Know Your Wine 101: 5 Basic Wine Characteristics

26 May 2016

Learn the basic wine characteristics to develop your palate and find favorites. By understanding the 5 characteristics below you’ll have a better chance of getting what you love. The best way to learn about your taste is to classify wines by their fundamental traits and then pick what you like the best.

To understand the basic characteristics of wine it’s important to learn how to taste wine. Learning to identify wine characteristics helps to identify what you like about a wine.

5 Basic Wine Characteristics

  1. Sweetness
  2. Acidity
  3. Tannin
  4. Fruit
  5. Body

Sweetness: aka “Level of Dryness”

Our human perception of sweet starts at the tip of our tongue. Often, the very first impression of a wine is its level of sweetness. To taste sweet, focus your attention on the taste buds on the tip of your tongue. Are your taste buds tingling?–an indicator of sweetness. Believe it or not, many dry wines can have a hint of sweetness to carry a larger impression of Body. If you find a wine you like has residual sugar, you may enjoy a hint (or a lot!) of sweetness in your wine.

How to Taste it in Wine

  • Tingling sensation on the tip of your tongue.
  • Slight oily sensation in the middle of your tongue that lingers.
  • Wine has a higher viscosity; wine tears on side of glass slowly. (also an indicator of high ABV)
  • Dry red wines such as cabernet sauvignon often have up to 0.9 g/L of residual sugar (common with cheap wines).
  • A bone-dry wine can often be confused with a wine with high Tannin


Acidity: Wrapping Your Head Around It

Acidity in food and drink is tart and zesty. Tasting acidity is often confused with the taste of higher Alcohol. It is common for wines grown in cooler vintages to have higher acidity. Wines with higher acidity feel lighter weight because they come across as ‘spritzy.’ If you prefer a wine that is more rich and round, you enjoy slightly less acidity.

Acidity Characteristics

  • Tingling sensation that focuses on the front and sides of your tongue. Feels like pop rocks.
  • If you rub your tongue to the roof of your mouth it feels gravelly.
  • Your mouth feels wet, like you bit into an apple.
  • You feel like you can gleek.


Tannin: The Misunderstood Wine Characteristic

Tannin is often confused with Level of Dryness because tannin dries your mouth. What are wine tannins? Tannin in wine is the presence of phenolic compounds that add bitterness to a wine. Phenolics are found in the skins and seeds of wine grapes and can also be added to a wine with the use of aging in wood (oak). So how does tannin taste?

Imagine putting a used black tea bag on your tongue. A wet tea bag is practically pure tannin that is bitter and has a drying sensation. Tannin tastes herbaceous and is often described as astringent. While all of these descriptors sound very negative, tannin adds balance, complexity, structure and makes a wine last longer.

How Does a High Tannin Wine Taste?

  • Tastes bitter on the front inside of your mouth and along the side of your tongue.
  • Tannin makes your tongue dry out.
  • After you swallow you feel a lingering bitter/dry feeling in your mouth.
  • Tannin can often be confused with the term “dry” because it dries your mouth out.


Fruit: Identifying Different Flavors

Wines are often characterized by their main fruit flavors. Tasting for fruit flavors in a wine can help you better define your preferences. For instance, wines that have strawberry notes lead into a very different set of varietal wines than enjoying wines that taste like blackberries. Additionally, the level of fruitiness that you taste in a wine leads to very different growing regions.

Tasting for fruitiness in a wine

  • Red Wine: red fruits such as raspberry or dark fruits like blackberry and blueberry?
  • White Wine: Lemon and Lime or Peach and Yellow Apple?
  • Can you name 3 different fruits easily?
  • Do you find it difficult to pick out a single fruit flavor?
  • Does a wine give you stronger impressions of other flavors such as grass, bell pepper, black pepper, olive or meat?

Body: Light to Full-Bodied.

Are you in the mood for a light, medium or full-bodied wine? Body is the result of many factors – from wine variety, where it’s from,vintage, alcohol level and how it’s made. Body is a snapshot of the overall impression of a wine. You can improve your skill by paying attention to where and when it’s present.

Alcohol Level ABV (or Alcohol by Volume) adds body. The wine will have a higher viscosity which is easily seen in watching it bead on the side of the glass. A high alcohol wine typically tastes fuller bodied than a light-alcohol wine.

Tasting body in wine
  • How does the wine compare to other wines you’ve tasted? Lighter? Bigger?
  • How long does the taste last in your mouth after you’ve swallowed? 5 seconds? 40 seconds?
  • Is the wine full bodied up front but then drops off at the finish?
Wine Characteristics Conclusions

Wine characteristics help identify and relate different wines to each other. Since over 250,000 different wines are released every year around the world, it’s helpful to think about wine characteristics in terms of the varietal and where they’re from.

You can read more on the basic wine characteristics by visiting