wine balance seems to be a hot topic right now in my circle of wine friends. perhaps it is because there seem to be so many conflicting opinions about it. perhaps it is because it is much too often swiped quickly under the rug as a "given" and therefore does not feature prominently enough at tastings workshops...
balance is, unfortunately, not a given. not because a wine is sold commercially that it is automatically in balance. in fact, it is much too often a problem, either because the hand of the winemaker is a little too forceful or mainly because, let's face it, wine is a product of nature and, therefore, inherently imperfect...
here, i try to distill the information i have learned in the last several weeks from several wine authorities on the matter. i hope that my explanation will be worthy my my tasting mentor, pierre casamayor and his book "how to taste"...
as i understand it, the first way to look at wine balance is first to look at its "chemical" components:
white: alcohol + sugar = acidity
red: alcohol + sugar = acidity + tannins
alcohol contributes "sweetness/softness" to the wine. it softens acidity and delays tannins. if no sugar, the alcohol needs to provide the whole of the "softness/sweetness" to balance out the other components.
here we are talking about the "structural" balance, the "skeleton", the so-called "backbone" of the wine.
without bones, a body can not have flesh. so, structural balance is important and the 1st thing to look at. this is why the palate section of the WSET Systematic Approach To Tasting level 4 is designed the way it is.
with it, first, we focus on:
all elements of structure.
then, we focus on:
all elements of the "fruit" which is by the way the overall sum of aromatics (primary, secondary, tertiary), not only about the fruit-fruit of the the wine.
so, "fruit" comes into play in the second way to look at balance. "fruit" could be said to be a component of wine and therefore must be considered in the equation of balance. the fruit is the flesh that gives stature to the wine. when the fruit and the structural balance are considered together, we would call this second way the "overall" balance.
at this point, we must understand why we look at balance.
as wine is really about the pleasure we derive from it, balance plays a pivotal role. as pleasure comes from the complexity of the wine, and complexity is from "fruit" and only "fruit", it is key that the "structural" balance is in order and that it does not overtake the "fruit". of course, if the wine is dominated by acidity, or tannins, or alcohol this will strip away pleasure from the "fruit". but if only a few aromas/flavors dominate the "fruit", this will also strip away at pleasure. for maximum pleasure, it is therefore necessary that not only the structure be in balance as above, but that the "fruit" itself be in balance.
in the context of a wine for aging, structural balance is supremely important. acidity and tannins are the two preservatives of wine. if there is not enough, there can not be aging for very long. for white, high acidity is needed. for red a high sum of acidity + tannins are needed. both have a hard "taste" and therefore must be softened by the alcohol and the residual sugars for the wine to be palatable. without enough alcohol and sugars as a "softener", even with much fruit, the wine will still be sour and/or astringent. however, if there is no "fruit" to begin with, there is no point for this wine to be aged. structurally, the wine could be in balance but if there is no "fruit" to support this balance, then the overall balance is lacking and therefore this points to a flaw in the wine. if the "fruit" is powerful, concentrated and complex and is supported by a good structural balance, the wine has a good overall balance. this points to good aging potential which by itself is a sign of quality and a most desired outcome by most connoisseurs.
of course, here we are not talking perfect mathematical equations. we are talking relatives. it is possible that there would be a slight structural imbalance however the "fruit" so intense and concentrated that we could say it compensates for the slight structural problem. however, in the final judgment about its aging potential, this slight must be considered and the wine must be marked down accordingly. it is all a question of degree.
in the context of an entry level wine made for early consumption, some consider structural balance only briefly and focus mainly on overall balance. if the wine is "fruity" and nothing "sticks" out, they say "the overall balance is fine with fruit balancing acidity and alcohol". but i do not like this and to me, this is simplifying and i think it is the source of much confusion on the matter..
one thing is certain: it is always wrong to say that the quantity of "fruit" can compensates a lack of structural balance. this is never the case. how can it be?
the bottom line is that the structural balance by itself is not interesting. what is interesting is that this structural balance supports the "fruit" so that the wine can age and develop extra complexity from maturation. complexity does not come from the components of the structural balance, it comes from the "fruit". it is the structural balance that elongate the period during which the fruit can transform into extra complexity. this is why "fruit" is always referred in relation to balance. fruit must be related to structure so that it can be decided: 1) if the wine can age; and 2) for how long. it is the overall balance that will provide the arguments needed to "time" the aging potential of the wine.
good fruit + good structural balance = good overall balance = good aging potential.
either one lacking, the aging potential will be affected accordingly.