A tale of three Rieslings, several digressions and a good deal of tension.
Palate memory, for those of us not blessed with fantastically good recall to start with, can be frustratingly unreliable. For me, writing about wine functions primarily as a sort of personal aide-mémoire, a way to record previous experiences and subsequently recall, as much as possible, the experience of a particular wine. Words, though, are only so rich a medium, which perhaps explains why we sometimes overreach with increasingly obscure descriptors to differentiate one wine from another. Point scoring, too, can be another way of adding semantic richness to a note. Indeed, one’s perhaps feeble attempts to capture something as abstract as wine starts to make sense of, for example, Proust’s extreme longueurs in describing flowers, social behaviours and the experience of jealousy.
Given all that, it’s gratifying to encounter a wine and have it taste so familiar. Such was my experience of this Joh. Jos. Prüm Spätlese from the racy, high-acid 2008 Mosel vintage. As Mosel Riesling goes, this is right in the zone, showing the striking minerality and structural finesse I associate with a good Wehlener Sonnenuhr. Flavours are light yet rich, moving between high toned florals and richer cumquat notes. Naturally, this lacks the impact and weight of some auslese-level wines but is utterly correct and delicious nonetheless.
I tasted this wine, and those discussed below, with wine writer Jeremy Pringle. As ever when we taste together, the semiotics of wine appreciation became a topic of conversation, in this case idea of balance versus tension. I feel the J.J. Prüm shows great balance, even if tilted towards a firmer-than-usual line of acid. Jeremy chimed in with the word tension and, while I agree with his assessment of the wine, it does call into question the relationship between these two dimensions.
In a recent post on his site, Jeremy drew a distinction between the two, suggesting balance doesn’t necessarily connote the excitement that some wines generate through the interplay of their elements. Whether he is suggesting that tension, by definition, requires a subversion of balance I’m not sure. My own view is they can coexist; tension can be generated entirely within the context of a perfectly balanced wine, as with the J.J. Prüm, whose gorgeously proportioned acid structure acts as an ongoing counterpoint to the wine’s other elements. This interplay is thrilling and full of tension, as in a freeze-frame whose compositional elements are dynamic yet perfectly placed with respect to one another. It’s the character of each component, and indeed the countenance struck between them, that builds tension. This, within a wine whose balance and proportion are classically formed, whose sense of placement and symmetry are quite pristine. In this, ideas of tension in wine aren’t unrelated to those in the visual and plastic arts.
Two wines tasted alongside the J.J. Prüm amply illustrate this. A conceptual counterpoint, if nothing else, the 2012 Timo Mayer “Dr Mayer” Remstal Riesling Kabinett trocken is, unsurprisingly, of a drier persuasion than the J.J. Prüm. It’s also, structurally, quite different. Phenolics play a big role here, creating textural waves through the after palate and finish, tightening the wine’s moderately relaxed structure. Its relative lack of acid sits in stark contrast to the J.J. Prüm and, tasting them side by side, I couldn’t help but feel the Mosel wine’s even line was in all respects preferable to the Mayer’s undulating palate structure. This is an example of a wine with contrasting elements — acid and phenolics — whose lack of balance robs the wine of tension. Because there’s no unifying proportion at work, one half of the wine simply exists with respect to the other half, without sufficient connection.
Similarly the 2010 Mac Forbes Tasmanian RS20 Riesling. If the Mosel wine’s acid is high even by its own region’s standards, then this takes it several steps further, placing an even but searingly firm line at the centre of the wine and tilting its balance too far in one direction. Unlike the J.J. Prüm, this wine’s uneven proportions drain it of tension, because one element dominates all others. If a sense of precariousness can, at times, build excitement in a wine, this disqualifies itself because there’s never any question acid will end, as it starts, in first place.
All of which brings me back to the Mosel wine. The secret of great Mosel Riesling is, I believe, the interplay of acid, fruit weight, flavour profile, minerality and structure; this is true of most wines but for Mosel Riesling the balance struck between all these elements seems unlikely, almost magically achieved. Tasting the J.J. Prüm made me think back to a moment towards the end of harvest last year. I was picking grapes in terrible weather — cold, wet, foggy — in Wehlener Sonnenuhr, just wanting it to be over. It occurred to me that all this effort simply wasn’t worth it for something as frivolous, as unnecessary as wine.
And perhaps it’s not. But if one’s going to make the effort, a good Mosel Riesling isn’t a bad place to end up.