Winemakers’ Favorite Word
When you read a wine review that talks about hints of, say, Jonagold apple and Fairhaven peach – as opposed to plain old apple and plain old peach – do you sometimes roll your eyes? It’s understandable. Most people aren’t inclined to decipher and describe wine flavors with such seeming precision. And perhaps more importantly, one taster’s Jonagold could be another taster’s Braeburn, and how do you like them apples?
But there is one element of wine description that gets at something more fundamental and understandable than the fruit bowl of flavors and aromas we often see in reviews. It’s the element that winemakers probably focus on most: texture – aka, “mouthfeel.”
Mouthfeel is a funny word that first appeared in the late 1930s and for a long time was used mostly to describe food. But along the way, wine people began to adopt it, and if you ever get a chance to do some tasting with a winemaker, it won’t take long before you hear a reference to mouthfeel.
The great Australian wine writer James Halliday calls mouthfeel “a tasting term encompassing all the textural components of wine, most obviously alcohol, acid and tannins, but also extending to the interaction of those components with varietal flavor.”
In other words, mouthfeel is how all these various elements actually feel in your mouth. You can see why the term has gained currency.
Some people find it vexing to describe the mouthfeel of a wine, but it’s actually pretty easy. Simple, everyday words will do. At one of the spectrum, a wine might be “flabby” – ripe with fruit but so soft and lacking in zing that it feels like grape juice in your mouth. Give that wine a little more acid or tannin, and it might graduate to the more pleasing “fleshy” or pleasingly round.
At the other end of the spectrum, a wine can be excessively acidic or tannic, leaving it “austere” or “astringent.” Temper those qualities a bit and the wine might be called “racy,” with a lighter, mouthwatering quality.
The variety, region and vintage can all go a long way in determining a wine’s mouthfeel, but winemakers try hard to work within those dictates to bring some measure of balance to the wine.