I’ve been thinking about harmony as it applies to wine this week but got distracted by the idea of balance, a related but dissimilar concept. I think there are problems with how this word gets used in some contemporary debates and so harmony will have to wait until next week.
Balance refers to the relative prominence of the basic structural components of a wine–fruit, sugar, acid, tannins, alcohol and oak. When no one element is dominant, nothing sticks out as too much, a wine is in balance. An unbalanced wine will have one or more of these components noticeably too prominent given the style of wine in question. This is an important qualification. Balance is varietal and regional specific. A Barolo will have more prominent acidity and tannin relative to fruit than a Napa Cab. But that doesn’t mean the Barolo is out of balance if it’s balance is characteristic of the grape or region.
Balance is also subject to individual differences. Individuals differ in their sensitivity to alcohol, tannins, acidity and sugar. A person more sensitive to tannins than average will find tannic wines out of balance that others find acceptable.
Here is the issue I want to point to. Over the past several years many writers and critics have been advocating for better balanced wines with less alcohol. The complaint is that very ripe wines, especially from California, are too high in alcohol and thus out of balance. Excessive alcohol and excessively ripe fruit, it is alleged, lack nuance and complexity, feel too heavy in the mouth and are thus tiresome to drink. Granted many California Cabernets (and other varietals) are high in alcohol pushing well past 15% in some cases. But high alcohol would be out of balance only if there is insufficient fruit extract and acidity to bring them into balance. And this is typically not the case. High alcohol by itself would not cause a wine to be imbalanced since balance is a relationship between several components. There are of course California Cabs that lack acidity or show distracting hot alcohol but that isn’t generally a characteristic. One might not like these wines. I’m only occasionally attracted to then. But it isn’t balance they lack but finesse.
What those who claim to seek balance in wines are after is, in fact, a different style, not more balance. They prefer lighter wines with less fruit extract and more finesse. Not better balanced wines but wines with a different balance point.