Paying Attention to Tension

tensionAndrew Jefford’s recent post on the current enthusiasm for wines with tension and energy points to an important dimension of wine quality which is often overlooked in tasting grids used by certification organizations.

‘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?

Tension and energy are of course not new to wine. Great wines have always had them, even some of those opulent, ripe wines that some connoisseurs  have come to despise. (Although excessive ripeness in the wrong grapes can kill the vitality of wine). But today we do place more emphasis on these qualities than in the past if tasting notes are an indicator. Is this just a new fad, “modish” as Jefford calls it? Or are we getting better–more fine grained, more attentive to nuance–when describing wine quality? I suspect we’re getting more descriptive, if it’s true that great wines have always had these qualities.

As to where that tension comes from Jefford is right that it’s not just acidity alone or modest alcohol alone—some high acid wines don’t have tension and some high alcohol wines do. But I suspect it has something to do with acidity in its relation to other components. In physics, tension is the force that tries to restore an initial state of equilibrium which has been altered. In wine, it’s acidity that creates the alteration, but it has to be pulling against something to create tension. No single component could by itself create tension.

Despite the importance of the phenomenon Jeffords points to I have some quibbles with his presentation. He seems to think tension, energy, precision, and focus (TEPF) all come together as a package.

Any wine creator can go running after opulence and ripeness, but TEPF is a property of wine creation practised in a particular place.

But there are forms of energy in a wine unrelated to tension.  Dark, massive, somber Cabernets with powerful tannins exude force and energy but not much tension. Some Mosel Rieslings  are alive with energetic movement on the palate but lack the sensation of components pulling apart and being held momentarily in taut suspension which is characteristic of wines with tension.“ Precision” and “focus” often refer to how the aroma notes are clearly etched, sharp and clean independently of the tension on the palate.

We probably should not run these concepts together.

But this is a quibble. Jefford’s is right that tension is now an important dimension of wine quality and it is likely here to stay.

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