When I was a child, one of my favorite things I liked to do was rub my fingers across the silky edge of a blanket while I was watching t.v. or when going to bed. To this day, I still enjoy the feel of silk on my skin, especially on my wife’s skin (if you know what I mean). Silk, has an almost exotic connotation attached to it along with implications of wealth. The question is, how does this word relate to wine?
Many wine writers when describing a wine will use the term “silky tannins” or silky on the palate. If you give it a little thought, I think it is easy to understand what the writer is trying to convey. Many wines have tannins especially reds, and most of us think of tannins as harsh or abrasive in the mouth. In a lot of cases this may be true. However, many times tannins can be slick in the mouth like silk and still be present. As an example, let’s consider black tea. Strong black tea can be very abrasive and harsh in the mouth, but add some cream, and all of a sudden the tannins become more approachable…Almost silky in the mouth, making the tea easier to consume (although I like my tea and coffee strong). The tannins are still there, they are just melded in with the cream, making them less noticeable.
Wine can experience a similar phenomena with fruit, rather than cream. When the fruit that goes into a wine is high quality and on the riper side it can dominate the tannins from the seeds and stems as well as oak barrels, giving that wine a slick, silky feel on the palate. Does this mean a wine that is silky will be higher in alcohol? The answer to that would be, more than likely. However, for a wine to be silky on the palate, the alcohol has to be in balance with the fruit in order for it not to come across as predominant. Another words, a wine has to be well made to come across as silky.
Whether you consider this unfortunate or not (I’m on the fence with this one), some wine makers will use a method known as micro-oxygenation when making a wine to impart a softer, silkier element. To totally simplify, basically they send tiny bubbles through the wine either during fermentation or maturation. This method (or intervention as some would say) almost guarantees the wine will come out softer and silkier in a shorter period of time. The subject of intervention with modern methods of wine making is a book all in itself. However, the point is that there are ways, either riper quality or exposure to oxygen (like cream in your black tea), that cause the wine to have that slick, silky feel in the mouth.
I think, if you reach down into your past wine experiences you will remember wines as being oh so slick in the mouth. Many wine makers strive for this style, because the modern consumer seems to lean towards wines that are softer and have a silky mouth-feel. Wines that are a little tough on the palate currently, still have an opportunity to turn to silk. Time in the bottle (with a real cork) will over time mature and soften a harsher wine. This is because a natural cork allows a certain amount of air to come into the bottle over a longer period of time, thus softening the wine and making it silkier (although some wines will never get to that point).
Some consumers like silky and some don’t, that is the beauty of wine, its subjectivity. I hope the next time you read the word “silky” as a wine descriptor, you have a better grasp on what the writer is trying to convey. Cheers! Stan The Wine Man