The Boston Phoenix
July 8 - 15, 1999


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What's 'structure'?

Your wine: under construction

by Thor Iverson

Click here for a rundown of wine tastings, dinners, and events.
Wine-speak is full of strange words. Many of them are simply silly (I recently saw the term "caramelized minerals" 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.

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, simple or complex.

The most familiar structural components are tannin and 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 Beaujolais-Villages 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 Bordeaux 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, of course.

NV Quinta de la Rosa Finest Reserve Port ($17). A finer sipping Port I 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 balance 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 seafood.

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 town.

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 nonetheless.

Thor Iverson can be reached at

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