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harvey steiman at large

Texture Rules

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 23, 2006 3:03pm ET

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?)

Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  October 23, 2006 11:11pm ET
Was it the 'fruit flavours' in the Schrader 2003?. I have to agree with your observations about texture. After all, what we should seek most in a wine is balance. Mouthfeel is perhaps the most memorable characteristic of a great wine. Flavours tend to be innumerable and much harder to remember. It is only rarely that we find chocolate (usually in the finest Brunellos), but that apart, texture is the main thing. Too many expert descriptions omit the key elements of balance and sensuality. Is that what RP means when he writes about the intellectual qualities of fine wine?
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 24, 2006 2:29pm ET
(Is it 'fine minerality'?) At the Penfolds tasting last week my 1st thought, the most notable difference between the '02 St.Henri & it's '96 counterpart was the '96 silky, satiny texture. Both were delicious and, sure, there were some aromatic differences but at a somewhat social, loud luncheon setting the texture is what made me stop and take note. (perhaps as it should be w/aging). I was pleasantly surprised by the '01 Grange's (a rare treat for me) texture and approachability too. I was expecting a huge intense monster. Instead it was a well-balanced full Shiraz w/ a very long finish. I remember the '98 as a much more intense wine. Very different yrs?? One last thing, due to my approaching night shift, I had to leave the luncheon and pass on partaking of the rest of the 3 full btls of open 2001 Grange at my tbl =)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 24, 2006 3:29pm ET
Apj got it. The flavor reference is "minerality," admittedly an oblique reference, but the only specific flavor mentioned.

I have been having a bit of trouble warming up to the 2001 Grange. I recognize its subtlety, but I fear it goes a bit too far in that direction, sacrificing its expressiveness. We shall see how it develops over time. For 2001, I prefer RWT from Penfolds.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 25, 2006 12:42pm ET
re: 01 Grange. I was wondering that very thing. I've only had the 98 & 01 Grange. While delicious & velvety, was the 01 too soft for a Grange? Would it be what a Grange aficionado expects? We tasted the 03 RWT at the luncheon and it was a bigger slightly bolder wine. The Grange did have a nice long finish!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 25, 2006 1:58pm ET
I'm not dinging the '01 Grange. It's a solid example of the style, but I don't find it as harmonious and expressive as most previous vintages. I rated it 93 points but Grange usually busts through the 95-point barrier.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  October 25, 2006 2:47pm ET
For me, texture is as important as anything else. I view a wine as superb rather than very good, largely due to its texture, assuming it has decent flavors. And in writing up my own notes, texture and body (or lack thereof) are often the first things I mention. In reviews, I value the texture descriptions as much as anything else.

In contrast, I don't care about the nose nearly as much as others.
Leslie Doss
Asheville, NC USA —  October 27, 2006 5:34am ET
Harvey,You know and maybe very few people in the industry do, what 10 rules(don't like top tens), maybe what 7 or 8 rules are there in new clean modern wine making that really count in making great wines. Wines like Taurino that have been made the same way for years at a great price seem to stand out as terroir driven wines that still come off clean and pleasing, but not everyone's cup of tea. Why can't new world wines have both. Why can't old world wines have the crafted texture of a polished wine. Why is minerality a punishable offense in the new world. Why do all great wines bridge the difference between both worlds. I think most wine drinkers can't live with pluralism in their own minds. Why is everything new and old world. Why can't they be both. The greatest wines in the world seem to stradle this grey area. Texture is great, but what seems to be the common thread between great wineries. Can you tell me a few simple truths that you have come across that make sense.Ltdvin
Scott Hilderbrand
Casper, WY —  November 19, 2006 11:30pm ET
Harvey, Screw caps. As I drink a Whisker's Blake Tawny Port, I ask myself the question "Is there a better value in the world other than Rosemount's Old Benson?". Please, if you know of any, let me know. I am in heaven and would like to keep it that way.Scott H. Wyoming
Scott Hilderbrand
Casper, WY —  November 22, 2006 7:04pm ET
Texture is the most important thing to me, as I can't tell the difference really between types of berry fruit. Had a Shea Estate Pinot a few weeks ago and the first thing that hit me was great texture. I thought that it was easily as good as W.H. Smith Hellenthal which rated 95 or 96, and texture was the most memorable aspect of that wine also. When I looked up the Shea, 95 pts. This is obviously why I enjoy New World more than Old in general.
Scott Hilderbrand
Casper, WY —  November 28, 2006 11:03pm ET
Harvey,Can a wine get "thicker" with air? I'm drinking Rest En Vrede blend, 2000 from South Africa, and I swear that the texture is better now after an hour of air. Maybe my mouth is just numb!

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