If you hang around wine drinkers long enough, you’re undoubtedly going to hear a lexicon unique unto the wine world. Is the wine ‘linear’? Does it have ‘bite’? What about the finish? Short or long? One particular concept that helps drinkers judge wine quality is ‘mouthfeel’.
Understanding Wine Mouthfeel
A good starting point to understanding wine mouthfeel is to think about the senses we use when enjoying a nice glass of wine.
You use your eyes to evaluate the color of the wine - whether brick red or water white. Your nose helps you to evaluate the wine’s aromas - from pear drop to black pepper, or maybe even pink bubblegum. Then you take a sip, and your taste buds pick up the sweet or sour notes and perhaps a slight bitterness from the alcohol. But the experience of enjoying a nice glass of wine doesn’t end with these three senses.
Separate from the other senses above, mouthfeel is tactile. Feel the weight of the wine across your palate. Often referred to as "body", mouthfeel encompasses the overall texture of the wine.
Adding Mouthfeel to Wine
Every wine drinker experiences mouthfeel. A fresh and fruity white wine will have a light mouthfeel, while a dessert-style wine, perhaps a Port, will be full and heavy.
Five main components make up how a wine feels in your mouth:
A wine can have any one or a combination of these elements, adding mouthfeel to your wine.
Obviously, wine has alcohol in it, or more specifically, ethanol. High-alcohol wines feel weightier in our mouths. Try a Zinfandel that clocks in at 16%+ total alcohol by volume (ABV) next to a more moderate 12% ABV Merlot, and you can absolutely feel the difference between the two as you sip them.
What about Glycerol? What’s that?
Not to worry, glycerol is natural!
Glycerol, a byproduct of the fermentation process, imparts no aroma or flavor to the wine. Some yeast strains naturally produce higher levels of glycerol while they’re doing their thing, and winemakers may select these yeasts to deliberately enhance mouthfeel in your glass. Most pharmacies carry glycerol and a fun field trip activity is to find a bottle at your local drugstore and check out this incredibly viscous liquid. It’s easy to see why glycerol would increase mouthfeel!
Another way to increase wine mouthfeel is to have sugar in your wine.
How does sugar get into your wine?
We call wines with no perceptible sweetness ‘dry’. Wines with a little sugar in them are off-dry, and wines with significant levels of sugar are sweet. In the U.S., there are two legal ways to make off-dry and sweet wines.
We know wine is made by adding yeast to grape juice. The yeast eat up the juice’s sugar, converting it into alcohol. During this process, sugar levels drop, alcohol levels rise, and the wine becomes dry. The first way to make a sweet wine is to interrupt the process to retain some of the grape juice, and therefore some of the natural sugar. Winemakers do this by stopping fermentation early. They chill the wine down and filter out all of the yeast, leaving small amounts of grape juice behind. Off-dry and sweet Rieslings are made this way.
The second method of getting sugar into your wine involves going through a full fermentation process and making a dry wine. The winery then adds a little bit of the original grape juice, called reserve, or grape juice concentrate, back into the wine to make it sweet. This is a common practice with red wines, where the winemaker adds just enough juice to enhance mouthfeel, but not necessarily enough to make the wine noticeably sweet.
What about Protein?
Some wines go through a special extended aging process, called autolysis (awh-TALL-lo-sis). During this process, the dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation are kept in contact with a new wine. These yeast cells slowly begin to break down releasing protein molecules that get absorbed into the wine. These proteins impart a silky smooth texture, adding body. Chardonnay and Champagne are two well-known wines that frequently undergo autolysis.
Tannin and Wine Texture
Tannins occur naturally in all wines and come from the grape seeds, or pips, stems, and skins. Tannin is the astringent, drying component of wine that can coat your mouth. Not all wines have perceptible tannin levels. Winemakers try to limit tannin in white wines. Who wants a chewy Sauvignon Blanc?
Certain red grape varieties are known for high levels of tannin, for example Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo. Tannins can be smooth, blanketing all of the nerve endings in your mouth in a pleasant velvet. Tannins can also be rough, causing excessive dryness and making you pucker. If you experience a full-bodied red that leaves you with a dry mouthfeel, tannins are responsible.
Ready to experiment with mouthfeel?
A fun way to experiment is to do side-by-side tastings with different wine styles.
Take the EX Wines 2018 Chardonnay, which has clean, bright fruit including guava, banana, and green apple and boasts of a full mouthfeel and compare it to a the Spring Street 2019 Chenin Blanc, with fresh minerality, ripe grapefruit, melon, guava, apricot notes, along with a lighter mouthfeel. Sip each one, alternating. Let the liquid play over your tongue and feel the weight of the wine.
With a little meditative practice, you’ll soon be able to pick up on the nuances of wine mouthfeel and learn how different wines express themselves in your glass and across your palate. You can even try this out with your next Wine Club shipment!
Author Bio: Erin O’Reilly is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators and a long-time lover of all things fermented grape. She pens her work from Monterey wine country where she raises a glass to the growers and producers crafting wines that transcend time.