Understanding tension in wine


The hills roll in from every direction, like waves in a mid-Atlantic swell, breaking greenly down into little valleys where momentary streams come and go with the seasons.

Some of the hilltops sport forest, but vines seem more often to cap the summits, even where the bare limestone breaks out in a stony white froth. The little town of Chablis squats in the middle of all, its citizens quietly going about their winemaking business, dabbling trout out of the river, watering geraniums. The big roads are miles away; the cities further. This may be France’s most peaceful vineyard landscape.

Then… you take a sip of the latest vintage’s Petit Chablis. It seems to leap like a trout in the mouth, scattering silvered acidity in a fish-scale cascade. For all that, it is not an ‘articulate’ wine. It’s taut, pungent and vinous, but even the most logorrhoea-prone wine writer would struggle to lavish it with an allusion-laden paragraph.

I was in Chablis recently, and I came home with the memory of that delicious tension in the mouth, that terseness, that bareness: the perfect summary of high-latitude, cloud-covered wine creation. Sappy wine from a green place.

As it happened, the first bottle that I pulled from the fridge on my return was a jobbing South African Chenin Blanc. It was well made, and had just as much acidity – but where had the tension gone? What the Chenin had in its place was a hardness: everything bolted in place, but with no dissolved energy in the wine to create that pulling or restoring force which mines saliva, and which sends wine hurtling towards the stomach before you even realise you are swallowing.

‘Tension’ and ‘energy’ are modish words to use about wine, as are ‘precision’ and ‘focus’. After a purple patch in which opulence and ripeness have been the cock qualities, we’re now chasing a different bird. Well-crafted Petit Chablis from the latest vintage certainly has these qualities, but what else could hope to qualify, and where do such wines come from?

Of one thing I’m sure: tension isn’t, as so often simplistically assumed, related to prominent acidity or modest alcohol levels in a wine. Yes, Petit Chablis has both of these – because of its cool, high-latitude origins.

The Viognier harvested for an outstanding Condrieu, by contrast, will have neither prominent acidity nor modest alcohol levels, yet it may still have tension, energy, precision and focus (TEPF). The same thing applies to any single-site Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer that has been crafted by Olivier Humbrecht MW or Jean Boxler.

What is the pulling or restoring force in these wines? It can lie in whatever constitutes flavour within them, and of course ‘flavour’ implies an aromatic presence, too. It is not the constituents of flavour in themselves which matter, but rather the nature and relationships of the lattice which links those constituents in a finished wine.

We have, I think, to be tough-minded enough to admit that these high aesthetic qualities will not be within the grasp of every winemaking site. They constitute, rather, a part of the potential of any distinguished site. Any wine creator can go running after opulence and ripeness, but TEPF is a property of wine creation practised in a particular place. You then need an appropriate variety or varietal blend, a season without disabling challenges, and the chance or wisdom to pick at optimal ripeness. Unaffected winemaking is essential, too, in order to render wine from fruit as limpidly as possible. It would be foolish, though, to insist on anything more specific than that. Oak or no oak, whole bunch or destemmed, extraction or mere infusion: it all depends.

The TEPF ideal constitutes a set of worthwhile, durable aesthetic goals in wine creation, and today’s critics are right to laud them. Beware, though, that they don’t go the way of ‘minerality’, and end up being ascribed in the sloppiest manner to any wine about which one might harbour positive feelings. Meaning matters.

Translated by ICY

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