Buzz: Hey Marnie, I heard the clerk at the wine store the other day say that between two merlots, one was "structured" and the other was more "relaxed and easy-drinking." It sounds like she's describing dogs and cats. Is she saying that some reds are hard to drink?
Marnie: No, Buzz - at least they shouldn't be. I can see how that would sound confusing, though. Wine is hard to describe in words, so vintners have developed their own lingo to convey key sensory traits. However, as most of the words they borrow have other meanings in plain English, these kinds of descriptions - like structured vs. relaxed - don't always compute for folks outside the wine trade.
Buzz: OK, was she saying that some of those merlots are kind of strict about loving the sipper, while some others love lots of sippers?
Marnie: Um, Buzz, she was referring to differences in dryness, acidity, and astringency between the two wines. But because most wine drinkers don't isolate those aspects of the tasting experience, she compared their combined effect to something more familiar.
Buzz: Something more familiar, like relationships between men and women?
Marnie: You're walking on thin ice here, but I'll go along with you if you think about pants. If she were talking about two pairs of pants, that would've made sense, right? The one that was more "structured" might be made of thicker material and need a sturdy waistband, like a pair of jeans. The relaxed pair might be thinner, softer, and stretchier but less durable, like comfy sweatpants.
Buzz: Hmmm, maybe we can start a stretch pants column. But I admit I don't understand what durability has to do with wine.
Marnie: It's more relevant than you might think, particularly among red wines. In wine, structure is a catchall term for specific characteristics that help wines resist spoilage and stand up to - low sugar content, high acidity, and high tannins (the compounds that leave your mouth feeling dry and leathery.) Just as denim and double seams make jeans durable but can feel stiff and unyielding at first, wines with these traits can seem a tad harsh on first sip. But in the right food context or after some bottle aging, they melt into the background and add to our enjoyment.
Buzz: OK, so when those elements you mention aren't there, what happens to the wine?
Marnie: Winemakers know how to soften all of these traits to yield "easier-drinking" wines that are less dry, less tart, and less astringent, as with most cheap and cheerful reds. These wines do sacrifice some of their food-flattering edge and aging potential in exchange for feeling more "relaxed" and comfortable on first impression, but in today's market, there are plenty of customers who prefer immediate gratification in their red wines. And because many aren't pairing them with food or aging their wines, who can blame them?