This is my third attempt at defining the word grip as a wine descriptor. I’m not sure why I am having difficulty with this since I use it all the time, but for some reason I’m finding hard to put into words. Here we go again…
Have you ever had someone grip your hand, arm or shoulder? A grip is much stronger than just a grasp, it’s a firm grasp meant to get your attention, to hold you in place. After someone has gripped you and then released, the feeling of the pressure lingers for a while. Wine can have the same effect on your palate.
In a wine descriptor, nine times out of ten the word “grip” or “grippy” is used in association with the finish. What is meant by grip when used to describe a wine and what causes it? I can almost guarantee that those of you who drink Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux have experienced “grip” in the mouth. Grip is the sensation of a rough sandpaper feel around your gums on the finish. It’s as if someone gripped your gums with a piece of sandpaper and you can’t readily shake the effect it has on your palate. It’s almost like you have sand stuck around your gums. It holds on and doesn’t let go. What causes such a thing in wine, and is it a bad thing?
As most of you have already concluded (and good for you by the way), grip is caused by tannins, wood, skin, seeds and stems. There are some wines that have more tannins than others. Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, Syrah and Nebbiolo come in on the high side as far as tannins are concerned. In their youth, many of these wines exhibit a good dose of tannins that will only calm down as the years pass. Open a youthful Barolo and you will understand the meaning of tannic “grip”. The wine will hang on to your palate like a pit bull spitting out a mouthful of sand.
Wines treated in a heavy dose of new oak will also display a healthy amount of grip on the finish, especially if the fruit quality does not match the oak treatment. Wood tannins tend to be much harsher then skin, seed and stem tannins, so they can be harder to tolerate. Oak has its beneficial effects on a wine, but when it dominates the fruit, it can be detrimental to the wine itself.
Grip on the finish of a wine can be a good thing if it is not too harsh. Eventually the fruit will integrate with the tannins, softening them and getting rid of the harsher effects they can have. This can be true with skin or wood tannins alike. Some folks even like a grip feel on the finish and that is OK with me, because I like it if I am in the mood. Grip can be good or bad. It’s a good thing if the wine is well-built and will improve over age. It’s a bad thing if it’s due to over-use of new oak or use of under-ripe grapes.
The next time you drink a red wine (more than likely) and you get that sandpaper feel on your gums, you will understand the word “grip” as a wine descriptor. You may like it or not, that is up to you. A wine with grip on the finish can be a positive or a negative…Time will tell.
Cheers! Stan The Wine Man