Sweetness in wine; it’s a (sometimes literally) sticky subject. The attitude that a serious wine can’t be sweet has gradually begun changing as wine drinkers rediscover the joy, both intellectual and sensual, of wines like Mosel Riesling and Vouvray. The saving grace, of course, is acid; with the often piercing acidity of Riesling in the Mosel, or Chenin Blanc in Vouvray, sugar is the perfect balancing element, the two structural components working in tandem to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
Residual sugar also allows winemakers to go further out on a limb aromatically. For me, it’s akin to the relationship between rhythm and dissonance in music: you can be wailing wild, atonally, crazy, but if it’s got a beat, if it’s in the pocket, the listener has an entry point, something to latch onto and draw them in.
A recent bottle of Selbach Oster’s Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Kabinett Riesling vividly reminded me of this point. The palate impression- a ZING! of acid tempered by a whisper of sweetness- perfectly lifted the floral, fruit, and mineral nuances of the wine. Johannes Selbach’s maverick spirit- fusing the cutting edge with the traditional- was palpable in the wine, that precise Teutonic backbeat (really, could Neu! have come from anywhere but Germany?) of sugar balancing the screech of acid.
I kept hearing Miles Davis’ “Rated X” in my head. Recorded 43 years ago, with the same band that crafted his polarizing masterpiece On the Corner, it is a wildly forward-thinking composition, recalling the aesthetics of drum n bass, Madlib and Dilla, and Endtroducing decades before they would come to be. Layers of dissonant organ blasts form an amelodic core, but it all works because of the drums- tribal, funky, persistent; they are the sugar to the organ’s acid.
A great wine manages this balancing act without one element sticking out over another. These are wines that have mastered the art of tension and release, of rhythmic and dissonant, of sweet and acidic. And like a great piece of music, they provoke thought and joy in equal measure.