In a previous post I described the motivation behind a revised wine tasting model that elevates a wine’s rhythm and motion on the palate, giving them equal billing with aromas.
In this current post I give a rough summary of what I mean by “rhythm”.
A tasting regime that focuses on movement and rhythm must begin with structure. Structure refers to the interplay of the basic foundational components of a wine. It is that interplay that sets the wine in motion and gives us the perception of movement. “Structure” refers to four primary components of a wine: fruit power including residual sugar when present, acidity, tannins, and alcohol.
These structural components create the body of the wine. However, the interplay between these components does not occur all at once. We sense this interplay as unfolding in time. The relationships between acidity, tannins, fruit power, and alcohol shift as the wine unfolds. How they do so contributes to the personality that each wine has. Most tasting notes include reference to a cumulative, quantitative assessment of structural elements—a wine might be described as “full bodied”, with high acidity and firm tannins. Textural descriptors such as “soft”, “textured”, or “angular” are also typical. But these descriptions do not tell us much about how the wine will be experienced unless we view them as part of an unfolding process. The quality and personality of a wine depend on how these components come together in relationships of mutual support or antagonism. It is this interplay and the intensities we experience from it that I refer to as rhythm.
It’s important to point out that, although we taste a wine as a whole, each structural component is contributing a distinct quality to the wine and they form a series of contrasts or polarities. Fruit power gives the wine weight and roundness. Alcohol can contribute to the softness of the texture. Acidity contributes sharpness, angularity, and can make the wine feel hard while also causing the mouth to water. Tannins contribute roughness and astringency. These are sharply contrasting tactile sensations that must become integrated and work together if the wine is to be pleasing. However, that integration does not happen all at once. Most reasonably complex wines have moments of tension where the components seem to resist each other and moments of relaxation in which harmony ensues. The key point is that as we track this dynamic movement on the palate the wine is setting up polarities. The relative prominence of the fruit, acidity or tannins, exhibit high points and low points with the acid straining to be noticed against the swelling graininess of the tannins, or the fruit power trying to hold on to its prominence as the other components emerge.
Wines differ in how much tension is exhibited through this dynamic movement. In some wines the contrast between the sweetness of the fruit or the softness of the alcohol seems in tension with searing acidity or the grain of the tannins. In other wines, the struggle for attention between structural components is reserved and full of finesse. But in any case, in a wine of high quality the various elements are constraining each other, working together at key moments to reign each other in, each providing an anchor that the others play off of. As we taste a wine, the wine is at work resolving these tensions. How it accomplishes that resolution is an important dimension of wine quality.
Tasting vitality is about mapping these polarities and then experiencing their resolution.
In a future post I will introduce some categories to help grasp this motion on the palate.