“I was playing a gig and we got into this zone and I saw this space station and this spaceship docking into the space station‚ and these aliens talking in the space station and broadcasting over the universe. My part was this person in a spacesuit working on the outside of the station hammering something. I was playing the hammering. [laughter] The way that everything was fitting together musically was what was creating this vision for me.:”

Jazz Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel in an interview with Mike McKinley, 2008

Just like a musician trying to offer a window on improvisation, attempts to share our experience of flavour with others sometimes call for the construction of a ‘shadow’ process. Away from the duck-shoot of identifiable descriptors – lemon or lime, brioche or macaroon – it is the more architectural elements of a wine experience that tend to leave us grasping in the dark. 

Aroma is often discussed as one experience, but the physicality of wine is usually broken down into different streams; acidity, texture, sweetness, length. Can we construct something to help us draw these together and answer questions such as, “how does this wine taste so complete?” Or, “why does this wine not quite feel balanced?” Or, “how do I know this wine will age?” . Everyone has their own ways. I thought I would attempt to share what I think has become part of mine. 

The Cat’s Cradle

Tension is ever-present in wine. Andrew Jefford bundles it up as ‘TEPF’ , saying

“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.”

You know that situation where the most interesting wine in a lineup has proven the hardest to talk about?  Great wines form such intricate webs of tension that they resist disassembly to the last drop. Sparkling winemakers in charge of complex blends are the elite architects of tension, for whom indescribable, inscrutable deliciousness is the ultimate badge of honour. A chef de cave publicly offering a traditional descriptor-laden tasting note on one of their own wines would seem a touch… uncouth.

Imagine a cat’s cradle. A network, built of a single thread, where tension throughout creates the kind of perfect, timeless stasis that tells you have something serious in your glass. Characters can be understood by how they relate to others; an oxidative tendency can be pulled tighter with post-disgorgement youthfulness and dosage, or an ultra-fine, polished texture might allow the drama of high acidity and low dosage to shine. The richness of time on lees might pull against incredible freshness on the palate in a late-disgorged wine. The blend, the vintage, the vinification, the prise de mousse, the ageing, the disgorgement and dosage – all these present a number of points to hang that thread around, with the hope that there is enough tension in the system to pull you right back, through that whole journey, to the vines in the ground. 

A Tension Deficit Disorder?

There’s no one way to get it right, but successful wines spin the web so that there’s never an obvious slack point in the system that lets one element – sour! fat texture! sickly butterscotch! froth! – fall loose. An unsettled blend, the effects of a troublesome vintage or a hand that is overly heavy (or overly light) in the cellar can all introduce sagging points.

Acidity or youthfulness alone don’t constitute a complete sense of tension by themselves, either. Tense wines are not necessarily difficult to drink; in fact, they are almost addictive, never tiring or collapsing, always inviting you to prise your way further in. If you feel that you’ve sussed out a wine after just one glass, it probably isn’t especially tense.

If it doesn’t collapse in structure, but grows, doesn’t become more obvious, but less, doesn’t become easier to describe, but harder, then you are in the presence of tension. Something delicious, memorable and age-worthy. Most importantly, as we all start to contemplate sitting round a (large) table with friends again, a few such wines will offer something else to talk about, from the first glass to the last.

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