(Illustration by Julia Heffernan)
My grandfather has recently taken up a cursory interest in wine. He’s well traveled, highly educated, and has enjoyed his fair share of libatious pleasures like Scotch and Champagne over the years. So imagine my surprise when he brought into question something I’ve taken for granted since my earliest days as a cork dork.
“How on earth” he said, “could you refer to a liquid as “structured?’”
“Good question” I said, and then spent 15 minutes verbally flailing as I attempted to explain the concept of a structured wine. “It’s tannins, you see. But it’s also acid…and some other stuff. It’s…”
Noting the incredulity in his face, I panicked. “Oh for God’s sake, why won’t you just nod knowingly and take the word for granted like the rest of us do?!”
With my oenological tail between my legs, I decided to do the only thing that felt right: Write some words on the Internet about it! It was time for me to work out what exactly this oft-cited, rarely explained word actually means.
Can we agree that water is the baseline for all potable liquids? Oh good – if you’d said no, I’d be worried. Water is the control, as it were, but to call a wine “structured” is basically to say that it doesn’t feel “watery.” Let’s roll with that wildly broad generalization for a second. So what would cause a liquid to feel less like…liquid?
First would be tannins. Like over-steeped black tea, a “tannic” wine will feel like it’s sucking the spit right out of your mouth. This is something water wouldn’t do, right? So we’re already moving in the right direction. These fun little polyphenol compounds will bind with the proteins in your saliva, lessening its viscosity, and causing that dry, grippy feeling we all know and sometimes love. Interestingly enough, this does a great job of counteracting the effect of the next element integral to a wine’s structure:
Acid. It’s not just for Bonnaroo anymore! Acidity, or sourness, is one of the fundamental components of taste. This sensation is primarily caused in wine by tartaric acid; something that, in its pure form, is considerably more powerful than the citric acid found in lemons. Acidity causes intense stimulation of the taste buds, salivation, and a sensation of body or weight to be attributed to the wine. Now unless your water table has fallen victim to some serious fracking, this ought to be another big step away from “watery” wine, right? Those tannins can counteract some of the salivation, so you’re dealing with some fairly nuanced interactions here.
One step further with the acid and you meet with the twins: Malic and lactic acid, otherwise known as the worst sitcom pitch in history. Malic acid is what makes green apples sour and Rieslings sing, but where we really get into mouth-feel land is lactic acid. This is the same stuff that makes yogurt tangy, and is produced via a secondary fermentation in most red wines and some big-boned whites. It creates a softer feeling on the palate, and makes for a more rich-feeling liquid. Not even the maddest of celebrity-endorsed spring waters can claim to be rich, so once again, we’re moving wine away from mere water.
Finally, there is the obvious: Alcohol. The ethanol produced by fermentation makes the wine feel heavier and more viscous on the palate. That same fermentation can create some higher alcohols like Glycerol (or glycerin) that will also increase the feeling of size or viscosity.
Without the appropriate amount of acid and alcohol, the tannins will feel abrasive and dry (bad Thanksgiving turkey). If the wine lacks enough acidity to go with the alcohol and tannins it can feel flabby and weak (you in early March). And if it’s a white wine with no tannins, low acid, and too much alcohol, it will simply blow your palate out with booze (The Jersey Shore Effect).
You may have noticed that I haven’t even touched on flavor profile. But without an appropriate base on which to be presented, things like the loveliness of the fruit or the nuanced use of lightly toasted Hungarian super-oak just don’t matter. It’ll just be all watery.