At last weekend's California Wine Experience, in our presentation of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon and California, Bruce Sanderson, James Laube and I focused extensively on texture. To my mind, that's a big part of Pinot's appeal. When the wine's structure makes you think of silk instead of sandpaper, that's when Pinot can deliver all its charms.
So I was surprised when Matt Kramer, in his presentation that followed ours, alluded pointedly to wine writers who ignore texture to reel off aroma and flavor descriptors. To be sure, Kramer's context was that wine critics do a disservice to readers when we play "I spy ..." and reel off lists of fruits and other characteristics if we don't also focus on how the wine feels in the mouth. It just didn't come out that way. In an e-mail, he explained himself. From Matt's e-mail:
"I was really thinking about how many tasting notes today ... don't emphasize texture as much as we do flavor descriptors. And I was most definitely trying to include myself in this as much as anyone else.
"I had no intention of finding fault with anybody, except perhaps all of us who spend time writing descriptions of wines and emphasizing one set of values—or descriptors—over another.
"It's a good blog topic, don't you think? And feel free to include any or all of the above, if you like."
The purpose of any tasting note is to preserve in words a wine's ineffable appeal (or lack of same). I do that by describing a wine's structural elements, such as tannins, alcohol, acidity and sweetness, preferably in nontechnical terms, and something about the aromas and flavors that distinguishes it from other wines. The higher the score, the more detailed my notes.
Because structural elements define the texture, that's why my tasting notes often include words such as polished, velvety, silky, gritty, chewy, sharp, smooth, round, refined or coarse, either at the very beginning or very end of the text.
After Matt's comment, I became particularly aware of texture in all the wines we tasted through the Wine Experience weekend. I noted, for example, that polished texture set the 2005 Top Ten wines apart from most of the rest of those we tasted. The No. 1 wine, Phelps Insignia 2002, struck that perfect balance that so few Cabernet-based wines can find. It had a tannic grip, but its tannins did not swarm all over your mouth. Its texture let its other characteristics emerge unfettered.
Significantly, none of the Top Ten wines attacked my palate. They all had textures that you want to embrace, not push away. The same could not be said of some of the other lineups. I had a great deal of trouble warming up to several of the young California Cabernets in Laube's survey of some of Napa's best. My favorite in the bunch, the Schrader 2003, got me with its supple texture, which let the panoply of gorgeous fruit flavors explode in my mouth. In Thomas Matthews' survey of modern Spanish wines, I liked the crisp texture and fine minerality in Álvaro Palacios' wines, but several of the others chewed at my inner cheeks with raspy tannins.
In those wines, I could admire the flavors but I wondered whether they would survive cellaring long enough for the tannins to soften or drop out. Long experience has taught us all that it doesn't always happen the way we expect.
One wine did provide a glimmer of hope. In Robert Drouhin's tasting of Beaune Clos des Mouches, the oldest vintage was 1976. I remember the '76 vintage as being one of those tough, tannic animals. I have tasted many '76 Burgundies over the years, few of which had lost their bite. But this one, miraculously, had. It was velvet in the mouth. We can only hope that all the toughies we tasted will do the same.
(Only one flavor descriptor was used in this blog item. Can you find it?)