LIQUID INVESTMENTS: Mouthfeel now the measure of handmade artisanal wines
IN THE days when John Platter wrote his eponymous guide, his wife Erica had the thankless task of editing the text. Until the 1990s, he still did all of the tasting. However, as the number of producers began rising when the era of isolation drew to a close, he shared the burden with a few of us.
Briefing sessions ahead of the annual tasting marathon were largely conducted by Erica — who wanted to make sure that we toed the line when it came to the guide’s rules of Winespeak. I recall a particularly intense discussion around the term "mouthfeel". As far as Erica was concerned, it was irrelevant to readers of the guide.
It was an interesting debate, and one that has become increasingly apposite. Wine, after all, is as much subject to fashion as any other consumer commodity. Twenty years ago, the focus was much more on aroma, and on the taste sensations of sweet, sour, salt and bitter.
Nowadays, mouthfeel has become mainstream: some wines are more viscous than others, tannins can be coarse and grainy, or fine and powdery. You are more likely to read tasting notes that focus on texture now than when we were writing reviews for the guide two decades ago.
In fact, if you put a bunch of 21st century wine geeks into a room today with a line-up of samples, they will probably gravitate towards the wines that have a marked palate appeal, at the expense of the more aromatic examples.
I recently overhead judges assessing a line-up of sauvignon blancs. One taster complained that the wines were all "so pure and crisp and clean — boring."
This shift to mouthfeel is producing a whole new wine culture in SA. Many of the more garagiste-type offerings are built on texture, some even with a conscious attempt to make them less overtly aromatic.
I recently sampled two wines made by Craig Sheard (who does business under the name of Elemental Bob and sells wines under the My Cosmic Hand brand). I was struck by the quality of the mouthfeel of both the white blend and the Pinot Noir. Although Craig’s tasting note (on the white blend — viognier, chenin, verdelho and semillon) mentions "ginger and white pepper", it continues with "not too lean or too thick in texture and possessing lovely freshness, mineral to salty, alluring finish. A real succulence upfront before a nice, pithy quality to the finish."
It’s quite clear that for him, the way the wine feels on the palate is crucial. The same is true of his note on the pinot noir: "light-bodied but not too lean texture and possessing lovely fruit purity and freshness".
His production methods reveal how he has worked towards that objective. Wild yeasts, whole-bunch pressing, old barrels (to minimise oak tannins and overt oak aromas), lees stirring — these are all designed to enhance mouthfeel and even — such as with the decision to use old oak — to minimise primary aromas.
They ensure that the wines are individualistic but not flamboyant, savoury rather than juicy, vinous rather than fruity. Since this is not the only way to make wine, the approach polarises opinions among consumers. For those who are looking for aromatic pungency and purity they are not striking enough; for those tired of primary fruit, they are a boon.
The battle lines may not be the usual New World (primary fruit)/ Old World (mouthfeel) one. It is obvious that the issues come down to method of production, making this another aspect of the craft versus mainstream debate. It’s more difficult for industrial wineries to micro-manage the processes that deliver the savoury and sometimes elusive textures that have become the defining feature of artisan wines. Increasingly, "mouthfeel" is a coded message that tells the recipients the wine has been "handmade."