wine balance = english vs french... "moelleux" lost in translation...

as i understand, wine tasting analysis as we do it today, especially in the context of the wset, is relatively recent. it would be fair to say that the fathers of "modern" wine tasting are french and strong personalities like emille peynaud and, especially, max leglise and jules chauvet established the "rules" of tasting as we know them today.

as i am spending quite a bit of time studying about wine tasting these days, you can imagine that i am devouring absolutely every single book i can find on the topic.  as i am fortunate enough to read french as well as english i am also fortunate to have a very wide selection of books to choose from when it comes to my studies.

lately, as i have focused on wine balance, i have come across a slight difference between the english and the french literature.  a difference that i think is very important, even if subtle, to rectify and put in its correct perspective.  i think this difference comes from the translation of the words used by leglise and peynaud in their very important books on tasting to explain the concept of balance.  the word "moelleux" in particular.

the differences relate mainly to white wine balance.  english literature will mainly speak about the need for the wine sugar to balance its acidity.  while the french will speak about the "moelleux" needing to balance the acidity.  both are correct, however, i believe that the english word "sugar" is incorrectly used in this context and it is misleading for those who are starting to dwell on the subject of wine balance.

wikipedia explains "moelleux" as a "french term usually used to describe wines of mid level sweetness or liquoreux".  this is correct in the context of wine style but not in the context of wine tasting.  the oxford companion to wine will more accurately explain it as being "french term meaning literally 'like (bone) marrow', or 'mellow'" however continues with the slightly misleading explanation, in the context of tasting, that "wines described as moelleux are usually medium sweet".  the larousse french dictionary properly defines the word "moelleux"as "what is being described as soft to the touch".

and here lies the difference.  "moelleux" in the strict french context is something soft.  not something sweet.  the english literature seem not to have spent too much time dwelling on this particularity because perhaps they wanted a simple explanation to the term.  as there is nothing simple with the french, i feel that some english publications are propagating a serious misconception in the explanation of balance. as they focused on the sweet french style of wine that is called "moelleux" and not on the actual definition of the word which means "soft", the english literature incorrectly focus on sugar when it explains the balance of a white wine.

however, the french considers that alcohol provides "sweetness", or "softness", to the wine.  if you try to blend 99% ethyl alcohol with water so that you get about 16% final alcohol in your glass, you will notice that the water will actually taste "sweet" or extremely soft. therefore, the french actually consider alcohol as being part of "le moelleux" which is a "sweetness" sensation in the mouth.  when tasting for analysis, the french never talk about the alcohol separately than the sugar but always refer to the total "moelleux" of the wine clearly understanding that the "moelleux" is the total sum of sugar + alcohol. if there is no perceptible residual sugar in the wine, the total moelleux comes from the alcohol which is considered "sweet" or rather more accurately, "soft".  it is this "moelleux" or rather "softness" that balances out the acidity.

and so, the source of confusion: the english speaking literature speaks of balance in white wine as being: sugar = acidity while the french speak as being: moelleux (alcohol + sugar) = acidity.

the balance "formula" for red wines could be said to be: moelleux (alcohol + sugar) = acidity + tannins.

as for fruit being lumped on the same side as the "moelleux". this is a matter of debate.  structure refers to the components of the wine: acidity, alcohol, and tannins.  both the tannins and acidity are preservatives that enable the wine to age.  alcohol provides the "sweetness" necessary to make the acidity and the wine palatable.  for me, if the wine does not have a good structure, even if is jammed packed with fruit, it will not age because it will not have the components/preservatives necessary to do so.  the contrary is also true.  even if you have a super good balance of components, but do not have fruit, then there is no point to age this wine, it will not give you more complexity.  so yes, to an extent, the fruit must be in balance with the rest, but only in the perspective of aging ability:  good fruit = good aging potential.  potential is confirmed by the balance of the structure: moelleux (alcohol + sugar) = acid + tannins.

there, sugar is not really sugar for the french, but softness.  moelleux in the context of wine tasting does not mean sweet but soft.  alcohol provides softness in a similar way as sugar therefore alcohol AND sugar need to be considered, not only sugar.