Most premium wines and even many budget wines are balanced. To say a wine is balanced doesn’t tell us much except that it was competently made. We need to distinguish balanced wines from wines that exhibit great harmony and integration.
Balance refers to the relative prominence of the basic structural components of a wine–fruit, sugar, acid, tannins, alcohol, and oak. When no single element is too 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 qualification regarding style is important. Balance is specific to varietals, regions, and even vineyards. A Barolo will have more prominent acidity and tannins relative to fruit than a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. But that doesn’t mean the Barolo is out of balance if its balance is characteristic of the Nebbiolo grape from that region.
Balance is also subject to individual differences in perception. 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 though others will find them acceptable.
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.
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 the wine changes in the bottle.
We need a word to describe what good yet less expensive wines share and I think “balance” qualifies. If a wine is balanced it will be satisfying even if it’s short on complexity, intensity, or finesse.
But if we are going to describe the full range of wine quality, its essential that we distinguish balance from a related concept—harmony. Too often, in wine writing, balance and harmony are treated as synonyms. But I think they are distinct concepts.
Many wines are balanced but don’t leave an impression of cohesive activity. The structural elements of the wine stay out of the way of each other and nothing stands out as “too much,” but there is no impression of interaction among the elements. By contrast 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 there 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. The notes are harmonious or “in harmony” when they sound consonant. The sounds are working together to create a unified whole in which the separateness of the notes is muted and they sound like they belong together. Many harmonies contain dissonant notes but will be in harmony if there is a balance of consonant and dissonant notes.
A simple triad (e.g. a C chord played on the piano) is consonant or “in harmony” 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 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 prior to the 20th Century. The composer’s skill and artistry was in 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 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. I suggest that when describing wines, we make more use of this distinction between balance and harmony.