Your wine: under construction
by Thor Iverson
Wine-speak is full of strange words. Many of them are simply
silly (I recently saw the term "caramelized
in a wine publication), and others
are a sort of game designed for wine nerds to amuse one another: "oversteeped
jasmine," "damp Spanish leather," "Debussy on a cool fall evening," and so on.
But the real problem is not that these descriptions are merely fanciful
diversions for wine writers
with too much free time; it's that they say little
about what a wine is actually like.
for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
Not all terminology is without value, however. Take the word
"structure" -- which, after all, seems an odd word to describe a
liquid. If you're imagining a bunch of little construction workers riveting
girders together, you're not far off the mark. Wine is usually described in
terms of tastes and smells
-- cherries, grass, chalk, rotting cabbage -- but
those are just analogies to flavors other than wine. Structure describes the
feel of a wine; whether it's strong or weak, light or heavy,
The most familiar structural components are
acidity. Tannin (a
compound derived from grape skins, seeds, and stems; it's that drying, bitter
feeling on your gums) is often described as providing "backbone," like a sturdy
tree from which succulent fruit dangles. What you're after is the fruit, but in
a tannic wine, you're going to get a bit of the tree, too. Likewise, acidity
lends definition and sharpness, in contrast to the creamy or even sugary
texture of low-acid wines.
But structure doesn't stop there. Often, you'll see tasting notes describing a
wine's "mouthfeel" -- whether it's round or angular, supple or foursquare,
razor-sharp or fat. A "fat" wine -- like a low-acid gewürztraminer --
coats your palate like olive oil, butter, or heavy cream, whereas a "sharp"
wine -- like German riesling -- is like dragging something pointed across your
tongue. Likewise, a
delivering all its fruity exuberance in
one sip is a "forward" wine; one that puts out on the first date. On the other
hand, long-aging, "backward," tannic monsters like young Barolo and
can be closed,
harsh, and impenetrable; celibate aesthetes giving no hint of
the complexity within.
But structure is more than just descriptive. How a wine hangs together says a
lot about how it's going to work with food, or if the wine is best sipped in
contemplative isolation. Structure also helps determine
how -- or even
if -- a
wine will age
(wines that lack firmness and chutzpah rarely do).
One caveat, however: structure isn't inherently a good, bad, or indifferent
thing. It just is. Wines are sometimes dismissed as "lacking structure,"
which is a misnomer; the taster probably means "fat" or "flabby," which are
themselves valid structural impressions. Some wines are best fat and chewy,
some are best when bursting with jammy fruit, and others are best left to
develop in the cellar for a few years (or a few decades). In the long run, it's
your own taste -- or your long-term plans for the wine -- that determine the
importance of structure.
Some properly structured tasting notes:
1997 Clos du Bois Chardonnay Alexander Valley ($15). Fresh orange and
melon scents, and a tasty, apricot-dominated fruit bomb in the mouth. Lightly
oaked, with good acidity and a light undercurrent of tannin. This is clearly
intended for early drinking, but it could last up to five years. Food? Lobster,
NV Quinta de la Rosa Finest Reserve Port ($17). A finer sipping
can't imagine. Raisin, prune, coconut, rosemary, plum, black cherry, blueberry,
butterscotch . . . the complexity is uncanny for such an inexpensive
wine of this type. Flawless
between the fruit, smooth alcohol, and
moderate acidity. Not much firmness, so drink now.
1996 Cantina Terlano Pinot Bianco Vorberg ($16). Pinot biancos are
usually fresh but simple guzzlers. Not this highly structured,
slate-and-kiwi-flavored gem from Italy's Alto Adige region. There's some green
apple, lime, and a dusting of white pepper, with incredible richness, length,
and complexity on the finish. Try it with the simplest of dishes: greens, white
beans, and fontina drizzled with really good olive oil.
1996 Wairau River Chardonnay Marlborough ($18). Starts off grassy and
herbal, like most sauvignon blancs from this New Zealand region, but quickly
develops a peaches-and-cream, tropical (did I taste banana leaf?), coconut, and
spice flavor that's utterly captivating. And yet there's subtlety, which makes
it one of the rare chardonnays that will match up with just about any kind of
Two bits of wine news to report. First, the always enjoyable restaurant/wine
bar Les Zygomates is expanding its cellar -- and thus its selection. The
Leather District location may be hard to reach these days, what with all that
structure surrounding what used to be the expressway, but for wine
lovers, it's always worth the trip. Check our
wine events page for information on
LZ's weekly wine tastings, as well as on other wine-related events around
Second, the July 31 issue of Wine Spectator has a cover story on
Senator Strom Thurmond, who continues to seek the suppression of information on
wine's health benefits by arguing that they should not be printed alongside the
already present -- and somewhat hyperbolic -- warning labels. This is old news
to "Uncorked" readers (I first wrote about this
back in March), but the
high-profile airing of this powerful prohibitionist's last stand is welcome
Thor Iverson can be reached at email@example.com.
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