Velvety, bright, flabby: Stop to consider how wine feels

Michael Austin
Chicago Tribune

Road builders and skin care professionals probably spend a fair amount of time thinking about how they can bring some smoothness to whatever it is they’re working on, but the concept probably doesn’t cross the mind of many winemakers. Yet a lot of beginning wine drinkers automatically go to the word “smooth” to describe wines.

Wine can have a range of textures, portrayed here. From left, tannins (as in tea), effervescence (as in sparkling water) and acidity (as in lemons). (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

This default descriptor indicates a certain easiness about wine. If you ask a novice to explain what they mean by “smooth,” you might hear about the wine’s lack of bite or sharpness. You might hear that the wine is not too sweet or too thick, or that it just plain tastes good. Any of those attributes could equal “smooth” in someone’s mind.

Declaring a wine “smooth” probably has something to do with how the wine feels in the mouth. Anecdotally, it seems that before wine drinkers are comfortable talking about how particular wines smell or taste, they are comfortable talking about how wines feel.

The same goes for food. How often do you hear people talking about a satisfying crunch, chewiness or creaminess? Or a dissatisfying toughness or dryness?

When wine drinkers go past texture, though, and learn how to identify and talk about heady aromas and flavors, the way a wine feels sometimes gets ignored. Maybe it’s because those folks are excited about their new sensory abilities. If you were getting good at playing lead guitar solos, you might not want to go back to strumming chords in the rhythm section. But the rhythm section holds everything together.

For any of you who are ensconced in the smelling and tasting stage, and may have moved on from texture, think about circling back and devoting more attention to it. You could learn something about a wine by the way it feels in your mouth.

Acidity, tannin, alcohol and sugar work together (or against one another) in various ways to create a wine’s “mouthfeel,” or texture. When the formula works, you can feel it — just think about the evocative words we use to describe wine, including silky, velvety, unctuous, soft, creamy and crisp. When it’s off, a wine’s texture can be a drawback and reason enough to turn you away from a particular bottle.

Tannins are among the easiest elements to identify. They are responsible for that mouth-drying feeling you get from some wines, especially reds. To explain the feel of tannins, the example that is used most often (for good reason) is tea. You know how if your tea leaves steep in hot water for too long the tea ends up feeling kind of fuzzy in your mouth? That feeling derives from tannins, and you can get that same feeling in a sip of wine.

A wine could feel overly tannic if you were drinking it on its own and just right as an accompaniment to a grilled hunk of meat — the fat from the meat plays well with the structural quality of tannins.

Along with tannin, higher alcohol content makes for a fuller-bodied wine and can give wine a softness. The common comparison is skim milk versus whole, full-fat milk — higher alcohol content can contribute to what people identify as “smooth,” whereas a lower alcohol wine can be described as thin.

Acidity sounds harsh and cutting, but without a good dose of acidity, many of our favorite wines would not be as delightful as they are. Without the lift of acidity, the vast majority of sweet wines would be cloying to the point of unpalatable, even to a sweet tooth. Though acidity can be a challenge to pick out on its own, its effects are often very clear. Acidity makes your mouth water: Take a sip of wine, and swish it around your mouth. After swallowing, let your mouth hang open and notice how much you salivate. You’ve just detected a wine’s acidity. Acidity can make wines seem crisp or refreshing. It also has the ability to sort of scrub your palate clean after every sip, which is especially important when you’re pairing with food. Wines that lack enough acidity feel “blah” in the mouth, commonly described as “flabby.”

Let’s not forget about bubbles — yet another potentially delightful mouthfeel experience. The sparkling wines of the world can feel like frothy cream in your mouth or like the finale of a tiny fireworks show. Bubbles can also feel like a gentle spring rain. Bubbles are hard to miss, but try not to let any of the other tactile sensations slip past you, either.

Someone with a trained ear can listen to a piece of music and isolate specific instruments. Paying attention to a wine’s texture is kind of like listening to the drums and bass. We can all feel that beat, but sometimes we take it for granted, forgetting how essential it is to the listening experience and the overall success of the music.

Is the wine you are tasting closer to a thin silk scarf or a thick wool sweater? It might be “smooth,” but it can be a number of other things too. Don’t overthink it — just think about it. Considering your wine’s mouthfeel might be as enjoyable to you as identifying various smells and tastes. And when paying close attention to texture becomes a habit, start isolating specific instruments and listening only to them. You will appreciate music in a whole new way.