"I like to roll a wine around in my mouth, tease it into the corners of my palate,” says Doug Wregg, wine rogue and principal agitator (i.e. director of sales and marketing) for London based wine importer/distributor, Les Caves de Pyrene. “Invariably, I drink wine with food, so the wine needs to have enough texture to at least dance with the flavours on the plate.”
Texture. Wine’s fourth dimension – after colour, aroma, and flavour. That delicious tension, that fluid, fabric-like touch; the tactile sensation on the tongue, its energy or its lethargy. Ever present, though often forgotten or otherwise ignored, texture is the sensation of wine in the mouth as it swells across your tongue and washes down your throat. Perhaps in a more prosaic word, mouthfeel.
“I use the word textural a lot to refer to wines that fan flavours out to all parts of the mouth,” continues Wregg. “Texture implies a multi-layered wine; one built on good fruit, mindful winemaking, maybe some lees contact, a harmonic maturation, and so forth. Texture brings the wine together, making it complete,” he says.
Generally speaking, most non-professional wine tasters will focus almost entirely on the inherently obvious elements of colour, aroma and flavour, which makes sense. These are, typically, a wine’s most discernible and remarkable qualities. Texture is like the breath or a heartbeat. It is the detail that runs in the background. Crucial to a wine’s overall enjoyment, certainly noticeable when it’s not there, even if you can’t articulate why.
“I like to think about how the bubbles of a sparkling wine feel in my mouth,” remarks ex-sommelier turned Adelaide Hills winemaker, James Erskine of Jauma Wines. “Are they compact or are they really fizzy? Other terms I use are squelchy or chewy for wines with a tannin structure that feels like there’s a lot of liquid to move around in my mouth.”
Many of the words and terms that professional tasters use to describe a wine may sound rather fanciful.
“We so often speak about flavours in wine, but texture is equally important and perhaps much more difficult to describe,” remarks Emma Farrelly, director of wine for Perth’s State Buildings. “Some words may seem silly, yet I find myself using terms like crunchy, slippery, silky and chalky all the time.”
Unlike describing the textural differences between, say, a piece of glass and a piece of wood, the idea of texture in a liquid like wine can be difficult to convey. Words like silky, slippery, creamy, grippy, supple, unctuous, rich, crisp, coarse, sappy, squelchy, fleshy, fizzy, chewy, crunchy, hard, soft, rough and smooth each offer an insight into whatever textures may or may not be present in a glass of wine. It’s a sensitive issue.
“Texture adds a sensual surprise to the wine tasting experience. It’s what sets apart a great wine from an ordinary wine,” says Chief Winemaker Andrew Spinaze of Tyrrell’s Wines. “When tasting, I look for words that relate to the grain or grip of a wine, words like graphite, slate, mineral, chalky, soapy, lanolin, and wet stone... I think a wine’s texture has as much to do with the vineyard as it does with the winemaking.”
Tyrrell’s Johnno’s Vineyard is planted to a strip of fine alluvial sandy soil that runs parallel to a nearby creek. Both semillon and shiraz grape varieties were planted here, over 100 years ago, in 1908. Johnno’s Semillon is often a graceful citrus and lemongrass affair, bright and crunchy, like green apples, but juicy too, like verdant limes.
Meanwhile, Johnno’s Shiraz is just as fresh. Beguilingly aromatic dark red and black fruits coalesce within the wine’s soft, supple and silky texture, transposing typical Australian shiraz from big and gutsy to rather delicate and elegant (more like pinot than shiraz). It is the distinctive leitmotif of a graceful texture that connects these wines. “Great wines have texture,” continues Spinaze. “I believe texture reveals how much a winemaker has respected the vineyard’s identity.”
Rod Kempe of Lake’s Folly agrees, and adds that winemaking techniques used in the processing stage almost certainly contribute to a wine’s textural expression.
“I don’t know exactly what it is about the site that gives the Folly Cabernets its style, but when you look at wines that have been made off a single site, that is a wine’s truest form. You find a purity of expression that goes beyond the variety,” says Kempe. “The clay and limestone combination we have here on the hill, I think, ultimately expresses more of a Hunter style than anything else, especially when the bottles have a bit of age on them. They lose that varietal definition and just become a great old Hunter red with all those savoury flavours and that graceful, medium-bodied texture, which is unique to those wines,” Kempe continues.
“Certainly, the production side of things in the winery, like warmer fermentation temperatures to increase glycerol production, time on lees and lees stirring, are techniques winemakers can use to enhance the textural expressions coming from the vineyard,” Kempe says.
Winemakers have used lees to enhance the flavour and texture of their wines since the very beginning. Gross lees are bigger chunks of sediment in the grape must, typically consisting of grape skins, seeds, stalks, and stems. Fine lees are smaller, made up of the dead yeast cells leftover from a finished fermentation. Fine lees often account for the rich, creamy textures of many fuller-bodied white wines, such as chardonnay. Champagne and many other sparkling wines made méthode traditionnelle are great examples of wines that showcase the effect ageing on lees has for texture; think rich and creamy.
However, it’s not just lees that can impart texture on wine. Other contributions are made by a combination of tannin, alcohol and sugars. Even time in oak prior to bottling, and, of course, the time in bottle itself can have an effect on the textural expression of wine.
Tannin, especially in red and some amber wines, is a major contributor to a wine’s texture. Tannins provide astringency, which may be detected as either rough, chalky, abrasive and drying (think young reds, particularly those made from cabernet sauvigon and shiraz), or soft and supple (consider gamay, pinot, sometimes grenache, and often aged reds). Tannins, when they seem as though they suck all the moisture from your mouth, can provide a sense of pleasant textural roundness and depth to a wine.
By contrast, sweet-tasting glycerols, alcohol and any residual sugar often generate a mouthfeel and viscosity that acts as a textural counterpoint to tannin. Likewise, acidity provides a sensation of freshness, giving the wine a juicy, zingy, vibrant and sometimes rather fanciful crunchy quality (for example, young Hunter semillon, most riesling, and Marlborough sauvignon blanc).
Ageing a wine over time in either oak, bottle, or both can have a significant influence on a wine’s overall textural expression. New oak barrels will impart aroma and flavour qualities onto a wine, while older or neutral oak barrels are used to contribute a rounder mouthfeel. Stainless steel can often retain a wine’s racy energy, amplifying the natural acidity, while concrete can soften a wine’s texture and may even accentuate the mystery of minerality inherent in some wines.
When a wine is left to age in bottle its texture will inevitably change. Phenolic compounds deteriorate over time in a process known as polymerisation. This not only changes a wine’s colour – where white wines get darker, and red wines become lighter – it also makes the wine become less astringent, thus affecting texture. This is one reason why red wines become smoother with age.
It must be noted, however, that given the complexity of compounds found in wine, in particular, how they continually interact with one another over time, it is difficult – even for an expert taster – to determine precisely the exact origin of a specific wine’s textural sensations. Indeed, texture must be experienced in complete concert with all the other elements that constitute a wine.
“I began making wine for myself because I was really looking for the textural elements in wine that allow for flavour compounds to lock in longer in the mouth,” Erskine explains. “I also wanted a more interesting food and wine marriage and better gustatory experience overall.”
Texture is an easy concept to grasp when it comes to food, but as we have seen, where wine is concerned, things can get tricky. For State Buildings sommelier Emma Farrelly, a wine’s texture is an important factor in deciding how to match the right wine with the right dish.
“Texture is what gives wine intrigue and a sense of complexity. It’s what ties everything together and keeps you coming back for another bite or another sip. Texture ensures that food and wine sit well together and create a harmonious experience on the palate,” Farrelly says.
“For example, the grippy tannins of a youthful nebbiolo are the perfect match for steak tartare, which is rich but also chewy in its profile. Food that has plenty of spice and chilli,” continues Farrelly, “is well suited to a wine with some richness, sweetness and weight, as it helps to coat the palate and act as a respite from the heat and intensity of the dish.”
Undoubtedly, texture is a crucial contributor to a wine’s impression on the palate and, more importantly, on the mind. Texture is what makes a wine feel alive.
Six Textured Wines to Try
NV Stefano Lubiana Brut Reserve, Tasmania, A$39
Riddled for two years on fine lees, encasing sensations of melon and toast, and where classically creamy textures meld with fine effervescent lines of freshness and fizz.
2017 Vanguardist CVR, Clare Valley, A$40
Fermented in an egg, then two months on skins; no fining or filtration. Kinetic energy, like a substation. Poised like a boxing glove on a patient hand; power, tension, restraint. Grippy, limes and golden apple skin.
2016 Yangarra Roux Beauté Roussanne, McLaren Vale, A$72
The brilliance of texturally mindful winemaking writ-large. Soft, slippery plushness thanks to extended maceration and gentle hands on plunging for nearly 200 days, post-ferment, providing structure for white florals, lime rind, stone and other summer fruits to play within its sheer yet supple form.
2018 Jauma Tikka the Cosmic Cat, McLaren Vale, A$32
Longtime pals of the Vale, shiraz and grenache combine offering light and bright, slippery red fruits and dark sappy funk. Left alone, on skins for a long, long time, until driza-bone, when tannins become supple and fine. Juicy with a bit of spritz for fun.
2015 Lethbridge il regalo di compleanno Nebbiolo, Geelong, A$50
A lengthy pre-ferment maceration to relax the tannins, followed by a three to four-year élevage in foudre. Bottled unfined/unfiltered to elevate the grape’s inherent elegance. Potent, berry red, heady spiced cherries, violets and rose petal florals. Tar. A thread of sapid tannins rolls over crushed herbs. Puckering, chalky and dry.
2017 Churton Petit Manseng, Marlborough, NZ$49/500ml
A sticky finish. Raised on the vine until ripe, then raisined by botrytis rot until right. Sweet flesh and acidity meet in textural accord. Pineapple and peaches dripping with honey and lemon-yellow florals. Rich, slippery and round, elegantly framed by dynamic citrus. Visit churtonwines.co.nz