It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Understanding a wine's texture.

My wife recently asked my opinion on a colorful, acrylic painting that she was working on.  I am always available to critically evaluate someone else’s creative efforts—irrespective of the medium—particularly when I have zero training or expertise in it.  And so, I delivered my pontification.  “The orange pumpkin looks a little flat and one dimensional.  It needs more depth and texture.”  She resisted slightly, invoking technical issues which I did not understand, but eventually she relented and accepted my assessment and modified it to its current excellent state.

Even though they routinely slide past our consciousness unobserved, textures are a vital, recurring part of our lives. We are all aware of the multi-dimensional textures in music, art and architecture whereby multiple components are interwoven to achieve a cohesive and very pleasing result. Textiles are a veritable gold mine of textural examples with their varieties of fibers and weaving options that yield fabrics that are smooth or rough, silky or coarse and firm or delicate, to name just a few. 

Also, notwithstanding their daunting challenge, I must admit that even the 144 MacKenzie-esque bunkers on the California Golf Club course deliver a very artistically textured, visual appeal.  However, for a more relevant analogy, let’s go to the world of food, where wine often assumes center stage.

Textures in food preparation are detected via our tongues, teeth, lips and palate, and depending on one’s predisposition to certain types, they can either pleasing or off-putting.  Consider the creamy bliss of gelato, the crunchy enjoyment of granola, the chewy pleasure of a French baguette or the delicate, umami delight of a mushroom laden risotto.

Those textural qualities, however, are not universally appealing.  Our son-in-law would routinely push the mushrooms to the side and proceed with what remains. I have several friends who avoid bean soup because of its soft, mushy texture, while I, on the other hand love it, and often make a flavorful, soul-satisfying, cannellini bean soup.  And while many of you might enjoy Ceviche, its texture is one that I find particularly unappealing. 

Daniel Patterson, Chef and owner of Coi, a well known, Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, asserts that “after seasoning, texture is the most important element of our cooking.”  He identifies it as the “delivery system for flavor.”  And inasmuch as wine is food item, at least for most wine enthusiasts, I would propose that texture—how that wine “feels” in your mouth and impacts your palate—is similarly quite important.  It is really of little importance if the wine’s appearance and aroma attract your interest, if it soon vanishes because the mouth feel is abrasive, bitter, tart or otherwise distasteful.

The elements or components that define food texture are rather clear cut.  But how about wine?  What determines or defines the fabric of a wine’s texture—how it feels in your mouth?  If you’re thinking structure (alcohol, acidity, tannins and residual sugar), you’re right on.  Add to that, oak seasoning, a stirring of the lees and numerous other style modifiers that can be found in the winemaker’s tool box, and it is with those elements that he/she “weaves” the fabric that more fully defines and characterizes the color, aroma and flavor basics.

 It is here that a wine becomes a mouth-coating, buttery Chardonnay; a rich, ripe, fruity Zinfandel; a juicy and succulent Fume Blanc; a smooth and supple Merlot; an elegant and velvety Pinot Noir; or a muscular Cabernet.  A wine’s character and qualities are revealed by the fabric of its texture, and being sensitive to and mindful of that can add an extra dimension to one’s wine enjoyment as well.

Lastly, I should also mention that a wine’s age (young or mature) will also reveal a very special texture.  At a recent visit to Kermit Lynch’s Berkeley, CA retail outlet with my good friend Tom Engler, I purchased a nine year old Grand Cru Beaujolais (Côte-de-Brouilly from Nicole Chanrion) that was touted in Kermit’s recent mailer.  2005 was not an exceptional Beaujolais vintage like 2009 was, and I was ambivalent about the wine’s prospects (and its $40 price tag from a producer that I did not know).  But with Kermit’s assurance and the young man’s persistence, I acquiesced and purchased one bottle (with the expectation that if I liked it, I would return and buy a few more).  

Two weeks later, after it rested comfortably in my temp-controlled wine vault, I put it to the taste test with Tom and our wives.  While in its youth it may have been an in-your-face, fruit bomb, maturity—with its inexorable pace—brought forth a more reserved, finely textured Grand Cru.  

 In this instance, Chanrion’s Côte-de-Brouilly was as Kermit claimed, “. . .  elegant and delicate with a complex bouquet of spices and forest floor.” I can debate the latter, but agree with the former.  The wine exhibited an aromatic, suave and savory quality that elicited scrutiny and thoughtful discussion from the four of us.  Quite revealingly, the bottle was empty in fewer than twenty minutes, with Tom and me doing most of the “heavy lifting.”  Alas, I came up empty handed in my efforts to purchase more bottles (to share with other friends), for the wine had sold out quickly.   


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