Taste Like A Pro, The Concept Of Wine Balance...

Reproduced from Year 4, Issue #15 of Spirito di Vino Asia...

In this series of articles, we delve into the criterions that wine critics use when scoring wine. In doing so, we hope to provide our readers with insights they can apply in their own judgment of the many wines they taste for pleasure. In this article, we focus on Balance.

Balance is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused wine tasting concepts.  It is also perhaps the least hedonistic aspect of wine assessment demanding a high level of concentration and consistency as it relates to quantity rather than quality.  

It is often erroneously believed to relate to the harmony of a wine which is not completely wrong, but it is mostly incorrect.  Harmony is how the aromas and/or the components of the wine integrate together in a pleasant and sensuous whole.  Balance, although somewhat related to harmony is a more sober concept.  It relates to how, almost like a mathematical formula, the components of wine structure such as acidity and alcohol balance each other out and is key for fine wine.  Without it, there is no potential for the wine to improve over time.

To understand balance, we need to consider that some components of wine feel “hard” on the palate whilst others feel “soft”.  The French use the beautiful word “moelleux” to express the “softness” of wine and unfortunately, it has been inaccurately translated by the Anglo-Saxon wine literature with the word “sweet”.  In the context of wine balance, it actually means “downy”, ”fleecy” or ”fluffy”.  It is the acidity, tannins and, when sparkling, co2 that makes the texture of wines feel hard and astringent.  On the other hand, alcohol and, when the wine is sweet, sugar makes it feel “moelleux” and soft.  The key is for the wine’s softness to be leveled by its hardness and vice versa.  If a wine has too much alcohol and/or sugar and not enough acidity, and/or tannins, it will feel heavy, and flabby.  On the contrary, when it is too high in acidity and/or tannins, it will feel hard, austere, or coarse.  The key to fine winemaking is to achieve this perfect balance of components when the softness of the wine is in optimum equilibrium with its hardness, an achievement that is actually much much more difficult to achieve than it appears to be.

The issue nowadays, and this is where the concept of balance is often used imprecisely, is that fruit concentration is used as a way to provide extra softness needed to cushion one too many hard wines.  This is especially the case with red wines.  

In fact, the challenge with red wine is the tannins.  They provide an astringent feeling to the gums and palate and young red wines are, invariably, except in very few cases, hard and “grippy”.  Of all components, tannins are the only one that will change over time.  The others, alcohol, acidity, and sugars, will always remain at the same level.  The thing is, about 95% of all wines today are consumed within one year of production.  This means that red wines are never really ready to drink as their tannins are mostly too high in comparisons with alcohol.  With time however, the tannins soften and reach a point when they are leveled with the “moelleux” of the wine and this is when the wine will be “ready to drink”.

However, most wine lovers today, do not have the luxury of time.  This is why, a few producers increase the residual sugars in their red wines.  Others “crank-up” the fruit concentration as it buffers the hardness of the tannins and make the wine more palatable when young.  The issue is that to obtain such a fruit concentration, the grapes must often be left on the vines longer than necessary and special wine making techniques must be used to adjust their balance.  Such wines can be good and enjoyable for sure, however, complexity is often lost as a result of those techniques and their resulting structure is rarely suitable for long ageing periods. Unfortunately, the oft-heard expression “the fruit balances the tannins” is imprecise at best.  Fruit concentration is only suitable as support when the wine is meant to be aged over a long period of time for if it is not, then too much fruit concentration is usually there to compensate something.  This is not exactly a sign of quality.

The balance of a fine wine will always be dependant on the quality of its vintage conditions.  When ideal, it will be reached naturally with little intervention.  The wine’s texture on the palate will feel as though a perfect sphere: full, yet delicate, complete, and whole, round and mouthfilling yet with a certain tension and definite energy.  It will be the “glue” that  holds the wine together and makes its complexity more intense and mesmerizing prolonging the after-taste into several "caudalies". 

In the next issue, we will examine fruit concentration and other requirements for a wine to be considered age-worthy and worthy of being characterized as “fine”.