How’s Your Mouthfeel?
“The latest vintage of Domaine de la Bonne Bouche sets the lips tingling, as if tickled by the eyelashes of an angel as she flits on gossamer caresses to alight ethereally on the tongue. Resting her silky wings, she envelopes the palate in a cocoon of velvety, glycerol-induced unctuousness. Wrapped in her creamy, viscous robe, she perches plumply on the papillae, mustering the steely resolve required to resume her ultimately suicidal (though heart-arrestingly warm and generous) slink down … down … down. Without gritty tannin, without harsh heat, without even a suggestion of chalky, er, chalkiness, she bids ‘adieu mon amour’ to my spent taste muscle and departs in a gush of crisp, crunchy, yet at once satiny tactile replay.”
Sick of this yet? Me, too. So let’s get on with it.
Obviously Domaine de la Bonne Bouche is not a real wine, winery, or marketing gimmick (okay, hold that last possibility). Nor is the “reviewer” of the product of a real “wine writer” (though I’m sure we’ve all read actual reviewers whose style is disturbingly close).
However, if you study this exercise in vinopomposity you’ll notice something interesting (other than the author’s need for psychological stabilization). Not once —once — were aromas and flavours ever mentioned. Coincidence? I think not (mostly cause I wrote it that way on purpose).
The point, insofar as there is one, is that there’s a dimension to wine (and spirits and beer and all the other goodies you cram into your gaping maw) that goes beyond smell and taste. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which … Actually, it’s the dimension of the tactile, and it is the zone where those elements that give wine textures roam. The things that make them “silky” or “furry.” “Gritty” or “velvety.” “Round” or “sharp.”
A highly extracted Alsace Gewürztraminer can come off as almost oily on the palate. A brisk, unoaked Chablis can be steely. A raw young Cabernet will be puckeringly astringent. These non-flavour components are responsible for what tasters generally call “mouthfeel.” When a wine has a particularly noteworthy mouthfeel you tend to resist the urge to swallow it right away. Instead, you hold it in your mouth, roll it around, maybe even chew on it a bit before sending it on its way.
Some of you, perhaps a very few of you (okay, maybe none of you) care to know where these textural elements originate. Given that I fall into the last group, and I’m writing this, I’ll give it a brief once-over, then let the truly curious (and I’m using the word “curious” here in the nicest possible way) Google the night away (as if they’d have anything else to do with it). Ahem, anyway.
Rumour has it (or maybe it’s actually the truth, who knows) two French dudes named Semichon (which, translated, means “half chon” and shouldn’t be confused with Semicornichon, which means “half little pickle”) and Flanzy (whatever) suggested (to whom, nobody is sure) that substances called pectins produced tactile sensations in the mouth. (Actually, a fellow named von Follenberg discovered these things before S&F, but it’s harder to poke fun at his name.)
Pectins fall into the larger phylum of polysaccharides, and within this party of “Ps” reside a few interesting members, including Arabinogalactan proteins (AGPs, originating in an Arabic galaxy far, far away), Type II Rhamnogalacturonas (RG-IIs, sung, albeit with difficulty, to the tune of “My Sharona”) and Mannoproteins (MPs, typically found dozing in Parliament, but also, apparently, found in wine — or into wine, as the case may be).
Anyway, numerous tests concluded that these fine thingamajigs do, in fact, combine to alter the textural nuances of a wine. And efforts have been made by pointy-heads to analyze, categorize and compartmentalize tactile variants. The results, for good or ill, being “texture wheels” (similar to the oft-cited UC Davis “aroma wheel”).
So now we know what creates texture in wine. But, what causes texture to differ? The answer is found in both nature and nurture.
“I am feeling more and more as time goes on that the site is the leading determiner of texture,” says Paul Sloan. Sommelier-turned-vintner of Small Vines Wines, Inc. and Small Vines Viticulture, Inc., Sloan took his love of fine wine from serving it to sculpting it at his Sonoma-based winery. “Other aspects include clonal selection, hang time and the use and frequency of punch downs and pumpovers. The style or material of the fermenters also play a role in the texture; concrete and wood seem to bring more texture to the wine than stainless steel.”
David Ramey of Sonoma’s Ramey Wine Cellars notes that a wine’s texture is the result of numerous decisions made by the winemaker over the course of crafting a wine. “The harvest decision, tannin management in both red and white wines, lees contact and stirring (both of which depend on container size), oxidative handling, fining or lack thereof, and the care (or lack of) with the filtration process” all combine to determine how a wine feels in the mouth.
“But how is this going to impress my dinner guests/date/boss/Arabinogalactan-in-waiting?” you whine annoyingly. To which I answer, “All in good time, grasshopper.” Yet seeing as there’s no time like the present, here we go.
“I very much feel, having been a sommelier, that in the food and wine pairing world texture plays a huge role in the complex decision of which wines go with which foods,” admits Sloane.
The zesty, electric acidity and mild sweetness of a kabinett level German Riesling offers the perfect foil for a creamy/salty dish, while the cleansing sparkle of a fine glass of fizz drums down the oily character of smoked salmon. The drying astringency of an austere young Bordeaux can be quelled by the proteins in a rare steak. And, notes sommelier Jeremy Geyer of Toronto’s Centro Restaurant, “The tannin structure of a Bordeaux or a New World Meritage changes almost magically with age.”
Some, like Ramey, feel that the texture of a wine is the most important aspect of the whole experience. “From my perspective, it’s huge. I don’t care if a wine smells like apples, peaches or whatever, but I really care that it feels good in my mouth. Focusing excessively on a wine’s aroma is like focusing on cologne while making love: it’s not the main event.”
Speaking of making love, much as reading about it is no substitute for the real thing (so I’ve heard), reading about the textural nuances in a wine is nowhere close to experiencing them. Here’s something you can try with minimal cash, fuss and planning that will show you how wine and food can both complement and contrast.
Get yourself a brisk, zesty, cool climate Sauvignon Blanc (Loire Valley, Niagara, New Zealand, etc.). Hit up the cheesemonger for a creamy young goat cheese and the fishmonger for a few fresh East Coast oysters. Don’t mess with the purity of the oyster by adding gloopy condiments; knock it back au naturel on the half-shell and follow it with a gulp of the wine. The bracing acidity of the wine marries nicely with the briny bivalve, creating a sensation of textural lightness. Now try the same routine with the cheese instead of the oyster. The tang of the young cheese matches the zippiness of the wine, but its palate-coating creaminess welcomes the cleansing quality of the wine. A great texture match on an entirely different level.
Writing about (or even describing) the aromas and flavours of wine is difficult enough. Trying to put into words the sublime tactile sensations they exhibit on the palate is even more daunting, probably because we are inclined to associate a texture with something we feel on our skin rather than in our mouth. However, without the sensations of fullness, lightness, smoothness, harshness, roundness or aggressiveness (to name a few), wine would be missing that all-important third dimension. The middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition … Don’t get me going.