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Of Wine And Balance

Domaine de Saint Paul CdPWhen assessing the wine, there are many characteristics which are important. The color, the intensity and the type of the aromas on the nose, the bouquet, body and flavors on the palate, the finish. When I’m saying “important”, I don’t mean it in the form of the fancy review with “uberflowers”, “dimpleberries” and “aromas of the 5 days old steak”. All the characteristics are important for the wine drinker thyself, as they help to enhance the pleasure drinking of the wine.

One of the most important wine characteristics for me is balance. Well, I’m sure not only for me, otherwise the organizations such as IPOB (In Pursuit Of Balance) wouldn’t even exist. Of course as everything else around wine, the concept of the balance is highly personable – or is it? What makes the wines balanced? What does it even mean when we say that “the wine is balanced”? This is the big question, and I don’t mean to ponder at it at a great depth, as this is a purposefully a short post. But nevertheless, let’s just take a quick stub at it, shall we?

In my own definition, the wine is balanced when all the taste components are, well, in balance. Okay, don’t beat me up – we can replace the word “balance” with the word “harmony”. In a typical glass of a red wine, you will find acidity, fruit and tannins (which is mostly a perceived tactile sensation in the form of drying feeling in your mouth). You will also often find other flavors such as barnyard, toasted oak or burning matches, which are typically imparted by the vineyard’s soil and/or a winemaking process, choice of yeast, type of aging and so on. But – in the balanced wine, nothing should stand out – you don’t want to taste only fruit, only tannins or only acidity – you want all the components to be in harmony, you want them to be complementing each other, enhancing the pleasure you derive from drinking of the wine.

And then you got an alcohol. On one side, I should’ve listed the alcohol above, as one of the components of the taste – alcohol often can be associated with the perceived “weight” of the wine in your mouth, which we usually call a “body”. Alcohol can be also related to the so called “structure”. But the reason I want to single out an alcohol is because way too often, we tend to use it to set our expectations of the balance we will find in the glass of wine, as this is the only objective, measured descriptor listed on the bottle. You might not taste the “raspberries and chocolate” as the back label was promising, but if it says that the wine has 14.5% “Alcohol by Volume” (ABV), this would be usually very close to the truth. Of course there is a correlation in the perceived balance and the alcohol in the wine – if you taste alcohol in direct form when you drink wine, it will render the wine sharp, bitter and clearly, unbalanced. But – and this is a big but – can we actually use the ABV as an indicator of balance, or is it more complicated than that?

When IPOB started, this was their premise – search for the wines with lower alcohol content (don’t know if it still is). Typical ABV in the old days was 13.9% (there were also tax implications of crossing that border). So should we automatically assume that any wine which boasts 14.5% ABV will not be balanced? I do have a problem with such approach. I had the wines at the 13.5% ABV, which were devoid of balance – including one from the very reputable Napa producer who will remain unnamed. And then there is Loring Pinot Noir, where ABV is dancing right under 15% (at 14.7% to 14.9%). Pushing envelope even further, you got Turley and Carlisle Zinfandels, where ABV is squarely stationed between 15% and 16% (occasionally exceeding even that level). Have you tasted Loring, Turley or Carlisle wines? How did you find them? To me, these wines are absolutely spectacular, with balance been a cornerstone of pleasure.

What prompted this post was the wine I had yesterday – 2007 Domaine de Saint Paul Cuvée Jumille Chateauneuf-du-Pape (95% Grenache, 5% Muscardin), which was absolutely delicious, and perfectly balanced, with round, smokey, chocolatey profile. The wine also had a touch of an interesting sweetness on the finish, which prompted me to look carefully at the label – and then my eyes stopped at 15% ABV, with the first thought was “this is amazing – I don’t find even a hint of the alcohol”. Judging by this ABV number alone, the “alcohol burn” would be well expected.

Yes, the notion of the balance is personal. Still – what makes the wine balanced? Can we say that some types of grapes, such as Grenache or Zinfandel, for instance, are better suited to harmoniously envelope higher alcohol levels? Is it all just in the craft, skill, mastery and magic of the winemaker? I don’t have the answers, I only have questions – but I promise to keep on digging. Cheers!

  1. March 22, 2015 at 4:05 pm
  2. March 22, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    I completely agree with every word! The wine sounds fantastic; I need to try it! Cheers.

    • talkavino
      March 22, 2015 at 4:58 pm

      Thanks, Michelle! This was a very nice CdP for sure.

  3. March 22, 2015 at 7:36 pm

    Here’s what I think on balance. It is the most important characteristic of the wines that I appreciate. I think of balance in terms of music. Think The Rolling Stones. How good were they? And yet, there was nary a guitar, bass, or drum solo (aside from the intro to Satisfaction). Their music was an harmonic background to a theme, a support to the message of Mick’s lyric and the music as a whole. Great wines support the motion that they are trying to become.
    That’s how I see balance in wine. Of course there’s some dominant theme (Mick), but underlying and supporting the message is a balanced somewhat supportive cast.
    I think of Kiwi SB and you know there’s dominance there and yet it can still come through as a balanced whole.
    And maybe even after saying you appreciate balance, the craziest thing is that you might lust after lack of balance. Maybe you want/need a big hit of tannin, acid, or over the top fruit. The beauty of wine. There is no perfect wine but there are perfect wine moments.
    Damn you Anatoli. Now, I have to open a bottle a further contemplate balance. Do I really love it?

    • talkavino
      March 23, 2015 at 3:12 am

      Thank you for the excellent comment, Bill – great parallel with music. And “there is no perfect wine but there are perfect wine moments” should be an oenophile motto! You should write a post about it! Well, I see your point about craving acidity, fruit or tannin -yes they can be dominant, but they work with the supportive cast to achieve an overall balance, and alcohol is an equal member of the team. If you have only fruit, only acidity or only tannins, I don’t think one would enjoy such wine no matter what. Same goes for alcohol.
      And I’m sooooo sorry for making you drink more wine. Yes, I am. Not 🙂 Cheers!

  4. March 22, 2015 at 9:40 pm

    Dont see how anyone can make any assumption about correlation btwn abv and balance. Its only balanced if a good wknemaker makes it so.

    Ive had loring and it us balanced. But… I struggle with PN being that big. Imho, those need to be restrained.

    • talkavino
      March 23, 2015 at 3:04 am

      I understand “big” versus “not big”, but I don’t think it is specifically can relate to the alcohol – not sure if alcohol level is what makes the wine “big” – of course it is a factor, but I don’t think it is the only one. By the way, if I can grab on what you just said, I don’t think you can set expectations of style based on the grape, not anymore, at least. PN can be as big as winemaker desires – yes, Loring makes big wines, but have you had PN from Ken Wright? That is again next level :). But the key to enjoyment, IMHO – balance!

      • March 23, 2015 at 1:27 pm

        I think winemakers (in the name of balance) end up putting a lot of fruit to match the alcohol. Havent had Ken Wright yet… Think i might stick with my thinner “watery” Burgundies.

  5. March 23, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Great post!! Lots of good descriptions of balance all together. I like using “Harmony” as a descriptor as well… Thanks, Talkavino!

    • talkavino
      March 23, 2015 at 12:37 pm

      Thank you for your kind words, glad you liked the post!

  6. March 23, 2015 at 8:37 pm

    Hi Anatoli,
    Sorry, I fell behind and am in catch up mode!
    Interesting post, with a subject that would require time to adequately cover.
    Under the ISA wine tasting protocol balance and harmony are two different assessments.
    Balance is defined as the equilibrium between the “soft” components (sugar level, ABV and smoothness) and the “hard” components (acidity, tannins in red wines and salinity) in a wine.
    Harmony on the other hand is defined as the coherent synthesis at an outstanding quality level of the three ISA assessment phases: visual, scent and taste-scent.
    For more detailed info check out: http://florastable.com/2013/01/20/an-overview-of-the-isa-wine-tasting-protocol/
    So for ISA sommeliers ABV does play a role in assessing the balance of a wine.
    Most certainly I do not subscribe to any “maximum ABV limits”: just like you said, there are many high ABV wines that are wonderfully balanced and whose ABV is masterfully integrated.
    Last Saturday at Opera Wine I had some out of this world Amarone’s that were 15 to 15.5% ABV and everything in them was so gracefully integrated and balanced! Besides, I had a phenomenal Gewürz that was 14.5% ABV (!!!) and you could not even remotely tell.
    There just are no hard and fast rules to apply – wine tasting is not math (fortunately, I might add!)
    Take care my friend

    • talkavino
      March 24, 2015 at 1:35 am

      Thanks, Stefano, I’m glad you found balanced Amarone – you will have to tell me the name, as I’m almost losing faith in my most favorite wine… Very interesting to hear that ISA has definitions of both balance and harmony, and balance is defined more as a technical characteristic. It is different convey feelings with words, isn’t it 🙂 Cheers!

  1. March 23, 2015 at 2:18 pm

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