, the stem of the grape, and if the wine ages in oak, tannins come from the lignins in the wood’s flesh. In short, when you’re a winemaker, you see tannins; they’re everywhere. Over time tannins and, in some cases, a slight amount of acidity can precipitate out of the wine and form as sediments in the foot of the bottle. It’s a sign of a wine’s aging, though it can also be the calling card of natural, unfiltered wines.
So take this as a lesson on proper wine composition. If you’re at your local wine shop or speaking with your Portfolio Manager at IWM, and you hear about a wine with great structure, it means the wine have age potential to lie down and mature. It is the amount of kinetic energy in a wine. The extent of its lifeline chiseled into its DNA. It is, in short, the wine’s inherent relationship between its acidity, sugars and tannins that allow it to stand the test of time.