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Weighing the Term 'Balance'

March 2009
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • "Balance" is one of the most desired qualities in wine, but the term turns out to mean different things to different people, and in different circumstances.
     
  • Reducing balance to nothing more than normal wine chemistry means that mass-produced wines are most likely to be balanced, a theory that doesn't sit well with many winemakers.
     
  • The meaning of balance can change dramatically with different wine styles, regions and vintages, not only among different people, making it a moving target.
     
As I write this, I'm freshly back from judging at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, at which the 60 or so judges ripping through 4,763 wines over four days made liberal use of the word "balance" (or the alleged lack of it) as a prized descriptor. But what exactly does balance mean? Is it an objective descriptor, like "high acidity," or is it inevitably a subjective judgment, more like "delicious?"

The term is used so frequently by winemakers and wine writers (as well as wine judges) that hardly anyone thinks about it very often. Most of the people I called and traded e-mails with for this definitional quest started with a generic description along the lines of, "Nothing sticks out, everything comes together," which turned out to mean a number of different things.

Tom Doczy of John Christopher Cellars describes balance as the ability to "make every part of your mouth come alive."Perhaps for this reason, sensory scientists like Hildegarde Heymann at the University of California, Davis, rarely deploy the term. But the rest of us in the wine business use it all the time, both as a marker for high praise in wine descriptions and as a central goal of winemaking craftsmanship. Surely it must mean more than just, "I like this wine," right?

Chemistry and beyond

Hand sorting wine
 
Tom Doczy of John Christopher Cellars describes balance as the ability to "make every part of your mouth come alive."
At the most basic level, balance is a way to capture the happy interplay of major wine components, the fact that the underlying wine chemistry is within normal bounds. (See "Beginner's Guide to Balance," February 2009.) So far, so good. And for certain wine styles, there's a general acknowledgement that a high value in one component needs something else to even things out--higher acidity to keep the crispness in sweet white wines, more fruit intensity to stand up to the alcohol in bigger-bodied reds. Fair enough.

But if wine chemistry is the whole story, Two Buck Chuck is the best-balanced wine in the marketplace. Mass-produced, industrially engineered wines are pretty much guaranteed to have all their numbers lined up: "That's, in fact, the main thing you're paying for in those wines," says Santa Barbara Pinot/Syrah specialist Lane Tanner.

Most of my co-definers agree, sometimes grudgingly, that generic, low-end wines with safely generic numbers could be described as balanced--though several hasten to add, "balanced but boring." Temecula winemaker Joe Hart adds that it isn't just inexpensive wines that qualify for the faint praise of balanced-but-boring; he's been drinking a lot of Australian reds lately that all seem to him to have been made by the same recipe: good chemistry, but "without any zip or zest."

Bay Area Zinfandel magnate Kent Rosenblum, on the other hand, isn't willing to concede balance credentials to mass-produced wines, saying that for him the telltale signs of huge-tank fermentation produce a negative character. There may be no faults, he says, but there may also be nothing positive.

Tom Doczy, winemaker for John Christopher Cellars in Livermore, Calif., thinks the concept of balance also includes the capacity to "roll around your tongue, make every part of your mouth come alive, with different parts tasting different things"--thus wedding balance to its relatives, complexity and completeness.

Oregon winemaker Tony Soter (formerly of Napa) is one of several experts I contacted who feel that industrial wines possess not balance, but a lowest-common-denominator effect. "They're calculated to be middle-of-the-road, mediocre instead of balanced. If that's the definition of balance, it's a rationale for taking the character out of wine." From this perspective, meeting balance's negative criteria--that nothing is out of whack--has to be accompanied by something that gives it a positive side--something that makes all that wine chemistry worth it.

Wine Spectator writer/critic Harvey Steiman has what seems to me the most elegant solution to the problem of balanced-but-boring. He thinks balanced is a legitimate descriptor for some mass-produced wines, even if they may not be very expressive or complex. He uses it as a descriptive term, neither pro nor con. "But when I want to say the elements of a wine come together in a way that's good, I use 'harmony,' or 'harmonious.'" Balance at a higher level.

Taming the Brix

One of the reasons I called Joe Hart for this survey was a previous conversation about one of his Syrahs that contained, let's just say, beaucoup de alcohol. It wasn't Hart's idea; the grower apparently decided to take a little vacation right around harvest time, leaving Hart holding the Brix. He thinks the wine tastes perfectly good (with a small dollop of residual sugar), but it doesn't fit his own personal definition of balanced Syrah.

Kathy Joseph
 
Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars says "nothing should stick out" in a balanced win e.
Kathy Joseph at Fiddlehead Cellars in Santa Barbara also thinks that there has to be a limit, maybe somewhere just north of 15%, past which balance is hard to come by.

In any case, balanced or not, these are wines a particular wine drinker may decide to pass on. For Steiman and Tanner, the blockbuster wines are in the same boat with the assembly-line wines: They can muster a balance, and then you may or may not want to drink them.

Similarly, there are wine lovers, even trained ones, who are or are not fond of wines with high readings on other components. "I like wines with more structure," Tony Soter says. "I like my whites dry and acidic, and that doesn't appeal to a lot of folks who want opulent wines, what I'd call cloying. Something I'd call crisp, they'd call lean, tart, austere."

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, Mark Wagner at Lamoreaux Landing has to deal with the different perceptions among consumers about the presence of some sugar in many of his wines. For some, any sugar is too much--or at least a complete surprise. Balancing the various levels of sugar in off-dry and dessert wines turns out to involve more than just ratcheting up the acidity, since the alcohol level can also add to the perception of sweetness, and how well that fits in depends on the variety.

He recalls a Gewürztraminer that came in at 15.2% alcohol--remember, this is the Finger Lakes, not Napa--and had no residual sugar, but a definite sensation of sweetness. "Was it balanced?" he asks himself. "I don't know, but it was beautiful."

Balance for what?

Wagner's argument that Gewürz can handle more alcohol than Riesling raises the question of how balance can differ among grape varieties. The reason Joe Hart is reluctant to call his nearly flammable Syrah balanced, even though he thinks it's tasty, is because it doesn't fit the idea of Syrah he has in head, which is bone dry and much lower in alcohol. If a winemaker swapped the standard acidity levels of a Carneros Chardonnay and a bracing white from the Jura, both wines would be considered not only out of balance, but downright unrecognizable.

Mark Wagner points out the importance of vintage variation; the best wines from a cool year have a different balance than the best wines from a warmer one. Tom Doczy and Jon Emmerich add vineyard variation, noting it's hard to say how well a particular wine has performed on the balance beam without knowing where it came from.

And Emmerich raises an even thornier question: balance when? The week a wine is bottled or two decades later? He's in the camp that has doubts about the longevity of some of today's high-prestige, high-alcohol wines, even if they are balanced at birth. Even if they do retain balance years later, it will clearly be a different constellation of characteristics than, say, a classic Bordeaux.

And then there's balance for whom? People in the industry, people who've tasted zillions of wines over the years, are likely to be looking for something different than a first-time consumer. "The perception of balance," says Kathy Joseph, "depends on the experience of the taster. Nothing should stick out for inexperienced tasters, but the more experienced your palate is, the more you're looking for."

Use at your own risk

So, we end up with a term that has near-universal usage and not much definition. You know you have a slippery term when people try to define it by analogy: Tom Doczy likens balance to a guitar chord, where all six strings have to be in harmony, and Lane Tanner said it's like making a pan sauce, add a little sugar, then a little vinegar, then…

"There's no final authority on what words like this mean," Steiman says. Tony Soter says the term is so overused and subjective that he hasn't used it in years. "The notion behind it is a strong motivator; a good wine is seamless, with a harmony of components. Balance is important to focus on as a craftsman, but it's not in my lexicon." And Mark Wagner points out that when he's eating a steak, he might not want "balanced" wine--he wants something with big tannins.

Sigh. Another one bites the dust.

When things stick out
 

 
The consensus on balance begins to fray noticeably when one or more components gets more prominent. Can a wine be considered balanced when one of its moving parts strays from the normal path--or at least what used to be considered "normal?" For example, what about a Zinfandel with the alcohol pushing 16%?

Hand sorting wine
 
Kent Rosenblum
Kent Rosenblum, whose Bay Area label has issued a long string of Zins near that profile, certainly thinks it's possible to make wines with elevated alcohol and perfectly good balance, as long as the fruit and tannin levels are strong enough that the alcohol doesn't "stand out and announce itself." He also observes that writers seem much more agitated about this issue than consumers.

Jon Emmerich, winemaker at Silverado Vineyards in Napa's Stags Leap, agrees that high-test wines can come out balanced. "If you know from the onset of picking that the wine is going to be 15-plus, you do things differently than for lower alcohol--you go for balance through things like barrel stirring for Chardonnay, lees contact, skin contact, more new oak and so on," he says. The result can have fine balance for a brand new wine, though he has his doubts about how well those wines will retain their balance over time.

T.P.

Tim Patterson writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process. Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.
 
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