understanding the five characteristics of wine
March 10, 2022

How to Choose a Good Wine: Understanding the 5 Characteristics of Wine

It can be overwhelming trying to pick a bottle of wine. Let alone one that you’re confident you’ll enjoy. One option of course is to look at wine ratings, but crowdsourced ratings are only helpful if the people rating the wines have the exact same tastes as yourself. This is why the best easy to find the right wine for you, is to understand your preferences. To do this, you need to understand the five main characteristics of wine: sweetness, acidity, tannin, alcohol, and body.

1. Sweetness

wine by sweetness level infographic

Ever heard someone refer to a wine as dry? This is in reference to the sweetness, or in this case, the lack of. Often the first impression we have of a wine is its level of sweetness through either a tingling sensation, an oily sensation, or noting a higher viscosity. This sweetness comes from the sugars naturally present in wine grapes. It can add weight and power to provide the wine with a smoother and richer texture. It’s also key to balancing the acidity in wine. 

Winemakers can control the level of sweetness present in the wine by stopping the fertilization before all the sugar has been converted into alcohol. This is referred to as residual sugar, i.e. the sugar left behind. 

For the most part, we talk about sweetness on a scale of sweet to dry. German wines however have their own scale, which you can learn more about in our decoding wine labels article. 

2. Acidity

Zesty. Spritzy. Tart. These are all words used to describe the acidity in wine. Wines with higher acidity will also feel lighter-bodied than those without as much acidity. It’s key to bringing out the fruit flavors in wine, especially for whites. However, too much can create a sharp and unappealing mouthfeel. So, if you prefer wines that seem richer in mouthfeel, then you should opt for those with less acidity. 

A good comparison between a high acid and low acid wine is a Riesling and Chardonnay, especially one that is aged in oak, respectively. 

3. Tannin

infographic wines by tannins

Tannins can be confused with sweetness since they both can be described as dry. However, tannins leave behind the same sensation as leaving a used black tea bag on your tongue and a grippy feeling on your cheeks. But what are they? They’re phenolic compounds that add bitterness to a wine, found in the grape skins, seeds, and oak barrels — meaning some white wines may have tannins. 

Other than bitterness, tannins also add texture, complexity, and impact the aging potential of wine: the more tannins, the more aging potential there is. Whilst most commonly noticed by their mouthfeel, tannins can also taste herbaceous. 

To really taste the difference between a high tannin and low tannin wine, we recommend comparing a Pinot Noir (low tannin) to a Shiraz (high tannin) and noting which you prefer. 

4. Alcohol

A natural by-product of the fermentation process (how wine is made), alcohol adds a sensation of sweetness to balance the acids and tannins in wine. It also impacts the texture and viscosity of the wine: if you’ve ever swirled a glass of wine and noticed wine legs on the side of the glass, this is an indication of high viscosity. Of course, these are also the characteristics of sweetness. The key difference between alcohol and sweetness, however, is alcohol leaves a warm sensation in your throat. 

Higher alcohol wines tend to be bolder, think Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas low alcohol wines are lighter-bodied, such as Moscato. 

5. Body 

Body is harder to define in that it’s the result of many different factors: wine variety, where it’s from, vintage, ABV, and how it was made. However, it’s all about weight. Does the wine feel heavy in the mouth? Or light? For lighter-bodied wines, you might even find that you barely notice anything in your mouth.

Good examples of both ends of body are a Chardonnay, a full-bodied white, and a Semillon, a light-bodied white. For reds, you can use the same example we gave earlier with a Shiraz as an example of a full-bodied red and a Pinot Noir as a light-bodied example. When you’re trying wines, take note of how long the flavor lasts in your mouth. The longer it lasts, the fuller-bodied the wine is. 

Once you understand these five characteristics of wine and your preferences for each, you’re on your way to picking up the right wine, every time. Of course, these characteristics aren’t always noted on wine labels easily so refer to product descriptions or get familiar with prominent expressions of different varieties and where they’re grown. But if all else fails, or you just want some help, get in touch with us at sales@winery.ph or through our Facebook or Instagram private messages and our team of wine experts will point you in the right direction.