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Drinking Out Loud

Why Words Matter

The words you use shape how you taste

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 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.

Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  September 2, 2014 2:00pm ET
D’Accord! Your explanation of “texture” and “mouthfeel” is something that I have struggled to articulate but you have done it beautifully. For me too, the most important point in appreciating a wine is when it crosses the mid-palate. Here wines that are particularly lean, lack palate weight and a roundness to the fruit reveal themselves. “Flavor” is indeed secondary, if the wine flunks this initial evaluation.

For this reason and others (price, age time, disappointment factor, etc.), when it comes to white Burgs, Mersault, Chassagne-Montrachet, St. Romain , St. Veran and even the occasional Macon seem to deliver on enjoyment most reliably.
Ken Chapman
Avondale, Pa.,USA —  September 2, 2014 9:28pm ET
Dear Matt,

Spot on Sir, Thank you for filing in the blanks !
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  September 2, 2014 9:36pm ET
Excellent observations Matt. Nothing like debunking overly expensive and underachieving Burgundies. Proving the point that Burgundy is indeed a minefield best left to the uber-rich (who cares about them?) or very discriminating (the rest of us). As a serious Burgundy lover I have had disappointments and thrills of a completely unpredictable nature.
How does one navigate this minefield?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  September 3, 2014 12:10pm ET
Mr. Matouk: You write: "As a serious Burgundy lover I have had disappointments and thrills of a completely unpredictable nature. How does one navigate this minefield?"

Navigating the minefield of buying Burgundy has never been easy. And it's certainly not for the faint of heart or the weak of wallet. That said, there are a few tricks that tilt the odds in your favor.

The fact is that we now have today more Burgundy producers issuing wines of greater quality and authenticity than ever before in Burgundy's long history. This is easily enough explained by two facts.

One is the sheer number of grower-produced Burgundies. Most grands crus are today estate-bottled by growers and very likely a majority of Burgundy's premiers crus are now issued by growers as well. While this is no guarantee of quality it does allow dedicated Burgundy buyers the opportunity of getting closer to the source of goodness than ever before.

Second, is the modern Burgundian desire to create wines of authenticity and seriousness. Witness the transformation in grape-growing practices, epitomized by the increasing preference for biodynamic and, more widespread yet, deferential organic practices. Collectively, the Burgundians really do want to grow and create the "real thing".

On a more practical note, to answer your question of "How does one navigate this minefield?", I would suggest concentrating on certain less-expensive villages where vines tend to be older and which have strong cadres of serious-minded producers. Foremost among these, for both red and white wines, are Auxey-Duresses and Saint-Aubin. More expensive is Volnay, but even there you can find deals at village-level Volnay from its best producers.

Generally, the Côte de Beaune offers much greater opportunities for reliably good wines at lower prices than the Côte de Nuits. The reason is that old standby "supply and demand". The Côte de Nuits holds the most famous (and greatest) red wine vineyards in such communes as Gevrey-Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny and Vosne-Romanée. A rising (price) tide lifts all boats. The Côte de Beaune has no such tidal force, for its red wines anyway.

Also, look to lesser known villages such as Santenay and Pernand-Vergelesses (for both red and white), as well as Chorey-lès-Beaune and Savigny-lès-Beaune for reds.

Not least, don't overlook modest designations such as Côte de Nuits-Villages from highly regarded producers and "mere" Bourgogne from top producers in great vintages. With a bit of bottle age such wines can be remarkable. (I had a 1997 Bourgogne rouge from Domaine Mugneret-Gibourg last week that I sure was glad wasn't served to me blind. It was stunning.)
Roman Oslanec
Prague, Czech Republic —  September 3, 2014 4:18pm ET
Matt, Thank you for sharing your description of texture and "mouthfeel". It must be the strong passion for wine that your articles spark always when I read them. I was thinking especially about your last comment on "How does one navigate this minefield?" and I can support that opinion for sure..many Côte de Beaune deliver astonishing taste at great values. It really makes sense to try them and explore..
When I was in the middle of the article I simply went to my cellar and pulled out 1985 Côte de Beaune village Burgundy and at this moment it is hard to believe how smooth and fresh it still tastes. And as you pointed it did not cost as much as Le Montrachet or Batard, etc.. Just as you said, it is about the texture but the (more reasonable)price will always work as a multiplier of the potential happiness (or at least the smile you have after first sip).
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  September 4, 2014 10:22am ET
I think you are spot on.
I had the experience of trying the 1989 Haut Brion and the 2002 Drouhin Montrachet Laguiche when they were very young and not developed. The Montrachet took 20 minutes in the glass to even reveal a nose. A group was tasting a number of fine White Burgundies, but the group moved on to the next wine too quickly. I went back to the wine after 20 minutes and the texture and extraordinary length finally came through. The Haut Brion when tasted in the late 1990s only showed a purity of texture that was seamless and complete - not a single part out of place. Great wine reveal their quality in the balance of their texture long before the aromas show their complexity.

I have had the opportunity to taste with Clive Coates and I have noticed that most of his descriptors are around the texture and mouthfeel. Based upon my amateur experience before I started working in the trade, I realized that I could sense quality in the texture long before I could get it in the flavors and aromas.

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