Burlap, velvet, silk. The mention of these fabrics stirs a visceral reaction. You can imagine the rough, plush and slippery-soft textiles between your fingers. But what does texture mean in wine?
When a professional calls a wine silky or textural, they refer to its mouthfeel. There are several reasons texture in wine matters. For those who assess quality or seek to determine a wine’s identity in a blind tasting, texture offers clues as to how it was made, the conditions of the harvest and even the grape(s) used to make it. Texture also gives a wine dimension and complexity, so winemakers create different sensations through various techniques.
For a long time, texture was primarily the domain of reds, due to tannins. They derive from polyphenols released from a grape’s skins, seeds and stems, plus the oak used in the barrel that aged the wine. Red grape varieties have different levels and quality of tannin, which depend on the thickness of the skin, harvest conditions (rainy, dry, hot or cold) and ripeness at picking. Tannin informs the astringency and structure of the wine. Examples are silky Pinot Noir, plush Merlot and firm Cabernet Sauvignon.
Often ignored is the role that acidity plays in texture, especially in whites. Formal tasting programs, like those from Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) or the Institute of Masters of Wine, use acid shape as a marker for different grapes. Sauvignon Blanc’s acid feels sharp and jagged, while Chardonnay’s feels round.
Wine regions now experience warmer temperatures during growing seasons, which diminishes acidity in grapes. Picking early helps retain freshness, but building texture is another tool to customize a wine’s character.
Winemakers can use tannins, maceration times and solids leftover from crush, like grape skins, stems and seeds, to build volume and mouthfeel. These techniques move away from the cleaner styles enabled by stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation and aggressive filtration.
Skin-contact wines, also called orange wines, are white wines fermented and aged on the skins. This allows a winemaker to play with tannin texture, as well as color and flavor. The same can be said of using clay amphorae and oak vessels to age wine. The choice of whether to fine, or filter out solids, can also create a huge impact on a red wine’s texture.
Other examples include whether to allow wine to remain on its yeast, or lees, during aging, which builds body and richness. Yeast consume sugars in the grapes to create alcohol, then die or go dormant after food resources are exhausted. Those residual particles create a creamy, rounded mouthfeel when stirred into the wine.