I enjoy reading The New Yorker's Alex Ross on music. His words describe sounds so that I can hear them in my mind's ear: "It begins with rapid, swirling patterns, like snow in high wind," for example, or "a cascading theme that has an open-air, Alpine quality," or "The sound is somehow tall: ideas unwind in every register."
He knows that the reader cannot hear what he writes about; he's got to find the words to make it live. In our way, I and others who write about wine must do the same. When we describe a wine to you, we want to tell you how this wine might tingle your senses of sight, smell, taste and touch — with none of the wine before you.
In 40 years of writing and teaching about wine, I've tried everything to describe wines to readers and students — descriptions of aromas and flavors, metaphors, analogies and personifications — and, yes, I openly admit, much fanciful language.
I've come to realize, in the end, that the experience of a wine, more than inundating the senses of sight, smell and taste is, above all, a tactile sensation. A good wine touches us.
I'm going to unpack a couple words that I believe are crucial in describing and understanding this tactile sensation of wine. Furthermore, these words are handmaidens to grasping, in many ways, why certain wines accompany food so well.
Michael Twelftree, the proprietor of Australia's Two Hands Winery, says that a well-made wine enjoys this interplay among its constituent elements of fruit, acidity and tannin: "The fruit is like the train car, and I think of the acid as the train tracks; they give it structure. The tannins are the brakes."
Acidity is crucial to a good wine (in my opinion, it is the most important element). It arrives in wine via the fruit acids of its grapes and is sometimes retained or modulated by skillful winemaking. It is the same thing as the "crispness" of a good apple or the zing we add with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Sometimes it "frames" a taste of a wine, in a sense holding it together, as if the fruit and other elements, such as tannin or alcohol, were wrapped in it, like string around a package. It isn't inside the wine; rather it clips the taste closed or cleanses the palate like a squeegee.
Sometimes the acidity hovers above the texture of the wine, like a zip line over the lushness of fruit below (literally "below"; as it glides through the mouth, a sip or taste of wine moves over the tongue, topped with what could by analogy be called a squeeze of lemon juice).
You notice these tactile sensations especially in the absence of, or when there is very little, acidity in a wine, when the wine is flabby or, after a sip of it, its flavors dissipate on the tongue with no definition, no spine, no tang, no frame.
All of that is primarily why wine's acidity is most necessary to felicitous pairing with food. It modulates food's own acidity or saltiness or fat; it cleanses the palate of food and readies it for more. I'd go so far as to say that, without acidity, any wine fails at table.
Tannins come from the skins, stems and pips of grapes, and sometimes from the wood in which a wine is fermented or aged. (As such, they are more prevalent in red wines than in whites.) They are that astringent, puckering or drying sensation that accompany a sip of wine.
You'll have the same experience after chewing a toothpick for too long, for instance, or swallowing oversteeped tea because tannins cause those sensations too.
Like acidity, tannins can cleanse or refresh, but they also always add texture (what wine folk call "mouth feel") and constitute much of the "finish" of a wine, or how a wine closes off a taste of itself.
They, and the fruit that brings them into a wine, also are largely that lingering, sometimes haunting or perfumed aftertaste of a wine, the way a truly delicious wine never, or very slowly, does "finish."
Above all, tannins are tactile; they give a wine "chew," offset fat or oil in food, perk up and ready the palate for another sip or bite.
Taken together, and when piled onto or into fruit flavors and aromas, these tactile sensations give wine movement on the palate — beginnings, middles, endings.
A wine might have a good "attack," or an initial strong impression of flavor; then, in the middle of a sip or taste, weight on the tongue, or a rich texture or body; then, after the swallow, an aftertaste or afterglow. These experiences are distinct and separated in time so that the wine has a kind of dynamism.
Very exciting, don't you think, for a mere sip of wine?
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.