Wine writers use the word ‘balance’ a lot.
‘A beautifully balanced example of a Pinot Noir, with silky tannins and a fragrant finish’…or ‘this Chardonnay, wearing its oak lightly, has the most exquisite balance’.
The above may seem obvious to the person who wrote it, but for you, the reader, it can sometimes seem to be in a foreign language. And yet once you understand it, it will make perfect sense.
To put it simply, ‘balance’ in a wine means that all the components in that wine are in harmony with each other. There isn’t one which ‘jutts out’ above the others, making you notice that component more than everything else in the wine.
For example, a wine which is very high in alcohol and doesn’t quite have the flavour intensity to match the alcohol level will feel hot at the back of the throat, and the overall impression that you’re left with is the alcohol burn rather than the great flavours of the wine. This would be an unbalanced wine.
The same could apply to a wine which has been aged in new oak barrels; if not done skilfully, the oaky flavours might dominate the other flavours in the wine so that all you’re left with is a lingering taste of sickly vanilla. That would also be an unbalanced wine.
As an erstwhile choral singer, I like to draw a parallel with the voices in a choir. It should be possible to pick out each individual voice if you listen very, very closely – but ideally a choir should sound like one holistic sound experience, albeit a richly textured one. If one person has a particularly loud or distinctive voice, no matter how talented they are, their voice will stick out and ruin that illusion of a balanced whole.
It’s important to remember, though, that we all have very different palates when it comes to the enjoyment of wine. This means that what feels unbalanced to me may not feel so to you, and vice versa. I, for example, do quite enjoy an oaky Chardonnay, but you may deeply dislike the same wine style and feel that the oak aspect is out of balance. You may enjoy a crisp, zesty Sauvignon Blanc with bags of passionfruit & gooseberry aromas, and mouth-watering acidity – I may find it to be overkill.
But isn’t that one of the wonderful things about wine – that we can all enjoy such different styles? So experiment with it if you can – taste a couple of your favourite wines and notice how the overall harmony of each wine feels to you.
The balance of a wine is also relevant to its ability to age and improve – but more on this in future.