Tasting Vitality: The Basic Features of Wine in Motion

wine in motionI’m working on developing a tasting model that elevates a wine’s rhythm and motion on the palate, giving them equal billing with aromas. The justification for developing such a model is that a wine’s perceived movement on the palate is not only one determinant of wine quality but is central to a wine’s personality. Distinctive wines have a distinctive manner in which their tactile qualities unfold. Yet, our way of describing these features is not nearly as well developed as our description of flavor and aroma notes.

In an earlier post I explained how a wine’s structure is central to how it unfolds. In this post I begin to describe the basic form and sequence of that unfolding.

When we taste a wine, we experience it as moving through stages on the palate. The initial impression is of fruitiness and weight, although wines from cooler regions may exhibit earth and herbal flavors that are nearly as dominant as the perceptions of “fruitiness”. We then begin to sense the tactile impressions caused by acidity which often lightens the perceived weight of the wine and adds some tartness to the fruit and a sharp bite to the mouthfeel. Meanwhile we begin to sense the dryness and graininess of the tannins. [This is true of white wines as well but to a lesser degree] The point at which we perceive fruit and associated flavors, acidity, and tannins beginning to influence each other marks the midpalate, which can be broken into further segments if necessary–the front of the midpalate or back of the midpalate—in order to describe the wine’s movement. At midpalate, the wine seems to be expanding, gaining both a physical sensation of depth and breadth and a sense of increasing sharpness. (The sharpness may be muted in wines that lack acidity) After swallowing, the fruitiness and perceptions of weight gradually recede, the perception of dryness from the tannins and sharpness from the acidity become more prominent and then fade.

These transformations on the palate are for the most part universal and should seem quite familiar. All properly made red and white wines exhibit some version of this basic pattern. (Sparkling wine and fortified wines have additional features which I am ignoring for now)

Aside from specific aromas and flavors, what distinguishes one wine from another? Wines differ regarding how prominent or recessive these structural components are, how that relative prominence shifts as we taste the wine, how quickly these changes occur, and what the range of these changes are. (By “range” I mean the how widely divergent from a set point the effect is. For instance, does the sharpness from the acidity show continuity as the wine unfolds or does it increase or decrease?)

While these changes are occurring, each component is influencing the other components, changing their character and relative prominence. For instance, as we perceive more prominent acidity, that will affect the quality and relative prominence of the fruit compared to other components. As the wine evolves in the mouth these components expand and contract, jostling for our attention, their relative degrees of prominence fluctuating with differing degrees of duration and acceleration. One important question to answer is whether these changes influence wine quality and how do they do so.

At this point, I need to introduce some of the technical vocabulary that will help us understand this dimension of wine tasting. We can summarize the above by pointing to general features of any process—the perceived movement of the structural components of wine exhibit velocity, acceleration, duration, and force. For wine tasting, in particular, we must add the frequency, amplitude, and continuity of variations as a central feature of movement on the palate. By “frequency” I mean how often they occur. By “amplitude”, I mean how large the effect is. By “continuity” I mean how persistent the effect is between stages. These general features of processes influence the perceived changes the wine undergoes. We experience a wine as expanding or contracting. We sense changes in the relative intensity of the various structural components. Wines seem to change their shape, from round to angular for instance, as the tasting experience unfolds. Wines exhibit tension, release, direction, resolution and finesse because of these general features of processes.

Thus, as analytic tasters we might ask the following sorts of questions: As the acidity becomes more prominent at midpalate, what happens to the fruit and how is it interacting with the aromas and flavors? What is that activity doing to our attentional focus? What is gaining in intensity and what is diminishing as the perceived acidity increases or the tannins emerge? What is happening to the velocity of these changes? How do these affect our overall impression of the wine?

In the next post in this series, I will discuss how to measure and express these dimensions of a wine.


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