The word ‘balance’ comes up frequently in wine discussion. ‘This wine is well balanced’ is a pointer towards a high-quality wine, while ‘this wine is too oaky/sweet/acidic/alcoholic’ means a wine is unbalanced and usually (in the opinion of the taster) mediocre. The use of ‘balance has at times led to some controversy; In Pursuit of Balance, a group of cooler-climate California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers, have ruffled some feathers among other California wine producers for claiming the term. But how does one tell if a wine is ‘balanced,’ or is it all a matter of personal opinion?
My favorite analogy for balance in wine is Asian food. I spent a significant amount of time studying and working all over Asia, and the local food—whether it be Chinese or Thai or Indian—tasted dramatically different (and in my opinion better) from its equivalent I was used to eating in the United States growing up. The word I most used to describe the difference when I returned was balance. While an ‘American style’ sweet and sour dish will overwhelm you with sugar that you can barely taste what’s underneath, the Chinese equivalent would tone down the sweetness and balance it with spices from peppers and chilis. One of my favorite dishes in China was Suan La Tang, translated as spicy & sour soup, hot and tangy at the same time. When done right, Asian cuisine can be some of the most delicious, nuanced, and flavorful dishes on the face of the Earth; when done poorly, it’s incredibly disappointing.
With enough experience, I feel that most wine drinkers, whatever their personal preferences, can tell when somethings gone over the top. Much of the push-back we’ve seen in the past 5 years or so against high-alcohol and heavily oaked wines have been precisely because these wines have reached a tipping point where they lost a sense of balance. Luckily these things are steadily changing and wines, particularly some from California that I’ve been drinking lately, are regaining this balance while still maintaining their delicious, approachable character.
My only fear is that this reaction could go to far in the opposite direction, leading to wines that are high in acidity at the expense of everything else. Part of me is afraid this might be happening with some Rieslings. While Riesling is almost universally known among casual wine drinkers as little more than alcoholic sugar water (my advice: avoid these like the plague), drier styles of Riesling are very fashionable among wine lovers. I’m usually a fan of these wines, but I tried a Riesling Trocken in Germany that was so much acid and so little fruit I ended up pouring out the rest of the bottle. Lesson learned: never buy wine from a budget supermarket, even in Germany. However, a few months ago I drank a classic dry Australian Riesling. When I first opened the bottle the acidity overwhelmed the other flavors, but things were much improved when I returned to it the next day.
Of course, balance in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a good wine. There are plenty of wines out there that are perfectly balanced, but also plain dull and don’t taste or smell of anything beyond generic red/white wine. A truly great wine must have aromatics, flavor, and a structure that tells a story. I’ll get to that on another day.