Ask me whether a Pinot Noir tastes of cherries or plums, and I’ll usually guess wrong. But ask me if it’s velvety or feels like sandpaper in my mouth, and I know intuitively. For me, it’s easier to discern a wine’s texture than it is to analyze its aromas or flavors. And when I pick a wine for dinner, I often seek a particular texture more than a specific taste—chewy or sharp, fizzy or smooth, or some sensation in between. Indeed, many winemakers say that texture is the visceral quality that makes their wines craveable.
There are a few compounds in wine whose interactions help to create texture. First there’s acidity, which can make a wine feel either sharp or soft in the mouth. The ripeness of the grapes when they’re picked can affect a wine’s acidity, but winemakers can also modify what nature gave them. Wines that undergo malolactic fermentation (a science-geeky term for a chemical process that changes a wine’s acidity) may feel smoother than ones that don’t; they might even seem creamy. That’s because malolactic fermentation transforms tart malic acid into softer lactic acid (the kind in milk).
Tannins, which are astringent compounds present in grape skins and seeds, also affect texture. A young red wine with lots of tannins may feel anywhere from appealingly chewy to harsh and raspy; 10 years down the line, these same tannins may turn silky. Winemakers can control tannin levels. Leaving the skins and seeds in the fermentation tank for a long time with the grape juice means the wine that emerges will be powerfully tannic. Removing skins and seeds earlier makes the texture more velvety.
Alcohol is the third factor in creating texture. Wines with lots of alcohol tend to feel rich and full in one’s mouth. Since very ripe grapes tend to produce high-alcohol wines, warmer winemaking regions (like Napa Valley) tend to produce “bigger” wines than cooler regions (like Burgundy).
What does all this add up to in terms of food? Well, when I make a creamy dish like fettuccine Alfredo tossed with fresh ricotta and basil, I often pour a tart white, like a dry Riesling or Chablis-style Chardonnay, that feels prickly in my mouth.
For robust dishes like a red wine–braised octopus dotted with juicy black olives, I look for warm-climate reds like Australian Shirazes. These wines have lots of tannins and ripe fruit (and tend to be higher in alcohol), so they’re terrifically chewy, like a Guinness stout.
Lastly, for rich dishes like crispy fried cornmeal hush puppies, I like to pour fizzy wines with lots of bubbles. I would suggest drinking Champagne while you make these hush puppies—they’re so much fun to fry—but doing this usually means that by the time the hush puppies are ready, the Champagne is gone.