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Balance - In the Eye of the Beholder

Thomas Riley recently published a thoughtful overview on the current debate about balance, ripeness and alcohol levels in California wine. It’s a difficult, multifaceted issue with intelligent and passionate people on all sides. And there isn’t one right answer.

In a discussion on my Facebook page where I had linked to that article, Rick Davis (winemaker/proprietor at Calstar Cellars) said, “Balance to me means that alcohol, fruit, tannin and acid are in balance. Making a complete wine.” He added that he “find[s] the “lower alcohol” kick nearsighted.” I totally agree with his first statement. I think most everyone would. As for the other, I would just change the malady to tunnel vision.

Balance is, literally, a matter of taste. I don’t mean good or bad taste, though some people would make that argument. Our sense of taste and our abilities to perceive and tolerate acidity, sweetness, bitterness and alcohol strongly influence our determination of balance. Some of these abilities are genetic, some are learned and others are modified by tolerances we build up through our eating and drinking habits.

I drink espresso straight. That either means I enjoy bitterness, don’t have as many bitterness sensing tastebuds as some, have learned to ignore it or some combination thereof. (I used take my espresso with sugar but began avoiding sugar years ago.) My perception of bitterness and avoidance of sugar undoubtedly affects the way I perceive wine. For example, I might more readily notice residual sugar and be less put off by totally dry or minerally wines than someone who uses a lot of sugar.

One man's balance is another man's heat.   Photo: Fluff

Similarly, people who typically drink a cocktail before and/or alongside dinner will generally be less sensitive to alcohol levels in wine. What is the difference between 14% and 15.5% alcohol in a Cabernet Sauvignon for a casual wine drinker whose main drink is Bourbon or a dry Martini? That person may well prefer high alcohol wine. The brisk sales of such wines suggest that to be the case, just as the huge popularity of “dry” wines with considerable RS are in step with America’s heavy consumption of sweetened food and syrupy drinks.

Sommeliers have not only their personal taste preferences but also a need for wines that create balance with food. Playing nicely with food may actually require a slightly unbalanced wine in some cases—heavy tannins to go with some meats or high-acidity to balance a creamy sauce. And high alcohol, even when balanced, can reduce a diner’s ability to taste nuances in food.

Our concept of balance changes over time as well. New or young wine drinkers often prefer slightly sweet wines, obvious oak influence and high alcohol. For many drinkers, myself included, those tasttes can change radically with age, palate training and the focus one puts into tasting a wine. A consumer may now detest the wine he loved 10 years ago.

So any two people may disagree about whether or not a given wine is balanced. Winemakers’ bottlings are tuned to their own palate and that of the management. (Unless the producer is following a recipe to match detailed research into consumer taste preferences. That approach works well for many mass market wines.)

This doesn’t even to get into the issue of whether or not it’s possible to balance high-levels of alcohol. (It is.) Or whether the port-like personality of some of high-alcohol wines—or green flavors in moderate alcohol wines—is “correct.” (It is to the people that like them.)

Taste broadly and with an open mind. Make the wine you want to make. Drink the wine you want to drink. Raise a glass to diversity and don't worry about what other people are making and drinking.


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This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.