There’s More to Tasting Wine Than, Well, Taste

Though we’re often at a loss for how to describe it, texture might be the single most important—and overlooked—aspect of a wine’s character.

There’s an interesting oversight in The Taste of Wine, the classic book by the French wine scientist Émile Peynaud. Peynaud prodigiously describes how we perceive a wine’s smells, tastes—even aftertastes—and the chemistry behind it all. But he spends barely any time discussing the texture of wine. At one point, he quotes a fellow expert who considers “consistency or texture” as “a metaphor” for the correspondence between a wine’s taste and its smell. There are other oblique references—”a softness and velvety character,” and so on. But he never really asks his readers to focus on how wine actually feels in your mouth while you drink it.

This matters because Peynaud, who brought modern winemaking to much of France, largely defined how we taste today. Taste was his masterwork, offering a lot of what are now considered canonical rules. So it seems like a weird omission—especially because texture, I’d argue, is one of wine’s most essential attributes.

To cut Peynaud some slack: He files a lot of what I’d consider texture talk under “the vocabulary of structure,” which he helpfully breaks into “volume, form and consistency.” A leaner wine might be “thin, svelte, tenuous, slight, graceful, narrow.” A bigger one might be “complete, stout, well structured,” all the way up to “heavy, dense, fat, podgy, enveloping, massive.”

You might be reading value judgments into those words, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The apex of Peynaud’s work came in the 1980s, when wine in general was thrusting toward the more-is-more era that would define it for the next quarter-century. It’s no surprise critic Robert Parker liked to cite Peynaud frequently, although Peynaud’s work supported Parker’s tastes less than Parker thought.

But you can deduce the real problem in the title of the book itself: We still talk about wine primarily in terms of taste, which is to say flavor, and our language for that is hacky. Too often it lands on comparison; a really perceptive writer might bite into a piece of beef and find “iron” or “blue cheese,” much like wine can exhibit mineral aspects that come across as “bloody,” or “coppery,” if squeamish editors insist on euphemisms. More often we wind up with vagueness or tautologies—declaring a burger “beefy,” which is like declaring a falafel “falafelly.” This is why the fruit-salading of wine—cherries and gooseberries and peaches, oh my—remains a dominant, if sad, form of discourse. (Yeah, I’m guilty, too.)

Our language for texture is even more rudimentary. The skilled among us might accomplish it in rhapsodic bursts—a dish being particularly “creamy” or “custardy” or “juicy,” to take three examples from a recent New York Times review. More often, texture denotes failure: meat is tough or stringy; pasta ends up overcooked and mushy.

Wine is in an even more basic state on that front. Food, after all, is mostly degrees of solid. But wine is usually 80 percent or more water, so how possibly can we talk about its texture? (Especially since “watery” is not a nice wine word.)

The easy answer is that our mouths are perfectly well equipped to perceive the textures of liquid; a milkshake feels different than orange juice. In fact, it should be easier to talk about a wine’s texture than its flavors because texture is more absolute and less open to interpretation than flavors and smells. And we react strongly to wine’s texture, even if we don’t think we do; the battle over rich, buttery chardonnay—love it or loathe it—was largely about texture.

So let’s try and make some progress.

A Field Guide to Texture in Wine

Compounds

The composition of that 20 percent that’s not water is largely responsible for what texture we perceive in wine. Perhaps more precisely: It’s how those various compounds interact—with us and with each other. Again, many of these things are often filed under “structure,” especially when we critique wine. In fact, most professional tasting sheets list these qualities as such—especially acid, tannin and sugar. Of course they do; Peynaud did, too. And for sure, they have a lot to do with a wine’s structure; acidity and ripe tannin are essential to durability. But they’re just important when it comes to texture.

Tannin: Tannin is one of many polyphenols found in grapes, and it’s the one we know best because its texture is familiar—not just in wine but tea, where it provides a similar astringency. A red with lots of tannin is “tannic” or “grippy,” and texture talk usually stops there, although some people talk about “coarse” or “fine” tannins. White grapes have tannins, too, which can give a white wine an aspect of grip. In fact, one of the most interesting wine tastings of my career was spent considering the impact of tannins in riesling.

Alcohol and glycerol: Although it can have a minor effect, the ethanol in wine generally has less to do with texture than it does a greater perception of sweetness in the wine’s flavors. But another key byproduct of fermentation, glycerol, boosts not only that sense of sweetness but, many winemakers believe, textural richness. This is sometimes misdescribed as glycerine, which is different—although permitted, unsettlingly, as a textural additive in wine.

Acid and sugar: Wine has several kinds of acid, which is a big factor not just in perceiving flavor but also texture. Same with a wine’s leftover sugar. Acidity can make a wine seem leaner or sharper—and the kind of acid, whether lactic or malic (more on that later), makes a difference. Sugar can round out a wine’s texture, sometimes surreptitiously, as with New Zealand sauvignon blanc, which often has significant amounts of sugar to soften its high acidity. This balance between acid and sugar is often discussed as “structure,” but its impact on texture is significant. 

Dry extract: Weirdly, one of the most essential elements of a wine’s structure is one that’s almost never discussed: dry extract. It’s a winemaking term for what’s left when you take away a wine’s water and alcohol, which signifies its relative intensity and concentration. It’s for this reason that wines made from grapes affected by botrytis, the so-called “noble rot” that removes water content in many dessert wines, or wines made from partially dried grapes, can come across as syrupy.

Techniques

While a wine’s ingredients, as it were, account for much of its texture, winemaking also can have a big impact. In fact, some of the most familiar cellar techniques were devised precisely to deal with texture—far more than flavor.

Malolactic fermentation: This is the most well-known texture technique. While it’s described as a fermentation, it’s really a conversion—one that changes wine’s tart malic acid (think green apple) into softer lactic acid (think yogurt). This “softens” the wine, and can make it less angular and more creamy—creaminess being a key textural aspect, especially in those rich chardonnays. Peynaud may not have overtly talked about texture, but he was a big fan of “malo.”

Lees aging and autolysis: Often you’ll hear about aging wine on its lees (the spent yeast cells and grape detritus), which has a lot to do with building texture in wine—namely through autolysis, a process in which enzymes release proteins and other compounds back into the wine. These create a weightier texture, sometimes creamy and sometimes not. Autolysis is also essential to the opulence of sparkling wine; Champagne in particular relies on long lees aging to build its refined texture. But we usually don’t think about that, because we’re focused on a more obvious thing: bubbles.

Trapped gas: The fineness and subtlety of bubbles, which are simply carbon dioxide trapped in wine, not only define Champagne’s texture but also its relative quality—with finer bubbles, namely those created in the bottle during the Champenoise method, considered better. But it’s not just Champagne, or sparkling wine; still wines can have a bit of trapped gas, which may not be obvious but can add freshness and even a spritzy quality.

Barrels, eggs and other aging vessels: One of the great discoveries in wine was that leaving it in wood barrels could, thanks in part to a tiny bit of oxygenation, soften and enrich a wine’s texture, so that a tannic, sharp red wine might have a more silken texture after aging. But nearly all aging vessels have some effect, depending on the porosity of their surfaces, the liquid convection within (which can stir up lees) and so on. These are complex interactions but seem to track more or less with the material: steel tanks can leave wine angular and fresh, concrete can soften it a bit—and concrete eggs even more, thanks to convection. Wood is also remarkable for softening texture, although it can add its own flavors and tannins.

How to Talk About Texture

The mechanics of texture are complex, as you see. But I still think language is our biggest barrier from making this part of our understanding of wine. Most of our texture words are barely adequate, despite efforts to fine-tune them.

The worst might be the awful “mouthfeel,” which wine people somehow allowed to become a replacement for “texture.” (This is seemingly a recent curse. Per Google Books, the word barely showed up before 1980, mostly from food scientists studying things like “Quality of Cherry Pie Fillings Made with Some Pregelatinized Starches.”)  But most wine drinkers’ textural vocabulary doesn’t get much farther—usually it stops at “smooth,” another largely formless word, the Dad jeans of wine words.

This, again, is because our wine language is even more rudimentary than our food language—and because that language is so reliant on abstractions, in the absence of actual scents or flavors. A wine that tastes like cherries doesn’t contain cherries, although it may share similar aromatic compounds. We’ve made peace with this linguistic sleight-of-hand.

So again, this is really no one’s fault. Most of us have never been guided to useful language on texture. That includes wine critics, by the way, who are responsible for imparting a lot of wine language to civilians. An astute critic might briefly acknowledge a wine’s textural side, finding one white Burgundy “taut” and another “creamy.” More often, we fall into the same word traps as everyone else. I’m thinking here of one high-profile critic’s recent descriptions of a popular California cabernet, with its “long, smooth finish” and “smooth texture.” (The closest he got was finding the wine “temptingly rich.”) In fact, whatever else you think of Parker’s description of the legendary 1947 Cheval Blanc, give him credit for highlighting that the wine “exhibits such a thick texture it could double as motor oil.”

Our best hopes for untangling this might lie afield. An obvious example is the well-explored Japanese concept of umami. While it’s still called—perhaps not quite accurately—a “fifth taste,” umami really points to the presence of glutamates, which contribute that savory sense of fullness or richness in food’s texture. In wine’s, too; wine contains glutamic acid and can display rich, almost meaty umami-like traits, especially after lees aging. A few years ago, a Japanese sommelier at the San Francisco restaurant Pabu had the ingenious idea of an “umami wine” section—largely orange wines and those aged under a yeast veil (another path to autolysis). It was the first time I could remember a wine list highlighting texture as a selling point—a breakthrough toward better understanding.

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