People ask me if expensive wines are ever "worth it." Unlike cars or clothes or other goods that, with enough craftsmanship (or hype) behind them, become "luxury," wine is not outwardly demonstrative—it should taste good, but how do you know what it tastes like without buying it first? Critics use a language of wine terms to describe wine to consumers and to predict how wines will age, but those terms can be confusing; having to do with either smells and tastes or textures. If you're wondering about the mark of a truly fine wine, I believe the "feel" of the wine must make me take pause. Even beyond aromas and flavors, textures can lace together all the disparate elements of a wine into something balanced, the harmonics of the palate resolved into one clear tone. When a wine is silky or velvety, soft or firm, racy or chalky, there is an additional sensation that makes it a unique experience to imbibe.
So here I'm going to talk about three wines that have an unmistakably sophisticated and harmonious texture. They are speciality wines that are available in most speciality wine shops, and there are many wines produced in these styles that will make a similar impact.
Acidity can take many forms in wine—it can be broad, chalky and stony, or racy and delicate, like the horsehair in the bow of a violin; capable of speaking volumes, and balanced by a light body and plethora of fruit and flower flavors. The 2015 Merkelbach "Urziger Wurzgarten" Spatlese Riesling retails for $22 and is from a top estate in the village of Ürzig in the Bernkastel district of the Mosel Valley. The soils of the Wurzgarten are red volcanic slate with a high iron content, perfect for an especially tropical and mineral-driven Riesling. Drinking this wine is the perfect way to illustrate what "raciness" feels like in wine.
And then there is silky. A silky wine is a wine that possesses marked acidity, buttressed by a weightier body and alcohol levels, but unimpeded by high tannin. A perfect expression of silky textured wine is pinot noir from the Russian River Valley. This Sonoma County viticultural area is characterized by rolling hills and a cooler climate. One of the top producers in the area is Merry Edwards, a woman who paved the way for female winemakers at the University of California, Davis, and went on to make wine for five decades and counting. Her entry-level pinot noir is not cheap ($65 a bottle at specialty shops), although it can be purchased directly from the winery for $48. However, it is well-crafted, from six different clones vinified in separate lots, and its slinky body is balanced by notes of ripe black cherry and fig, hazelnut and plum, vanilla and cocoa. In contrast, a pinot noir without this depth of flavor and texture will taste weak and insipid. But as the weather turns cooler and the days get a little crisper, a pinot noir with this finely grained style really hits the spot.
That's fine for silk, but what if you like a more velvety wine? A lot of people don't like to drink merlot (Paul Giamatti ruined it for everyone back in the 2004 movie Sideways), but in certain expressions it can be some of the most appealing textured wines on the market. In fact, a lot of people see pinot noir as a replacement for merlot in point of practice, but the best expressions of both wines serve totally different purposes.For example, the 2014 Château Gazin from Pomerol, a right bank Bordeaux appellation with some famous neighbors (think Petrus), sustainable viticultural practices, made from grapes grown on clay and gravel soils; this wine possesses a velvety mouthfeel—completely different than the silkiness of a top-tier pinot noir. It is relatively expensive at $94, but it is also possesses plenty of voluptuous cassis and black plum flavors with hints of truffle, pencil shavings and savory herbs. This is the kind of wine with structure that will age well; the fruit will dry and the secondary flavors will become much more pronounced. It can be drunk now, but in a few years it will be even better. But if you do drink it now, pay attention to that rich, luxurious texture that imparts a velvety sensation on your tongue. In contrast, merlot without the firm backbone of structure characteristic of a classic wine from a place like Pomerol will taste jammy and plummy, with nothing interesting or remarkable standing out.
So the next time you're tasting wine, pay attention to the palate. You might notice the fruits and flavors of the wine; you might notice the aromas, the bouquet, even the color. But pay attention to the way the wine feels in your mouth, and you might walk away from your tasting with a new level of appreciation for the pleasures of wine.