The trouble with taking human emotions and dumping them on to unsuspecting bottles is that they bring their connotations with them. A wine can be cheerful, or dour; that’s pretty straightforward. But tension, now. Tension is tricky. It’s opening a brown envelope when you suspect you might have passed a speed camera with rather too much élan. It’s waiting for hospital results. There’s not much that’s good about it.
Yet it’s the essence of Riesling. Take that piano-wire tension away from Riesling and you just get a heap of flavours that sag in the middle and struggle on to the end. Tasty enough, but not enlivening. Tension is what makes wines resonate; it goes with drive, and energy. Not all wines have it, but those that don’t have to get their raison d’être from something else – texture, perhaps.
Tension is a bit of a focus at the moment. Soil consultant Pedro Parra’s new book, Terroir Footprints (Four Colour Print Group, Louisville, KY) is partly about his search for vineyard terroirs that will give wines with tension. He reckons it comes from rocks. Summarising 400pp in a sentence is probably not ideal, but they have to be the right kind of rocks, and decomposing in just the right way. Chalk is good, granite is good, just the right amount of clay is good – and he can dig a hole, look at the various layers of soil and rock, and tell you whether the wine you will make from that spot will have the tension he seeks. So he can see tension, more or less.
Defining it, now: that’s more difficult. If Riesling defines tension and tension defines Riesling, that’s a start. But in Grüner Veltliner, with lower acidity, it shows differently. A great Grüner from somewhere like Schloss Gobelsburg or Domäne Wachau is less piano wire and more electric current, intensely energetic. In Crittenden Estate’s The Zumma Pinot Noir from Australia it’s a filigree tautness of weightless weight.
But if we allow too many different manifestations we can lose sight of it altogether. Roman Horvath of Austria’s Domäne Wachau contrasts a tension-driven wine with a texture-driven one, the latter being what you can get if the wine is broad, texture being (in my view; he didn’t say this) what rescues it from, or sometimes justifies, softness. Think of a pond compared to a rushing stream – or Proust, all texture and no tension, unless you count as tension the niggling awareness that your train journey will be over before you have reached the next full stop.
If that is a touch acid (and I love Proust, honest), then acidity is often part of tension. Not all of it, but part. Says Horvath, ‘it’s a feeling on the palate; a feeling of firm acidity, drying from the front to the back in a firm way. […] It starts at the front of the palate and ends at the back. Others can be soft at the start: if you have Central European ripe acidity it can kick in at the back of the palate, and the tension is not the same.’ Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave at Roederer, found that tension in his Champagnes increased so much as he moved to biodynamics that he’s had to bring a bit of oak into the fermentation cellar to tone it down: biodynamics brought acidity up and pH down.
Looking for single causes of anything in wine is always a bit over-simple. Ask Michael Moosbrugger of Austria’s Schloss Gobelsburg: he’s been through every fashion. ‘I remember back 25 years,’ he says, ‘all the questions that WSET and MW students would ask; I very often see people searching for answers to a concept on a very limited scale. Twenty years ago everyone was asking about the origin of casks. Then it was yeasts. Then it was biological production. But it’s always dangerous to reduce wine to a limited number of variables.’ I could add a few more topics to his list of single causes: minerality, irrigation, filtration. You could call it journalism, if you like.
Michael goes on, ‘Is [tension]monocausal, or are there several factors in the concept of tension? It’s a question, too, of can we really explain it, or do we have to accept that there is something of transcendence that we cannot explain?’
We don’t know all there is to know about wine. There is always a point at which we have to say, ‘this is what I have found. I can’t explain it, but it seems to be so’. Even Parra, with his ability to look at a terroir (from the bottom of a two-metre soil pit) and predict tension or not, can only go so far in saying what it actually is.
What makes it more elusive is that as far as I can see you can’t create it in the cellar. You can destroy it but not invent it. There’s an unselfconsciousness about it, like that lovely line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: ‘A little child, a limber elf/ Singing, dancing to itself’. Wines with tension sing to themselves. Tense wines have the clarity and precision of chamber music. Film music may have suspense, but that’s not quite the same thing – even Elisabeth Lutyens’ remarkable scores for horror films are more about creating suspense than the more inward-looking tension of a Mendelssohn string quartet..
Wines often reflect their makers, but in this case not directly: human tension does not produce vinous tension. Yet growing or making wine must be a pretty tense job. I asked Xavier Rolet, late of the London Stock Exchange and co-owner with his wife Nicole of Chêne Bleu in the south of France, whether he was a natural risk-taker. (Yes, this is a bit of a non-sequitur, but I found it fascinating.) He said there had been a study of financiers, which found that many had gone through some trauma in childhood which had somehow changed their perception of risk – they were in some way more inured to risk. So if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, not only might you make a packet in finance, but you might be quite a decent winemaker, too.
Photo by James Allen and Unsplash