I’ve been focused recently on creating a tasting model that puts greater emphasis on a wine’s perceived motion on the palate as an important element in wine quality. (See this post for an explanation and links to earlier posts in this series.)
The features of a wine’s movement on the palate that I have emphasized thus far are abstract although necessary to provide a foundation to what follows. They include velocity, acceleration, duration, and force—general features of all movement and processes.
It is now time to focus on the perceived qualities of the wine produced by these general features of processes. I’m going to begin by discussing mouthfeel because the way the wine feels in the mouth—primarily tactile sensations—gives us access to the wine’s structural elements—Sweetness, fruit power, tannins, acidity, and alcohol. Such access is not wholly a matter of tactile sensations. Acidity sometimes tastes sour, alcohol can leave an impression of sweetness, tannins can taste bitter. Nevertheless, it’s through mouthfeel that we get the most information about a wine’s structure.
If we are to understand the perceived changes a wine undergoes on the palate, we first need an account of what is changing. Thus, I begin with a static description of wine structure and balance. These dimensions will be expressed as continua because all of these features admit of degrees. Each wine will occupy a position on each continuum.
The tasting model then follows a logical progression. After the basic structural components of wine and their range of expression are described and the concept of balance clarified, we move onto the basic mouthfeel characteristics resulting from the interplay of these structural components. The focus here will be on various dimensions of what we call a wine’s “body”. For experienced wine tasters this will be familiar and unsurprising.
Finally, we put the structure of wine in motion describing how the mouthfeel of a wine unfolds in time and detailing the various kinds of expressions of which wine is capable when we look at its movement on the palate. This latter section will be conceptually innovative.
This discussion of wine in motion will include reference to vitality forms, a topic I covered in two Three Quarks Daily columns last year. (Vitality forms and music; and vitality forms and wine) Each continuum that describes the range of a wine’s motion will be associated with vitality forms that express a position on that continuum. Vitality forms, as understood in psychology, are the psychological experience of how something moves, from which we gain a sense of something being alive. They are the “flow pattern” of experience. Vitality forms are implicated in emotions, and patterns of vitality forms are in part constitutive of the expression of personality traits.
Because wine is experienced as moving across the palate, wine also exhibits vitality forms and each distinctive wine will have a distinctive flow pattern. Thus, the flow pattern of wine across the palate exhibits similarities to other things that move. The problem is how to describe this flow pattern in a way that captures the individuality of a wine. The richest vocabulary we have for expressing the individuality of distinctive flow patterns is the realm of emotion, mood, and personality. Thus, I argue that the best way of capturing the individuality of wines is by utilizing metaphors based on the domain of mood, emotion, and personality. I will conclude this section of the motion of wine by explaining how wines can be viewed as expressing emotion and possessing personality.
Much of that will be laid out in future posts. In this post which is already too long, I stick to the basic elements of structure.
Basic Components of Structure
The texture and mouthfeel of a wine depend on its structure which consists of five basic components—sweetness, fruit power, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. Analytic wine tasting separates out these components and assesses their contribution to the overall structure of the wine. These are expressed as continua.
Fruit power includes the perception of aromatic/flavor intensity as well as the persistence, force and dominance of fruit in the structure of the wine accessed via its mouthfeel.
The influence of acidity can be assessed only after considering the wine’s movement on the palate. But as an initial assessment, the amount and quality of acidity can be judged via this continuum. “Green” refers to acidity from fruit picked prior to developing sufficient ripeness and will taste hard and harsh. Wines with low acidity will not only appear dull but will also lack vibrancy and will taste dull.
Bone dry….dry….off dry….medium sweet….sweet
This dimension is about how the wine is perceived, not how much measurable sugar there is in the wine. Perceived sweetness is often influenced by acidity. High acid wines will taste less sweet than a low acid wine with the same amount of residual sugar. Sweetness can also be confused with fruit power. Dry wines with great fruit power often leave an impression of sweetness.
Grain size: Powdery….fine grain… medium grain…coarse
Alcohol does not have a linear relationship with qualitative properties. In dry wines, higher alcohol can contribute to perceptions of increased sweetness, weight, roundness, softness and viscosity. But low alcohol wines with residual sugar might also taste heavy and viscous. The perception of alcohol will depend on its relative prominence compared to other components of the wine’s structure. Alcohol has a multitude of functions that can’t be captured on a continuum. However because alcohol produces a tactile sensation akin to burning, high alcohol or unbalanced wines tend to taste “hot”. Since this will mask other flavors and aromas and detract from the enjoyment of a wine, this is considered a fault. Thus, in tasting notes alcohol gets a mention only when the wine is unbalanced. Much of the influence of alcohol will be covered as a component of other features of the wine such as body.
“Balance” refers to the relative prominence of the various structural elements.
Balance is an essential but controversial concept. Most wine experts agree that balance is crucial to wine quality and what counts as balance depends on the varietal and style of a wine. For instance, a balanced Cabernet Sauvignon will have firmer tannins than a balanced Pinot Noir. The penetrating, astringent attack of acidity in a Chablis would be out of place in a Gewurztraminer. But there are several definitions of balance. Karen McNeil, author of The Wine Bible, defines a balanced wine as “A wine that incorporates all of its main components – tannins, acid and alcohol – in a manner where no single component stands out.” This is perhaps the most common definition although most would include fruit power/sugar in the list of components that must be in balance. “Balance” in this sense is a minimal standard. Many quite ordinary wines will seem balanced in that no structural component will stand out as excessive or lacking.
The great wine scientist and educator Emile Peynaud, in his classic, The Taste of Wine adds a crucial dimension to balance. “A wine is said to be harmonious when its elements form a pleasing and well proportioned whole. In a good wine, everything should be harmonious; quality is always linked to a subtle play of balances between tastes and smells.” Peynaud’s suggestion is that it is not sufficient that the structural components achieve equilibrium. Rather they must enhance each other. Acidity makes the fruit taste vibrant. Tannins and alcohol give the wine depth and prevent the acidity from tasting sour, and fruit power acts as the focal point seeming to reign in the other components. I will return to this concept of balance and harmony below when a wine’s rhythm will come into play.
In the next post in this series I will look at how the interplay of these structural components produces a wine’s mouthfeel.