On the surface, the idea of balance in wine seems easy enough to grasp. No one element dominates, so that—among other things—a wine’s alcohol level is neither too high nor low, its residual sugar levels are appropriate to the style of wine, any oak-derived characters are in proportion to its other aromas and flavors and its tannin levels harmonize with the wine’s other components.
Wine critics and judges frequently make balance the lynchpin of our quality evaluations. Charles Curtis, MW, now currently head of Christie’s wine department in Asia, once drilled home to me the acronym BLIC—meaning Balance, Length, Intensity and Complexity—as a blueprint for assessing wine quality.
I still believe that for a wine to be of high quality, it must be balanced. But I am increasingly worried by how that word is being interpreted by winemakers and tastemakers around the world.
In some contexts, it seems to be perceived as an exhortation against high-alcohol levels. In others, it’s a demand that a wine’s primary fruit character be dialed back.
The California-based group of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers, In Pursuit of Balance, suggests that balance is not limited to discussion of alcohol levels. The vast majority of the wines poured by its members at a New York City tasting this past April, however, weighed in at less than 14% abv.
Although I enjoyed some of the wines, I found many that were decidedly lacking the roundness and rich textures I have become accustomed to in California wine. In short, they didn’t taste very Californian.
Separately, halfway around the globe, at a judging of New Zealand Chardonnays in November of 2011, I was roundly castigated by another judge for favoring a wine he deemed too vulgar. Despite the wine’s sheer deliciousness, this critic, who found the wine lacking restraint and balance, bumped it from the gold medal podium.
While I defended it as a fine example of the Gisborne style of Chardonnay—tropically fruity, balanced by overt vanilla from aging in oak—he told me, “It might be a style of Chardonnay, but it’s no longer an acceptable style.”
These two examples of balance illustrate several problems with the term as a defining property of great wine.
First, balance as a surrogate for meaning low alcohol or minimal oak influence is a misnomer. I would suggest that wines may be balanced at various levels of alcohol from 5–20% abv and from no oak to 100% new oak. Balance cannot reliably be determined in isolation, just from the numbers.
Second, this pursuit of balance has the same potential to homogenize wine styles and obscure regional identity as the pursuit of full physiological ripeness and overuse of new oak. Just as jammy, overoaked wines made from overripe grapes lose their varietal character and sense of place, so do wines that are made from underripe grapes.
Third, let’s not forget that minor imbalances are what make certain wines stand apart from others. A touch of botrytis in a Chardonnay from the Mâcon gives it an exotic edge, but marks it as atypical for the appellation. A whiff of volatility gives Quintarelli’s wines their distinctive flair, yet those wines are among the Veneto’s most lauded. The extensive use of American oak is a hallmark of Silver Oak’s wildly successful Cabernet Sauvignons.
Although balance is a sound theoretical construct, how the balance of any individual wine is perceived depends on each taster, and on that taster’s tolerances for the various wine components like sugar, alcohol, acid and tannin. It is quite possible for two experienced tasters to differ on whether a wine is balanced or not.
Ultimately, while winemakers are chasing different visions of balance, the final decision comes down to you, the consumer. Numbers and descriptions can only tell you so much about a wine. At some point, you have to taste it for yourself, weigh the wine’s elements on your palate and see if the wine seems balanced to you.