Recently in a post complaining about how the term “balance” has been abused in the wine world, I defined it as “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. Today, I complain about confusing balance and harmony.
Balance is the crucial standard for a wine because it characterizes a wine that is pleasant to drink. Wines that are out of balance will always be unpleasant. They will be harsh, cloying, sour or clunky and include distracting elements that interfere with enjoyment. Even novice tasters can sometimes identify unbalanced wines.
Because people differ in their sensitivity toward various components in a wine there is a subjective aspect in judging balance. Nevertheless, all wines regardless of price should be balanced, and many wines under $10 achieve it. Of course many also fail because of mistakes made in the vineyard or in the winery. But balance is always achievable; it is the bottom line when judging wine quality. Because balance is a function of the relationship between several components there will be many ways to achieve balance and each varietal and region will have many balance points. Balance doesn’t require perfect symmetry. You can draw attention to some aspect of a wine and give it emphasis as long as the other components provide sufficient counterweight. Thus, many different styles are possible within the framework of a balanced wine.
It is important to keep in mind that wines can start out being unbalanced but come into balance through the aging process. And wines can start out being balanced but lose it as it changes in the bottle.
It is important that we have a word to describe what good yet inexpensive wines share and I think balance qualifies. But if we are going to describe the full range of wine quality, it’s essential that we distinguish balance from a related concept—harmony. Too often in wine writing I see balance and harmony treated as synonyms. I think they are distinct concepts.
Many wines have balance but they don’t leave an impression of movement or cohesive activity. You can pick out each element analytically and none will stand out as being too much but there is no impression of interaction among the elements. By contrast some wines of higher quality will seem alive because their components are interacting, accentuating each other but in a way that seems consonant, not simply staying out of each other’s way but influencing each other. That is harmony. When the acidity is freshening the fruit and fruit is softening the angularity of the acidity and the dryness of the tannins; and the tannins provide a foundation that lengthens the taste experience, the wine evolving through many stages with no jarring sensations in the transitions, that is the beginning of harmony. But just the beginning.
Harmony is intimately related to complexity. When wines are simple there is not much to harmonize and what harmony there is will not be apparent. But when complexity is added to the picture the possibility of a unified story, a larger whole that the elements contribute to, emerges.
An analogy with music will help explain what I mean. Harmony in music refers to the combination of different musical notes played simultaneously that produce a pleasing sound. The sounds are working together to create a unified whole in which the separateness of the notes is muted and the sounds are consonant. But a simple triad (e.g. a C chord played on the piano) is harmonic but not very interesting. It describes an important structural element of music but has little to do with musical quality if it is unrelated to a larger musical whole. But when harmony, the sense of consonance or agreement, arises from complex disparate notes over time having a tendency toward resolution on the tonic, the foundation of the key signature, then you have the basis of musical quality at least as defined in Western, classical music. The composers skill and artistry comes from being able to take contrasting, diverse musical elements and getting them to work together and seamlessly interact to contribute to an overall pattern. Complexity without harmony is cacophony although of course dissonance can be deployed if it contributes to the larger whole and the composer is able to manage it.
Harmony in wine is similarly a function of this relationship to a larger whole that emerges through complex interaction. Great wines have tension and paradox. They have a kind of nervous energy yet feel fluent and supple. They exhibit power and delicacy, profundity and charm, yet despite the contrasts it all feels well put together in a unified whole effortlessly achieved. This goes well beyond balance.
Matt Kramer in a recent article, as well as in his book, argues that harmony is a wine fundamental, something that all wines ideally should exhibit. I’ve disagreed with some of what Kramer says in that article but on this I wholeheartedly agree. It may be the most important concept in defining wine quality.