What is Structure in a Wine?

In that fateful movie Sideways, which served to elevate Pinot Noir to new heights while simultaneously damning Merlot to obscurity in the minds of millions of American wine drinkers, there’s a scene where Jack tells Miles about his walk through the vineyard with his new girlfriend:

Jack: Then we ate Pinot grapes right off the vine. They were a little sour...but showing excellent potential for structure…

[Miles looks at Jack like he’s got no idea what he’s talking about, which he doesn’t]

Jack:…down the line, I think.. Stephanie, man. She really knows her sh*t.

So, let’s set out to answer that question today.  What the heck is ‘structure’ and why do we talk about it in wine?

Structure is about achieving balance, which sometimes means 'a glass of each'

Structure is about achieving balance, which sometimes means 'a glass of each'

Simply put, the structure is the backbone of the wine.  When you strip away all of the berry and fruit flavors, floral notes, hints of leather and spice, and soupçons of (whatever else is left in your bag of esoteric wine terms), what you’ve got left is the structure.

Structure is composed of 5 elements: sugar, body, acid, alcohol, and tannin.  Let’s take a quick look at each and determine what they mean for your wine.

  • Sugar – is the wine perceptibly sweet? Is it dry but ripe, or perhaps bone dry?  What you’re detecting here is the residual sugar that remains in the wine once fermentation is complete.  If you’re writing a tasting note, make sure this is the first thing you record when you take a sip.  Your sweetness detectors are on the tip of your tongue, so you’ll notice sugar levels first (and it gets harder to discern once the other elements of the wine get involved).
  • Body – does the wine have the texture and weight of skim milk, 2 percent, or whole milk?  This usually tracks lockstep with the alcohol and / or sugar in the wine. 
  • Acid – is the wine mouth-puckering, like a sip of iced cola or lemonade?  Acidity in beverages makes them seem more refreshing and help to clear the palate between bites of food.  That’s why sommeliers tend to favor wines with elevated acidity, as they make for easier matches with your meal.
  • Alcohol – is the wine boozy?  Or is it well integrated into the broader canvas of the juice?
  • Tannin – you know that mouth-drying feeling you get from a big, dark Cabernet?  That’s tannin.  They’re really helpful when you’re eating steak or something else extremely rich, since tannins cut through fat.  

A good structure in a wine is balanced.  Mosel Rieslings have searingly high acidity, but they have a touch of residual sugar to keep them in balance. A Barolo achieves its balance by turning everything except for sugar up high (tannin, body, acid, alcohol) and the structure serves as a base for one of the most food friendly, ethereal wines on the planet.  As you might imagine, there are many ways to achieve balance, which is where the skilled winemaking comes in.  We’ll save that for another day…