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Greg La Follette explains the science behind making wines feel good in your mouth.
Ever wonder why a wine feels the way it does in your mouth? Not the way it tastes. We're talking texture--whether the wine is smooth, rough or creamy. Turns out, there's a reason why a wine feels the way it does: Science.
Mouth feel is, in fact, a heavily researched topic. There's even an international Mouth Feel Seminar every so often, at which winemakers, brewers, dairy producers and other food scientists discuss the scientific processes that affect how a beverage feels in your mouth. California winemaker Greg La Follette--formerly of Flowers and Tandem wineries--obsesses over these things, and is a leading researcher in the subject of mouth feel.
In wine, mouth feel is affected by several factors--such as the strain of yeast used in fermentation, as well as how long the wine is left in contact with the dead yeast cells once fermentation finishes.
This and other elements of mouth feel were La Follette's main area of study while he worked on his master's degree in food science. More recently he was a presenter at the abovementioned mouth feel conference as well as a seminar on dealcoholization (boosting the wine's flavors, not the alcohol percentage). We spoke to La Follette about these esoteric proceedings, and along the way we learned quite a bit about why different wines feel and taste the way that they do.
Read on for our full interview with La Follette, and you'll see there's as much Mr. Wizard as there is Mother Nature when it comes to making a great-tasting--and feeling--wine. La Follette also had quite a bit to say about the recent debate over alcohol levels in Pinot Noir, explored in The New York Times a couple weeks ago. Read on.
Bottlenotes: The Mouth Feel Symposium, a conference on dealcoholization... How many people actually go to these weird, technical conferences?
Greg La Follette: Hundreds! [The] mouth feel [conference] was put on by Vinquiry [a wine-industry products and services company]. There were eight speakers from around the world--from Canada, Switzerland, France, Australia and two from the U.S.: [UC Davis professor] Ann Noble and myself. The dealcoholization symposium was put on by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. The [meetings] are a little too esoteric for annual holdings. There are wine microbiology symposiums, too--stuff like that. In general they're relatively mundane.
What's it like going to one of these things? Is it mostly geeky science talk?
It's all science. Mouth feel is very well characterized. When I first did my thesis, mouth feel had been characterized in beer and milk, but not in wine. I was the first to have a crack at it. Since then there's been a lot of really good work done.
Dealcoholization is really a big deal, too. This new debate about alcohol and Pinot Noir is hugely misplaced.
People who feud on both sides of over and under 14% alcohol remind me of two parents getting a divorce: The people who get hurt are the kids. It should be all about the kids. Alcohol should be all about what the vineyard wants and what the vineyard says. I pick on what the voice of the vineyard is saying. If it says it's over 14, that's fine if I'm being true to the voice of the land.
For someone to proclaim loudly either way, they smack me as people who are preaching to their own choir: The only ones who believe them are the ones already in their crowd.
Every winemaker should be all about finding what the balance is of a vineyard. If you look at the ripeness parameters in Burgundy, they're the same as anywhere else on the planet. Except for on the extremes, you have to pick before the rain rots all your grapes to hell. You're looking at seed coat ripeness, the stalk of the cluster, shoot-tip cessation, diurnal fluctuation...you're looking at wood ripening. These are all things that tell you when the wine has given up its gas [and the grapes are ready]. It's up to the winemaker to let the land speak. A good winemaker will let the land speak first, and then add a letter or a word to the speech of the land.
In the U.S., we exist under the falsehood that less crop equals better wine. [But] you're not hanging enough fruit to get the vine from vegetative to reproductive strategy [Ed note: This is when the vine begins to push all its nutrients into the grapes so, in theory, the ripe flavors of the grapes attract birds that will eat the tasty grapes and spread the seeds elsewhere so more vines can grow. La Follette explains this further below]. The people who've propagated the myth of lower yield are pushing the envelope to higher and higher alcohol levels. [But] balanced vines make balanced wines. Less is not better, it's worse--and that's what leads to higher alcohols.
So it's not just about picking the grapes when the sugar levels are right?
If the wine is too hot and the alcohol is making things jab out and there's not enough acid, then that's picked too late. Unfortunately, it's kind of like playing tennis: You have to play a bunch of matches before you learn what a good game is. You have to practice.
[In my] Van der Kamp [single-vineyard Pinot Noir], the tannins don't ripen until later on, so I get higher alcohols up there. People [who source grapes from the same vineyard] who pick at lower alcohols have harsher tannins.
So, what are the main things in the vineyard and the winery that effect how the wine feels in your mouth?
Earlier leaf-pulling--that's one really good way to get earlier tannin ripeness at lower alcohols. But first is you have to have a cessation of shoot-tip growth, [which is] the vine surrendering its vegetative strategy to reproductive strategy. You're going to get a better mouth feel at lower alcohols because the vines' mechanism for attracting birds is what builds sugar [in the grapes]. Only when the vine starts feeling stress and shutting down does it start saying, "Things are getting tough here...let's start producing the more secondary aroma and flavor compounds that attract birds." [Ed. Note: Those compounds are also what result in complex aromas and flavors in wine.]
The villains are the ones who don't pay attention to the land and listen to their own hype on lower yields. And on the distribution side, you have sommeliers who are saying a wine has to be a certain way. And vineyardists need to have a better understanding of what their grapes are doing in the winery. It all requires more understanding, more learning and more being a student of the land--and not being dogmatic. Everyone should just kind of back off, and encourage winemakers to retool themselves and speak the language of the land.
Let's say you do everything right in the vineyard and the winery to achieve the exact mouth feel and/or alcohol you're looking for...and the wine doesn't taste as good as you imagined? What do you do?
As much as I like to be a naturalist, I'm not a luddite. If my kids are sick, I give them penicillin. But the best kind of medicine is preventive. You keep [your kid] from getting sick. When I was a kid, we ate food that we grew ourselves, and we were outside, not watching TV. Get them to bed early. They have rules, and it's the same thing with grapevines.
But not all vineyards are created equally, and sometimes you have to intervene. Some grapes are better in a blend, some are better in $40 single-vineyard wines. You have to farm for bottle price. If you're making a $15 wine, you can't be plucking every leaf you need to, because it's too expensive. So being a good steward of the land also means being a good steward of your own economics. You can be a purist as much as you want, but you also have to be practical.
In layman's terms, what are some of the unknowns in terms of mouth feel and flavor? What still needs further research?
We don't really fully understand all the macromolecules in taste and flavor. There's a new study of long term ageability and the compounds--such as quercetin, which helps with color stability--that have no immediate contribution to taste, yet are responsible for aging. There are just so many things that need to be explored.
Just when I was starting to look at mouth feel, not a lot of people were interested. And now there's a lot of interest. As we learn more about wine and get the basics down, we'll move deeper.
Same in the vineyard. We've learned that removing leaves reduces diseases, increases spray effectiveness and decreases alcohol [in the wine]. Now we're learning about timing of pulling leaves. In ten years, we'll be asking which leaves we're going to pull.
There will always be another level. That's what's really exciting. There's always more to learn.