In our Ask the Sommelier series, we put your wine-related questions to top sommeliers. In this instalment, IWSC judge and head sommelier at Cornwall’s Ugly Butterfly Kristyna Janickova explains what the term ‘structure’ means for wine.
I notice the word ‘structure’ used a lot in the tasting notes of some of my favourite wines, but it seems like quite an elusive term, and I’m struggling to define it or identify structure in the wines that I drink. Can you help?
Sophie from Suffolk, UK
Sommelier Kristyna Janickova responds:
‘When considering what structure actually tastes like in wine, you need to ask yourself these questions: what does the wine feel like in the mouth? Does it have body? Is it sweet and syrupy, or thin and tart? Is it coarse and earthy, or soft and fruity? When all these elements are working together in harmony, with one not overpowering the other, a wine is said to be balanced and to have good structure. Two wines can be wildly different in style – for example, one can be fruit-forward and the other austere – but they can both have good structure.
‘Structure – in short, meaning how balanced a wine is – can be a confusing term. Describing how balanced you find a wine can often be down to personal taste and requires a bit of technical knowledge about how wine is made. You might see the word ‘structure’ on tasting notes for a wine, and it’s basically used as a shortcut to describe the balance of some of wine’s most important components.
‘The five main structural components of wine that must be balanced are: fruit, sugar level, alcohol, acidity and tannins. These five elements also have an impact on the colour and flavour of the wine. Overall, the two most important factors in creating structure in a wine are acidity and tannins. Tannins are chemical compounds – molecules of varying sizes and shapes that bind to the proteins in your mouth and cause an astringent, sometimes bitter, drying sensation. Acid is also a compound found in wine, but it contributes freshness and causes salivation. For example, a red wine has more tannins than a white wine, while a white wine is usually more acidic. This is why a white wine might cause you to salivate, and a red wine might cause that drying sensation in your mouth. They’re both very important characteristics of wine, adding complexity and making every vintage of wine unique.
A wine is balanced and has good structure when no single element is overpowering another
A wine is balanced and has good structure when no single element is overpowering another. This creates an enjoyable drinking experience: where not one characteristic is standing out over another, and the alcohol level is supported by this structure. If this wine has too high or too low an alcohol level, it’s very difficult to get the rest of the components in balance, resulting in a wine with poor structure.
An additional structural characteristic is oak, which not all wines have, and it has different strengths and flavours depending on the treatment of the barrels in which the wine is aged. Oak typically adds flavours like vanilla, cinnamon, clove or even coconut. A wine can be quite easily overpowered by oakiness, and when this occurs, the fruit of the wine is said not to be married to the oak, meaning the wine is unbalanced or lacks structure. This can be seen in young vintages – wines which still need some bottle ageing. One such wine is the 2019 Lytton Springs Zinfandel from Ridge Vineyards in California – it’s full of ripeness and polished tannins, but the oak is not yet integrated. The oak is the primary flavour, which makes the rest of the notes disappear. This wine will perform very well in years to come, but it’s not quite ready for drinking yet.
Structure is also a good indicator of age-ability, as acidity and the balance of the other elements are key factors that determine the ageing capability of a wine. This is because, as wines age they typically lose acidity, so wines with a higher acid and tannin level (in balance, of course) will age better than wines without those characteristics. My favourite well-structured wine is a wine from Georgia – the 2019 Teliani Valley ‘Glekhuri’ Saperavi Qvevri Kisiskhevi. The producer selects only the best grapes for fermentation in qvevri (clay amphorae), resulting in a deep-coloured and structured wine that is still approachable due to its vibrant primary fruit and roasted nut aromas. It’s a full-bodied, super-complex wine that’s a great example of a well-balanced bottle.
Interview by Louella Berryman