Why Words Matter

The words you use shape how you taste
Sep 2, 2014

Recently I was a guest at a tasting of 11 different Montrachets. Added to that abundance were four more "suburban" Montrachets (as the host referred to them), the hyphenated neighbors Chevalier, Bâtard, Criots and Bienvenues.

Vintages ranged from 1990 to 2011 and included growers such as Domaines Leflaive, Lafon, Ramonet, Guy Amiot and Fontaine-Gagnard, along with négociants such as Louis Jadot and Bouchard Père, and growers with a side business buying others' wines, such as Étienne Sauzet and Frédéric Magnien.

What you get out of tastings such as this depends mightily—I'm tempted to say almost entirely—not on the palate you bring to the tasting, but on the words you use to focus on the wines. This is even more true when you're tasting wines that are renowned. Allow me to explain.

You would think, given the reputation of Montrachet, never mind its price ($500 a bottle or more), that merely sampling these wines would rock your world. It won't. Burgundy insiders have known for decades that Montrachet only rarely lives up to its centuries-old billing as the greatest of all white Burgundies. The reasons are many, including excessive yields, young vines, problems with leaf-roll virus, lesser-quality winemaking, picking too early and several other possible causes.

Montrachet at its best can indeed be an awe-inspiring experience. But it's rare. You have to win a trifecta of the right producer, in the right vintage, with the right amount of bottle age (10-plus years) in a cold cellar. If my experience is anything to go by, those are long odds. (You have a much better chance of winning with Chevalier-Montrachet and even Bâtard-Montrachet, by the way.)

So what, then, was the takeaway from an extravagant tasting such as this? Here's where words matter.

Were the wines bad? Heavens no. Most of them were at least fine and a few were very fine indeed. You'd be a fool to sit there only to debunk them simply because they don't live up to the glories of your imagination. Few such wines ever do. Fantasy beats reality every time, no matter how good the reality. Ask any sex therapist.

But there are lessons to be learned if certain words are applied. One of them is texture. Most tasters when they assess wine, especially white wines, focus on flavor. This is understandable, of course. But it's a mistake. Odd as it sounds, you won't find all that much flavor in a young Montrachet. It's locked tight in the depths of the wine, not to be on display until years after the vintage. (Grand cru Chablis is the same.)

To expect much flavor in young wines such as Montrachet is to inadvertently give too much credit to cosmetic enhancements such as heavy-toast oak and lees-stirring, both of which lie at the surface of the wine, as it were. The French accurately refer to such treatments as maquillage, or "makeup," and that's exactly right. And as we all know, a little of that can be a real enhancement; a lot of it is, well, you know.

This is why the word you should employ in a tasting such as this is texture. Although barrel fermentation helps create a thicker mouthfeel in white wines, its universal use in Burgundy effectively creates a level playing field when comparing wines. Every Montrachet is barrel-fermented, as are nearly all other high-level white Burgundies.

A word about words: The term "mouthfeel" is what I personally use to identify a textural effect that I, rightly or wrongly, assign as coming from a particular winemaking technique, such as barrel fermentation. Barrel fermenting white wines, especially varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, makes them seem fuller, richer and rounder.

Is that "texture"? Sure it is. But because it's a textural element that is easily identified and traced to a particular winemaking technique, I tend to identify that feature as "mouthfeel," which I, for one, see as a narrow term.

In comparison, "texture" is a broader term that, again for me, captures a sense of fruit density, as well as the nature of the tannins in a red wine. As is well-known, tannins are frequently described as being ripe or green; coarse or fine-grained; gritty or silky. Obviously, the nature and quality of tannins will dramatically affect "texture," as will acidity.

In white wines, the ratio of juice to skins can dramatically affect texture. Small berries with thick skins create very different wines. For example, the juice in white wines made from such tiny berries has a lot more pectin, which affects the texture of the resulting wine.

Bottom line: I use the term "texture" to encompass the complete tactile experience of a wine. And I use the narrower term "mouthfeel" when identifying the result of a particular winemaking technique.

When you focus on texture you're going to look past flavor, sidestep youthful reticence and try to get a sense of potential depth. Texture helps tell us about midpalate density, which is that hard core of solid fruit that is sandwiched between the initial taste of the wine as it first hits your palate and the aftertaste or finish as it leaves your palate after being swallowed.

Midpalate density is the giveaway to potential depth over the long term. You can feel it as well as taste it, which is especially so in young wines hiding their flavor light under a bushel.

Texture helps tell the tale of a young wine's future or a mature wine's lost opportunity. (Tasting a mature Montrachet that isn't all it might have been recalls the poignancy of pianist Oscar Levant's rueful observation, “It isn’t what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.”)

So how were those Montrachets, you ask? Texture tells. Most of them were thin. Most lacked midpalate density, young or older. The more mature examples had plenty of flavor and were rewarding on that basis. But texture revealed that real dimensionality was missing in all but a few cases.

How can you know this? It helps to taste wines, Burgundy and otherwise, that do deliver the kind of textural luxuriance that comes from midpalate density. The best California Chardonnays offer such lessons. Look to "texture masters” such as Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Chardonnay or Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay, to name but two. What do they have? Actually it's easy to pinpoint: old vines offering low yields with tiny berries.

Does Burgundy have it? Sure it does. But you have to look carefully—and not necessarily in the likes of Montrachet. Check out Louis Jadot's Puligny-Montrachet Clos de la Garenne Domaine Duc de Magenta. The texture is superb, a benchmark. The vines are 80 years old. Need I tell you about the yield or the berry size? I didn't think so.

Much more expensive are the white Burgundies of Domaine Leroy and Domaine d'Auvenay, both the life's work of Lalou Bize-Leroy. At every level in the Burgundy appellation hierarchy, these wines deliver the textural goods.

The other night I opened a bottle of 2006 Domaine Leroy Aligoté. Now, here is the lowest level of white wine in Burgundy, mere Aligoté. I mean, it's not even Chardonnay. Too often, Aligoté is a mean little thing. Yet the texture of this wine was almost incomprehensibly dense. It is a revelation.

So the next time you sip a single Chardonnay or work through a flight of white wines, try concentrating less on flavor and more on texture. You might be amazed at what you see in the wine—and what you don’t.

France Burgundy Côte de Beaune White Wines Chardonnay Opinion

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