by Peter Bell, Winemaker
Yesterday I drove over to Ithaca, New York, to teach a class at Cornell University. The lecture I gave, titled Balance in Wine, has been a regular of mine in that class for 17 years now. I often begin by telling the students (most of whom are not planning to become wine makers) that understanding this concept is probably the single most powerful tool for understanding wine.
How We Achieve Balance Around the Winery
It’s a fun class to teach, because I get to watch a bunch of eager young people experience a palpable ‘aha!’ reaction right in front of my face. I never fail to point out that a little wine knowledge is way better than a lot of wine pseudo-knowledge, and that talking in mixed company about a wine’s balance is a sure way to enhance one’s charisma. After all, I say, most of you are about to graduate, and many of you will be interviewing for a job in your field shortly afterwards. You make the short list, your prospective employer takes you out to dinner, and not only do you feel confident suggesting which wine to order (thanks to some of the other things you learned in this class), but you are then able to make some impressive comment on the great balance of the wine! Fairy tale ending: you are offered the job on the spot.
It’s all very well to explain verbally and visually what the deal is with balance in wine, and that’s what I start by doing, but the real lesson comes when we taste together two flights of wine that have had their balance monkeyed with. Here’s what I tell them before we taste, in a much abbreviated form:
1. ‘Balance’ can be defined as the interaction and harmony between two or more of a wine’s components.
2. The major wine components that contribute to its balance are sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannins. Not all wines have sugar or discernable tannins, but all wines have acid and alcohol.
3. Other components that can be invoked in this discussion include oak vs. fruit, age vs. youth, and bitterness. Again, these are not relevant to all wines.
We’ve all tasted a wine, most likely a cheap white, that’s way out of balance with regard to sugar and acid. Often these wines (and there are actually fewer of them around than there were when I started drinking wine) are so sweet that they break the second of the two cardinal rules of the Peter Bell Wine Quality Maxim: all good wines are Delicious and Refreshing.
More common these days, though thank goodness never a problem in the Finger Lakes, are wines that are out of balance because their alcohol is too high. The interesting thing about wines in the 14-15% range is that some are in balance (and are thus refreshing), while many more are caricatures of good wine that are next to impossible to drink more than half a glass of. One of my favorite wine regions outside the Finger Lakes is the McLaren Vale in South Australia, where superb, exquisitely balanced Grenache wines are made that have upwards of 15% alcohol. By contrast, many high end reds from a certain state on a certain coast of this country, which I will not name, are far too many jammy and hot, and are something that fewer and fewer people want to actually drink because that alcohol sears the palate.
The best way to learn about balance in wine is to take a rather clinical approach. That’s just what we do in the Cornell class. The day before my lecture, I take some bottles of out Chardonnay, and add things to them to manipulate their balance. These can then be compared to an undoctored Control bottle. In one, I add a half a percent of sugar, just enough to be noticeable to most discerning tasters. In another I add a touch of citric acid, while in another I actually remove some acid by adding a small amount of an alkali.
We repeat the exercise with a dry red, only this time I've added to the doctored bottles some acid, some extra ethanol, and some tannins. I urge the students to do a lot of comparing and contrasting, exactly in the way that we do here at the winery when we are deciding on a final blend for a wine or a last-minute tweak.
What we did at the Cornell class is a little too difficult to try at home, unless you have some specialized lab equipment for measuring stuff out. An alternative exercise is to open two or more bottles of similar wines – say, Finger Lakes semi-dry Rieslings – and taste them in a sort of clinical way (no food, no social distractions). Your understanding of balance will be dramatically enhanced. Then head out to that job interview! You're gonna knock 'em dead!