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Red wine is red because it was fermented with the skins, making it more tannic. White wine has less tannin, and is more acidic. Rose wines gets that way because it is allowed to stay in contact with the red grape skins for a relatively short time compared to red wine and sparkling wine has bubbles.
Easy, right? Of course not. Stopping at red vs. white wines would be like ending a discussion on vehicles at cars vs. trucks. If we’re going to peg the kind of wine that you enjoy drinking, we’re going to have to get a bit more specific. Yes, that means we’re going to have to talk about how a wine tastes.
This is where wine drinkers lose most of us. There is perhaps nothing more subjective about humanity than taste, and trying to find common ground when talking about wine seems ill-fated from the start. But in spite of the glut of snobby descriptors for wine that you’ll stumble across, there are a few terms that mean pretty much the same thing to everyone.
Sweetness. Needs no explanation. The opposite of sweet is dry. A wine can also be medium-dry or off-dry (i.e., just a hint of sweetness, but almost too faint to move the needle).
Acidity. Acidity is a big deal for white wines, and it makes them refreshing and crisp (or “sour” if it's overdone). Lower acidity makes a wine taste “fat.”
Tannin. It’s all about the tannins for red wine. High tannin wines are astringent, maybe even bitter and inky. Lower tannin wines are smooth and soft, and depending on your tastes, more drinkable.
Body. This refers to the perceived “weight” and viscosity of the wine. A full-bodied wine feels thick, coating the sides of the glass as you swirl. A light-bodied wine is almost like water. A medium-bodied wine is in-between.
The best way to wrap your taste buds around the four primary wine descriptors is to make yourself a strong cup of tea. Sip it black, without anything added. That’s what something very tannic will taste like (i.e., bitter). Now, add a squeeze of lemon juice and taste it. That’s acidity joining the party. Combined with the tannic taste, it should taste astringent. Now, stir in some sugar for some sweetness. This mellows everything out to make it taste soft.
There's a fifth thing to be aware of when describing wine—flavor. Unlike the four key descriptors, flavor encompasses every descriptor under the sun and is far more subjective.
Flavors. If you’re not sure, don’t bother diving into descriptors like graphite, barnyard, and other flavors you’ve (hopefully) never tasted. Instead, stick to the most relatable flavors like fruity, earthy, spicy, smoky, or flowery.
In the wine world, you’ll inevitably hear a lot of discussion about “oak” or “oakiness” or “an oaky quality.” Oak flavor infuses wine when it is either fermented or aged in oak barrels. With wine, oak is just another parameter for taste. Some say oak adds qualities like smokiness, clove, spiciness, or vanilla tones. Others just plain don’t like oaky aromas. If that’s you, go for a wine with low oaky character. Many wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel casks, and are thus not oaky at all (unless the winemaker adds oaky essence after the fact).
Hot tip: Pair oaky wines with salty food. Salt cuts the bitterness of oak in much the same way that salt makes shots of tequila go down smoother.