Tasting by Shape and Feel

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-05-2015

While attending a New Zealand wine seminar last year, I tweeted:

Nick describes his Rippon 2009 Pinot, “It has layered, linear feel & phenolic drive forward.” #nzwine Tasting by ‘shape & energy’ is #hard.

Nick Mills, owner & winemaker at Rippon in New Zealand, was discussing how he likes to think about his wines beyond descriptions of flavors, but rather consider the shape, feel, and energy of the wine. Throughout the rest of the tasting, I made a concerted effort to observe and think about the texture and energy of the wines I tried. I struggled. Finding the vocabulary to express the “life” of a wine in that specific way really is hard.

Like many curious drinkers, I first learned to taste by attempting to copy the flavor and aroma profiles detailed in the oft obscure language of wine reviews and publications. E.g., “Toast and brown sugar notes frame crisp black cherry and plum flavors…” is a description used to review one of Rippon’s wines in the Wine Enthusiast.

I then moved on to the more structured, deductive language of WSET tasting notes – dry with medium acidity, medium tannin, light body, and flavor characteristics of [insert WSET approved floral/fruits, spice/vegetable, and oak/other notes here].

These methods are both useful in that they provide a familiar and somewhat common language for people to use when describing wine. They also require a degree of mindfulness, which Laura Mowrey recently notes, is a beautiful and valuable thing when tasting wine.

Another important way of tasting and remembering wine is, of course, through experience. For example, when I smell a Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, I’m brought back to my sister visiting me at my first apartment in New York. Or as David heard a participant express in a seminar, wines can be likened to people or art…or to characters, music, or places. This way of talking about wine adds a memorable and personal dimension to what we taste.

However, Nick’s concept of tasting by the actual shape or energy of a wine was something foreign to me, especially when I tried to do it while removing all the other ways I’d previously learned to taste wine. And upon further thought & conversation with Nick, I realized this exercise was silly anyway. It’s about the whole, and about expanding the way we taste, vs. one prescriptive formula. So, let’s get a little geeky and expand. See my interview with Nick below the fold.

You mentioned that “shape and feel” are what you care about in wine. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Let’s start with the base of wine – fruit. I think fruit principally has two functions.

The first is to attract. This is the color, the flesh, the sugar and therefore the alcohol. These are the flavors, the color, and the high-end aromatic compounds that allow a wine to stimulate our olfactory senses. These visuals, smells, and flavors are very important to a wine. Just as with fruit, wine needs to be attractive, delicious, seductive…its success rests upon something, or someone wanting to take it into their body.

The second, and possibly more imperative function of fruit is to reproduce. This is the seed, where the plant deposits genetic information about the nature of its place so that its offspring can be successful in that same environment. This is issued as phenolic matter in wine. One cannot taste or smell a seed; it is expressed, broadly speaking, as texture. We know this from the classical models: the difference between a Vosne-Romanée and Nuits-St-Georges is not expressed, for example, as plums or cherries. It’s shape, feel, form – immutable textural markers – that define their particular sense of place.

What shortcomings do you see with wine notes as they are currently written with fruits, aromas, and flavors described?

I find it very hard to talk about terroir in terms of fruits & flowers. These may tell you a lot about what makes a wine delightful, seductive or attractive (for example), but less about its place.

Aromatic compounds (which also inform taste) are relatively volatile, making smells and flavors more mobile. They change quickly in the bottle and in the glass. Even in the mouth. You have to describe it differently every time you look at it. They are also far more subjective, so that if one person says citrus and another says tropical (for example) usually both can agree to be right.

Phenolic compounds on the other hand are long, relatively robust chains that take time to break down. These become immutable textural markers, which can be seen across different varieties and over long periods of time. I think we can also agree far better on a texture.

Feel a surface. Is it rough, smooth, hard, soft, elastic, dense, voluminous…? Chances are you and your friend will be able to agree on this.

Qualifying wines according only to their smells and flavours suggests to growers that that’s all that is required. Variety and site incompatibility, frost engines, irrigation, soluble synthetic fertilizers, enzymes, selected aromatic yeast strains, energy use in heating/cooling of fermenters, excess sulphur, or the fining of juice and finished wine…all these are part of accepted viti/vini-cultural practices in the pursuit of wines that smell and taste of something acceptable to the market. What this has encouraged has been the production of wines that are closer to perfume than a food product.

To ripen (and extract noble dry matter from) a seed at the same time takes a lot more time, diligence and experience.

Alcohols, esters, ketones, and aldehydes smell delicious, but I don’t think at high volumes they’re that good for you. Wines with more tonicity (it takes heat, oxygen, time, and metabolites to extract and polymerize tannins) surely are closer to something the human body actually wants.

The logical continuation of the discussion is, of course, not only how it feels as it goes across your palate and down your throat, but how it makes you feel once its inside you. And further again, once it’s in your blood and part of your body.

Finally, in the context of this conversation, what other winemakers do you admire?

Mike & Claudia Weersing from Pyramid Valley in Waipara; Jo Mills from Rippon [Nick's wife]; Maurice & Jacky Barthelmé (and of course their wives, Marie-Claire and Marie-Therese) from Domaine Albert Mann; and Claude & Lydia Bourguignon – Burgundian soil scientists. I’m sure I’ll meet plenty more – I just haven’t travelled enough yet!

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for sharing this perspective. It is an interesting way to think about experiencing the wine.

  2. Excellent idea to interview Nick Mills. He represents integrity and originality in wine making. And he is dead-on right about the silliness of using batches of specific flavor descriptors for a wine. Texture, overall mouth feel, are the keys….