Some years ago I was in Hong Kong for a set of MS classes and exams. It was my first time there. The day before class started our local contact took us to one of his favorite haunts for lunch. It was a hole in the wall joint that specialized in noodles. The owner called out as we entered and beckoned us to take a seat at a small table in the corner. The chairs were plastic and on their last legs. Literally. The table wobbled like a wounded steer and was covered with a plastic table cloth that may have been white at one time, but now had a dingy mottled surface not unlike the photos you see of the surface of Mars.
A rapid fire exchange in Cantonese followed with our colleague ordering a sampling of what the kitchen had to offer. One of the first dishes to hit the table was a bowl filled with a shiny gelatinous substance that jiggled—and not like the night before Santa Clause. “Jellyfish,” our colleague said. “It’s a delicacy.” In true when in Rome fashion we helped ourselves to a serving of the steaming, ever-moving mass and tucked in. The smell and flavor were vaguely ocean-like but the texture dominated the experience. I can only describe it as a combination of slimy and gooey combined with the al dente of pasta fame. The slimy part of the equation reminded me of boiled okra from my childhood and maternal grandma’s dinner table. That memory quickly morphed to various iterations of snot.
My janky revery was interrupted when the second dish appeared. It featured noodles in chicken broth with small grayish cubes of what appeared to be tofu. “Cured pig’s blood,” our colleague said. “It’s good for you. Cleans the system.” Assuming the stance of an adventurous diner once again, I helped myself to a small portion making sure the noodles outweighed the cured pig blood bits by a factor of at least ten-to-one. Then, for the sake of science, I took a bite. What followed was a mix of familiar and alien, as in noodles and broth with strong livery overtones. The texture of the bits could only be described as squishy. The liver part also brought back childhood memories, but more along tragic lines concerning my dad’s love of calves liver, my mom’s inability to cook it, and us kids being made to eat it. There was a time when I had cold liver for lunch only because I wouldn’t eat it for breakfast. And that was because I refused to eat it for dinner the night before.
Our lunch that day was far from the only culinary standout during the trip. Practically every meal offered something new and different, if not strange and bizarre. Special award of merit went to sea cucumber, which we had several times. It combined the gooey-slimy duo with crunchy and bitter, all the while featuring a strong marine-life after taste. It paired best with the favorite local wine called Tsingtao.
I thought of the Hong Kong trip with all its culinary delicacies after reading an article in the Times earlier this month called “Why Do American Diners Have Such a Limited Palate for Textures?” It was written by Ligaya Mishan. The upstart of the article was this. Compared to other cultures, especially those in Asia, the U.S. has a limited range of favorite food textures and words to describe them. Mishan begins the article with a nod to jellyfish:
“A jellyfish tastes of nothing. Maybe a little salt — a trace of the sea, or of how the creature is packed, once wrested from its natural habitat, for preservation (not of its life but of its viability as food). When its bell is prepared as a raw salad, it tastes only of the ingredients it absorbs: a sluice of soy sauce, sesame oil and black vinegar, scattered garlic, a pinch of sugar. What makes it coveted as a dish in some cultures is the texture, which is nothing like jelly at all. The flesh wobbles but doesn’t deliquesce; instead, it resists, crunching under the teeth, because a jellyfish is almost half made of collagen, the connective tissue whose braided strands run through skin and bone.”
You get the picture. There are places in the world inhabited by hundreds of millions of people where slimy as a texture is not only tolerated, it’s a favorite. Mishan writes that a 2008 article in the Journal of Texture Studies (yes, there is such a thing) lists 144 terms used by the Chinese for food texture, including various grades of what we would call crunchy. For example, there’s cui nen for tender but crisp (bamboo shoots and spring Asparagus), su song for crisp and loose (simmered pork shredded and dried), and su ran which translates as brittle then soft like pastry so flaky it dissolves when touched.
Japanese textural terms outdo the Chinese by a factor of three, with the report listing over 400. Mishan highlights several Japanese terms for what we call crunchy including shaki shaki for a gushy bite (apple right off the tree), saku saku for pork skins dropped in hot oil where they expand like clouds, gari gari for a hard crunch like chewing ice cubes, bari bari for the delicate crunching of a rice cracker, and pari pari for the “evanescent shattering” of potato chips. Yes, all these just for crunchy things. There’s no mention of the what the Italians called al dente in pasta or what the Taiwanese call “Q” or “QQ” in noodles and boba. For the record, my favorite Japanese food term is neba neba, for things that are slimy or gooey.
Mishan then asks why the American palate is so limited when it comes to preferred textures in food as well as words used to describe them. She offers several theories, first noting that there have always been differences in what people eat based on the flora and fauna available to them, which is based on climate and geography. She also points to Europe being less biodiverse than Asia, African, and South America, making for a narrower range of available foodstuffs. Mishan also writes about the development of a so-called “food hierarchy” centuries ago with a much broader range of flavors and textures. Then the nobility and well-to-do had a wealth of foodstuffs to choose from while the average Joe couldn’t afford to be picky. For the masses, nothing was wasted and every possible bit of an animal was consumed. It goes without saying that offal was considered anything but awful.
British social anthropologist Jack Goody has written that the concept of cuisine only happens when a few members of a society begin to hoard more foodstuffs and resources and restrict access to them. He also writes that the American relationship with food began to change with the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century. Then farmers made up over seventy-percent of the workforce. Today, according to the Department of Agriculture, they account for less than one-percent.
The trend of a dwindling agrarian work force was compounded by the move to canned and frozen foods after WWII. Then an insatiable drive for all things to be convenient led to prepackaging food for easy preparation and quick consumption. The streamlining of what Americans ate meant less choices with the exotic and unusual falling by the wayside resulting in fewer textural choices. In time, Americans came to call creamy and crunchy their favorite textures. Funny how they’re also our only choices for peanut butter.
Thankfully, things have changed in the last 15-20 years. What was once thought to be unusual repast like sushi and variations of Mexican food is now mainstream and the stuff of weekday nights. Any number of food publications or programs in the media are also quick to embrace the newest ethnic cuisine, much to our benefit. The American culinary world has never been richer or more varied. And then there’s wine.
Unlike food, descriptors for wine texture number far more than the garden variety smooth and crunchy. Practically all are based on a wine’s structural elements, those being the levels of residual sugar, acidity, alcohol, phenolic bitterness, and tannin—and combinations thereof. Texture in wine is also more subjective and subject to an individual’s tolerance of or preference for these structural elements. For example, one person may be averse to anything with high acidity in food and drink while another craves it. The same goes for tannin and residual sugar. The point being we may all have the same brain and nervous system but we each come with a unique set of sensory programming.
With that, here’s a list of commonly used texture terms for wine plus a few additions to the menu that attempt to describe a wine’s character—which is based on texture due to structural elements. In a few cases, there are terms that have always puzzled me. I note them as appropriate. Keep in mind these are my definitions and certainly nothing written in stone. After all, you may call smooth red wines Hello Kitty and tannic red wines Mothra. It’s your prerogative.
A list of wine texture terms
Angular: a term sometimes used to describe a young wine with high acid, moderate alcohol, and not quite enough fruit to back it all up. The term disjointed is similarly used. Both terms may also imply that a wine is straight forward but will hopefully develop as time goes on.
Astringent: implies harsh tannin on the finish of a red wine due to either youth, too much oak, or the wine having been made from a tannic grape like Nebbiolo ( Barolo and Barbaresco). Remember, not every red wine can be like Hello Kitty.
Austere: what I’ve always taken from this descriptor is that the wine in question is not fun to drink. Regardless, I would assume that the wine is bone dry with high acidity, less alcohol, and not a lot of fruit. It’s like a sweet tart without the sweet part.
Bright: seems to imply a young wine with lots of youthful aromatics, vibrant (tart) fruit, and high acidity.
Chewy: tannin here again the culprit. A chewy red wine brings to the mind the fact that tannin is used to cure leather. A moment of pause while we consider what it likewise probably does to our palates.
Creamy: a white wine term that signifies lees contact was used the aging process. The creamy descriptor might also point to the use of malolactic fermentation/conversion along with the possible buttery aroma/flavor from the chemical diacetyl.
Crisp: a wine with elevated acidity. The descriptor “tart” is also used.
Dense: I have to add the term “dry extract” here. In chemist parlance it means solids in solution. In wine, it means grape solids in solution post fermentation and any fining and filtration. Dry extract is measured in grams per liter, and a wine with high dry extract is usually made from a vineyard with older vines and lower yields. A wine with high dry extract is usually richer and more full-bodied regardless of the alcohol level. That said, red wines are sometimes described as dense when they have concentrated fruit, which could also be the result of high dry extract.
Elegant: often used to describe wines like Pinot Noir that have moderate tannins and a good fruit/acid balance. In other words, a lighter red wine that is smooth. We’ll get to smooth in a moment.
Fat: the first stage in describing a wine with an abundance of ripe (or over ripe) fruit, elevated alcohol, and barely enough acidity to balance it.
Flabby: the second stage of the above with a distinct lack of acidity. Inexpensive, commercial Gewürztraminer comes to mind.
Fleshy: this one has always puzzled me. Fleshy like what? Animal flesh? (see cured pig’s blood above). I may be wrong here, but I take it to mean a red wine with concentrated fruit and softer tannins.
Gritty: the tannin thing again as in a young red wine like Cabernet Sauvignon with lots of unresolved tannin. Hence the need for aging. Or if the wine is served when young, decant it and pair with a source of protein with salt and fat. It’s the young Cabernet with a grilled ribeye steak paradigm.
Heavy: a wine described as heavy usually denotes ripe/overripe fruit, high alcohol, and modest acidity. “Clunky” is another destination on the vinous road to heaviness. Ditto “ponderous.”
Jammy: often used to describe Zinfandel with ripe, overripe, and even raisinated fruit. High alcohol and added acidity are usually part of the package.
Juicy: describes what I call the sweet-tart factor, which is a balance of fruit and acidity. A juicy wine then implies one with plenty of youthful fruit balanced by elevated acidity. Think young Chenin Blanc or blush wines.
Lean: a lean wine is one with high acidity, moderate alcohol, and in need of more fruit. Lean wines are also sometimes mineral-driven. While they may not be the best choice to sip from a plastic cup next to the pool, they can be versatile food wines.
Linear: another term that has sometimes puzzled me. Does linear mean straight forward, as in simple? If anything, linear might be a running mate with lean. Both denote less fruit and higher acidity.
Oily: a term I’ve heard used to describe the texture of Alsace wines, particularly Gewurztraminer. Note the lack of an umlaut. The Alsatians don’t use them. Regardless, oily describes a rich, concentrated white wine without a lot of acidity. Like Gewurztraminer. I’ve also heard oily used to describe the texture of Alsace Pinot Gris.
Opulent: opulent is rich taken to the next degree. Both imply a white or red with an abundance of ripe fruit with just enough acidity to balance. The red would also have soft tannins.
Rich: the above to a lesser degree. The recipe calls for ripe, concentrated fruit, higher alcohol, and less natural acidity–which means the wine may be acidulated.
Sharp: makes me think of red wines made from grapes like Sangiovese that are very dry with high acidity and more than their fair share of tannin.
Silky: a red wine with soft tannins made from a grape like Pinot Noir. It’s not like you’re going to describe Petite Sirah as silky. More like monster truck pull. Elegant is often used in conjunction with silky.
Smooth: the most widely used descriptor for the favorite style of red wine by American consumers, surely an extension of the Starbucks Frappuccino gestalt. Just kidding. Smooth red wines are those without a lot of tannin.
Soft: a variation of the smooth theme meaning less tannin and more fruit in a red wine, and without high acidity. White wines can also be soft, in which case there’s ample fruit but also a lack of elevated acidity.
Steely: I’ve always taken this to mean a white wine like Chablis with pronounced minerality and high acidity.
Structured: a puzzler. All wines have structure, don’t they? Perhaps describing a wine as structured means that it’s balanced but probably on the younger, undeveloped side. In which case, the acid/tannin combo may need some time to come together.
Succulent: the sweet-tart thing again but this time with some residual sugar. I think of Vouvray Demi-Sec and German Auslese Riesling as succulent. The best examples of both have the capacity to be other-worldly and temporarily change your life.
Supple: used to describe red wines with lots of fruit and soft tannins. Supple is often used to describe Merlot.
Tight: a descriptor for a young red wine with elevated acidity and firm tannins. Also a wine that needs decanting and air time before drinking, or a few years in the cellar.
Velvety: a member of the silky/smooth club and a common descriptor for Pinot Noir.
Voluptuous: used to describe a white or red wine with an overabundance of ripe fruit and just barely enough acidity to support it.
Viscous: to me, viscous means a wine with high dry extract. In other words, regardless of the alcohol level, there’s a lot of “there” there, making for a richer wine.
Waxy: as described. Wines made from the Semillon grape are often described as having a waxy texture or sensation on the palate.
Questions or comments about wine texture terms? Please reply with your thoughts!