The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Finding Balance in Your Wine

Posted on | July 2, 2015 | Written by Michael Adler | No Comments

A balanced mountain of Masseto

A balanced mountain of Masseto

For better or worse, wine professionals often use abstract concepts to describe concrete ideas. Words like “clarity,” “focus” and “balance” find their way into a lot of wine writing, and some wine-lovers may feel mystified by these terms. Today I want to focus on balance to see if I can clear up some industry jargon.

When wine pros talk about balance, we’re looking for harmony among a wine’s primary components. In the context of wine, the three primary “notes” that we’re looking for are tannins, acidity and alcohol. Let’s take a step back and briefly define these terms.

Tannin is an organic compound found in the skins, stems and seeds of the grape that imparts an astringent texture on the corners of your mouth; because more than one tannic compound appears in a bottle of wine, we usually say “tannins.” Found in red wines and skin-contact whites, tannins have a slightly bitter taste and are sometimes confused with the term “dry” because they feel astringent, or dry, in your mouth when you swallow the juice. Think about what it feels like to drink a strongly brewed cup of black tea; you’ll experience a similar sensation when drinking tannic wines.

A wine’s acidity is its brightness and liveliness. Think about squeezing a lemon over your food and the uplifting effect that can have on a dish’s flavor. The same is true for wine. In addition to contributing tartness on the palate, acid causes your mouth to water in a pleasant, refreshing way. Too much acid can cause a wine to be sour, while wines that lack sufficient acid can be dull and flabby.

Alcohol may not need as much of an introduction, but determining how much alcohol a wine contains isn’t always easy. The best way to approximate it is to take a big sip, swish it around in your mouth to coat your palate, swallow it and then exhale deeply. The level of heat you feel in your cheeks and on the roof of your mouth is an excellent indicator of that wine’s degree of alcohol.

For a wine to be considered balanced, these three crucial elements—tannins, acidity and alcohol—must exist symmetrically alongside one another at similar levels of intensity. One way of thinking about balance is to use the musical analogy of a major chord, with three discrete notes being played at once. If one note is played more loudly louder or softly than the others, the chord as a whole sounds wrong and this lack of balance between pitches is distracting to the listener.

Unbalanced wines can often feel disjointed or confused on the palate, and they can be frustratingly difficult to pair with foods. A prime example would be the excessive use of barrique aging in the production of many New World Chardonnays. This protocol can cause those wines to be dominated by notes of vanilla, toast and spice at the expense of acidity, freshness and varietal character. While these qualities may be desirable to some, those wines lack balance and therefore function better during cocktail hour than on the dinner table—among other attributes, acidity makes food taste better.

However, don’t mistake this to mean that all wines with unusually high levels of tannins or alcohol are necessarily unbalanced. Ultra-tannic wines such as Paolo Bea’s Sagrantino di Montefalco Pagliaro require higher levels of acidity to coat the palate and harmonize with the tannins’ textural effect. Conversely, wines bottled with some residual sugar, such as Antinori’s Muffato della Sala, will also contain a higher degree of alcohol, which helps prevent them from being cloying.

Whenever you taste a new wine, ask yourself this question: are the wine’s tannins, acidity and alcohol mingling seamlessly, or does one element stand out or shy away? You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll notice about your wine once you know what to look for. Repeating this one simple practice will improve your tasting and assessment skills while also deepening your understanding of your favorite wines. Report back and let us know what you discover!

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