If you have every read a wine review, it is likely that you have come across a descriptor like “big” or “silky”mouthfeel. What does this even mean?!
If you break down the word into its parts, mouthfeel refers to how a wine feels in your mouth, an actual, tactile sensation. It can be a smooth or rough or watery or something else. Imagine how a piece of silk feels between your fingers. It is a soft and pleasing feeling that makes you want to continue caressing it. Now imagine how it would feel in your mouth (minus the saliva-sucking aspect). That is a silky mouthfeel, my dear.
Here are some other words used to describe mouthfeel:
gripping, rough– astringency that clings to your mouth, even after you swallow it
soft, velvety, creamy, smooth– the tannins are well integrated and lead to a soft feeling; may also be used to describe a dessert wine’s mouth-coating qualities
flabby– not enough acid backbone
effervescent– bubbles dancing on your tongue
chewy– Chewbacca fur in your mouth! Just kidding! Another way to say “gripping” or “rough.”
When you drink a glass of wine, you want there to be a party in your mouth. The mouthfeel is like the theme for your party. It gives it structure and direction. A theme-less party could look like harem girls serving pickled herring off of banana leaves. It won’t make sense!
A wine without mouthfeel is also confusing. It feels out of sync and disjointed in your mouth. There may be strawberry taste and then a bit of vanilla and then smoke and more fruit and then it disappears for a moment and then darts back to vanilla. Confusing, right? But, a wine with structure will take your mouth by the hand (tongue?) and lead it through a taste journey. All of the flavors are carefully orchestrated to create a harmonious sipping experience that leads through to the conclusion.
Mouthfeel is so important to wine enjoyment that winemaking techniques focus on extracting just the right amount of structural components from the grapes. These components come from the skins, seeds, grape acids and, later, ageing methods.
In white and rose wines, only the juice is extracted from the grapes, leaving the skins and seeds behind. The mouthfeel comes mainly from the grape acids. Red wines are fermented with the skins and seeds to extract the tannins (astringent-feeling) that lead to mouthfeel. Oaking and ageing the wine on the fermentation yeast will contribute to mouthfeel, too.
How does this translate into English? Imagine a cold drink on a hot day. White wine is similar to lemonade, with most of the mouthfeel coming from acid, while red wine is closer to iced tea, with a slightly drying feeling from the tea. An over-steeped tea could be a “big” or “chewy” tea, while a lemonade with too little lemon juice would be “flabby.”
Next time you try a wine, notice the tactile sensations in your mouth and you will be noticing the mouthfeel.