Mouthfeel In Motion: Defining a Wine’s Rhythm

Gawel-Red-Wine_MFIf there is a single, standard, canonical aide to wine education, it is probably the aroma wheel, originally developed by UC Davis Professor Anne Nobel in 1984. It’s safe to say that anyone who has taken classes from one of the major wine education organizations spent some time studying it.

Unfortunately, many fewer people have spent time studying the mouthfeel wheel, despite the fact that mouthfeel and texture are at least equal to if not more important than aromas in determining whether we will enjoy a wine or not.

There have been several attempts to develop a mouthfeel wheel. The red wine wheel developed by Oberholster and Gawel (pictured above) and the white wine wheel developed by Pickering (pictured below) are both quite useful and deserve more careful study than they are typically given.

Despite their utility in providing a vocabulary and references that enable us to talk about mouthfeel, they do have a drawback. They are static and give the impression that a wine has one texture. In fact, most tasting notes make the same assumption—often texture is mentioned only when referring to tannins or a wine’s finish. But this is a misleading assumption. Any wine will have several textures experienced as the wine evolves on the palate.

I find it useful to divide a wine’s development into five stages: Introduction, front of the midpalate, back of the midpalate, finish (i.e. what happens after swallowing), and terminus (the final impression that the wine leaves as it fades.) Each stage can exhibit a different texture and sometimes multiple textures. The stages are “zones of intensity” because they exhibit the relative prominence of various structural components of a wine all of which affects the wine’s texture and mouthfeel. Wines can move toward greater or lesser intensity at each stage as the relative prominence of textural features of the wine fluctuate during its evolution.

These dynamic changes in mouthfeel have a pace and duration and so I refer to them as a wine’s rhythm. Features of the wine that undergo change have varying rates of change. Some happen quickly, others more slowly. Some components persist, while others emerge or disappear. These changes give character to the wine, and quality wines tend to have more force points at which changes occur, which is a dimension of complexity.

We typical experience a rich, round texture at introduction but as the acidity becomes more prominent the texture may harden. or the fruit power may be sufficient to give the wine suppleness even as the acidity bites. If the wine’s tannins are assertive, the wine may feel like it’s expanding or more lightweight acidic wines may feel explosive, executing a rapid increase in sharpness and cut. As the finish launches the texture changes again. Fruit power fades quickly in some wines leaving acidity and phenolics to battle for the upper hand. Or the fruit power lingers moderating the impact of the other components, once again changing the perceived texture of the wine. All of this happens before the finish, which itself may undergo several textural changes.

The point at which various mouthfeel dimensions of the wine become perceivable is important to the overall character of the wine. How clipped is the introductory fruit impression? Does it linger giving the wine the impression of weight and opulence or does the first impression shift rapidly giving the wine a sense of vitality. And when do tannins or acidity assert themselves? How is the emergence of acidity or tannins influenced by fruit power? When does the fruit fade? Does the wine feel as if it is expanding or contracting? When do these changes occur, and what is their frequency and envelope? These factors help define the temporal contour of the wine and they are all accessible via mouthfeel and the textural changes the wine undergoes as we taste it.

Thus, mouthfeel is not a simple quality but a dynamically changing amalgam of several textures. How that rhythm unfolds determines the character of a wine. Some wine descriptors indicate some of this dynamic character—elegance, finesse, liveliness, and tension are picking up on dimensions of a wine’s evolution. But I think in general we don’t pay enough attention to the dynamics of mouthfeel and its effect on quality.

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One comment

  1. I absolutely agree with you, Dwight! Perception of flavor is so personal, but I think we can often agree how a wine ‘feels’ as opposed to how it tastes. When tasting lots or individual barrels for a potential blend, I start a mental time-intensity graph with x, y, and z axes (often with colors and line characteristics in my head), with ‘x’ noting intensity, ‘y’ time, and the ‘z’ axis charting the widening or narrowing of the palate. For each of our bottlings, we have somewhat defined characteristics that can be generalized and ‘dimensionally mapped’ in this way and completely separate from flavor, which can vary in tone and intensity depending on vintage. Mind you, there is nothing scientific about this, and it’s way more pleasurable than I just described. For me, it’s just a tool to help me log and remember how each potential piece might fit into a blend. If a final potential blend is missing or excessive in a particular dimension, we can often go directly to the missing (or offending) piece and make the adjustment before we begin the assemblage.

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