Whether you prefer Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, you may notice that each sip conveys more than just aromas and flavors. Wines also have what industry pros call mouthfeel.
Rafa García Febles, beverage director for an upcoming project with the Marcus Samuelsson Group, believes the term may sound silly or, worse, “gatekeep-y” to consumers outside the wine industry. But he also maintains that it’s a useful way “to describe something real.”
Whether white, red, rosé or beyond, wines create different sensation experiences in the mouth. These reflect the synergy of a wine’s components including acidity, tannins, alcohol, CO2, glycerol and residual sugar. Taken individually, they define a wine’s structure. Together, they produce mouthfeel.
“Too much acid can increase the roughness of tannins and the heat from the alcohol,” says Tina Mitchell, winemaker for Palmaz Vineyards. “Too little acid can cause the tannins to feel flat. If a wine has enough glycerol, it can balance out the mouthfeel by masking some of the roughness from the tannins and heat from the alcohol.”
But defining mouthfeel in practice can be a challenge.
“Taste gets most of the attention—we’re simply not taught the language of mouthfeel,” says Amy Waller, sommelier and group sales manager at France 44 Wine and Spirits in Minneapolis. “It is a concept that we experience with beverages each day but rarely put into words. I mean, how often do we think about the mouthfeel of our morning orange juice—extra pulp please—oat milk matcha latte, or sparkling water.”
When tasting wine, ask yourself how its texture feels in your mouth. Is it sharp, lush, lean or soft? Round, prickly, cooling, hot, sandy, coarse or drying?
Febles recommends experimenting with Chenin Blanc. A versatile white wine, Chenin maintains its inherent mouthfeel characteristics or, as he puts it, “a certain identifiable Chenin-ness.” Even across a range of styles, a throughline of bright acidity and a ghost of sweetness should be present.
For a red grape, Waller suggests Nebbiolo.
“A wine’s mouthfeel is created by its varietal and structural components and winemaking processes,” she says. “Nebbiolo, for example, famously exhibits varietal characteristics with amplified tannins and, in turn, an amplified mouthfeel with drying, coarse astringency.”
Penny Nichols, sommelier at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, who has a degree in viticulture and enology from Washington State University, often shepherds clients through unfamiliar wines, including identifying preferences in mouthfeel.
“I’ve found that a few ‘trigger words’ help,” she says. “Many people may not know the difference between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon until you ask them if they prefer something light or heavy on the palate.”