A textural term that indicates, as the word suggests, a soft, luxuriant sort of richness. The word is applied almost entirely to red wines, which have the potential to be bigger and softer than whites. Other related words: opulent, fleshy, velvety.
It’s not quite the opposite of plush, but it’s certainly in the other direction. It’s also a term related to texture, indicating a wine more skeletal than fleshy. Lean wines are ectomorphs, characterized more by their acidity than by softness. The best require a sense of energy, which galvanizes the wine. Without energy, a lean wine can be thin and dull.
Though a liquid, wine can be said to have structure, an architecture of tannins and acidity that gives it figurative shape. Structure is like the bones of a wine, on which the aromas and flavors hang. Some wines, like easy, thirst-quenching bottles made to be consumed young, will have little structure. Others, particularly age-worthy reds like Barolo or Bordeaux, may be so structured that the tannins dominate when young, requiring a few years to recede before the wines are pleasurable to drink. Tannins primarily come from grape skins, though seeds and stems contribute as well. They are felt mostly in reds, which are macerated with skins to obtain color. Whites gain most of their structure from acidity, with the exception of orange wines, which are made like reds, leaving the juice to soak with the skins. If a wine is aged in new oak barrels, it may also absorb tannins from the wood. These tannins differ from grape tannins and can have a bitter, mouth-drying flavor. Obvious oak tannins are a flaw, to me. If a wine has insufficient acidity and tannins, it can be overly soft and flaccid. Too much, and it can be harsh. Tannins that blend in seamlessly are said to be fine, while those that are rugged or chewy are rustic.
A well-structured wine with flavors that arrive in a smooth procession may be called linear. Linear wines have the potential for complexity as the flavors can change and evolve as they linger in the mouth. Without sufficient structure, the wine will be amorphous and soft, with everything arriving at once.
Lingering flavors, which can echo long after swallowing, give a wine length. It’s a similar quality to linearity, but not exactly the same, as linearity generally implies complexity, while length indicates a prolonged presence without necessarily any evolution.
A long wine can be deep, too, an added dimension that is also related to texture. A wine with length and depth resonates in the mouth. This is where pleasure lives, the sort of wine where each sip inspires the next.
All the elements come together with clarity in focused wines. They are balanced, proportionate and seamless.