Two years ago I attended the Pebble Beach Wine and Food Grand tasting, a terrific place to taste a cross section of wine styles and sample tasty bites from celebrity chef’s.
I tasted nearly 50 wines in the 3 hours and I met Gary Pisoni, proudly presenting his Garry’s Vineyard Pinot’s. His Pinot’s were dark in color, masculine, raisined, sweet and over-ripe and hot at 14.5% alcohol.
It was obvious that this was not a winemaking accident; he made them this way on purpose.
I hate raisins in Pinot Noir and commented to Gary that the fruit would have made great wine at 12.5% or 13.5%, but got a dark look and mute response.
Gary’s wine was out of balance. Both wines were over-ripe, as are thousands of wines from around the world, as winemakers pursue the elusive 90 point laurels bestowed by wine critics like Robert Parker for bold wines that standout from the crowd.
What is balance anyway?
Sweet, fat, over-ripe, oaky, hot, alcoholic, pineapple, raisins, stewed fruit; tannic, lean, acidic, tart, hard, green – are all descriptors most often associated with wines that are out of balance.
The over-ripe descriptors typically associated with warm climate wines from the New World. The under-ripe descriptors, often historically associated with Old World wines.
But wait, it’s not that simple. What’s seems too sweet for me, might be perfect for your palate preference. What you describe as acidic and undrinkable could be the source of a great deal of enjoyment for me, when accompanying an appetizer of garlic, chili prawns.
So while personal preferences are exactly that, personal, we need to better define balance in a way that has universal meaning and can guide the way wine is marketed and appreciated for the benefit of wine consumers.
Here’s a definition we can all agree on and it comes from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, based in London.
“Fruitiness and sweetness alone can make a wine taste sickly or cloying. Acidity and tartness alone or in excess can make a wine taste hard, unpleasant or austere. In a good quality wine, the sweetness and the fruitiness will be in balance with the tannin and acidity.”
How did wine get so far out-of-balance?
How did we get so far out-of-balance in the first place, that calls for a swing back balance?
Thirty years ago the typical alcohol level of a good quality red wine was 12-12.5%, today, its 14-14.5%.
What factors contributed to our current fad of over-ripe styles?
- Over the past 20-30 years, viticulture and winemaking technology and practices have improved globally and this translates into better quaity wine in the bottle.
- A warming trend over the past 20 years has affected all wine growing regions and it means fewer vintages where grapes fail to fully ripen and less unripe wines on the market… good news for Bordeaux and Burgundy lovers.
- For the past 30 years, Robert Parker and a cadre of wine critics contributing to The Wine Enthusiast, Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator and handful of other magazines have hugely influenced the awareness and appreciation of wine globally. This is a double-edged sword;
- The good news is that we, the general public, have benefited from the years of education and the influence these publications have had on quality and our appreciation of wine.
- The bad news is that wine styles have adapted to achieve favorable coverage and reviews from a handful of enormously powerful individuals through their publications
- Receiving a score of more than 90 points from these publications means commercial success for the wine.
- Less than 90 points could mean that a well made, balanced and viable wine may not even make it onto the retail shelf and potential discounting to move the wine at the cellar door or wholesale.
In striving to achieve the magical 90 points, the qualities that winemakers in Australia and California strive to produce are intensity, ripeness, complexity and expressiveness. What about balance?
The resulting red wines are big, intense, oaky and alcoholic (typically 14+% alcohol).
Unless you are trying to make Amarone or Tawny Port, raisins are an undesirable red wine quality, yet many New World red wines exhibit raisins or the over-ripe characteristics of Lodi Zinfandel, (sweet, fat and lacking acidity)
The oaked white wines, intense, ripe, oaky, alcoholic (typically 13.5+ % alcohol).
Over-ripe Chardonnay tastes like pineapple, whether it comes from Santa Lucia Highlands, Washington State, Sonoma, or the Adelaide Hills in S.A. The cult of cult wines has also contributed to wines that are intense, over the top and out of balance.On a visit to Australia two years ago, my brother and I conducted an exercise in Dan Murphy’s bottle shop in Robina, Queensland and found only two Shiraz, Cabernet or Shiraz/Cab blends out of more than 150 wines with under alcohol 14% and they were both Cab-Merlots from cool climate regions in Western Australia.
Dr. Henry Lindeman, a 19th Century Australian winemaking pioneer said, “The one purpose of wine is to bring happiness”. That phrase, heard many years ago in an Australian television commercial stuck with me. I would add that, “the purpose of wine is for enjoyment with food and conviviality with friends”. The history of wine and food enjoyed together dates back to the ancient Greeks.
Balance in wine is most important for enjoyment with food, as well as the expression and appreciation of varietal character, regional influence and terroir.
When living in St Andrews, I attended a tasting of 2004 Barossa Valley Reds from South Australian winemaker Ben Glazer. The 2004 vintage in Barossa Valley was a very good year for Shiraz and blends.
I had tasted quite a few Barossa 04’s prior to the tasting, great fruit and balance, although not as concentrated or intense as the 01’s. Glaetzer’s wines were all over-the-top styles at 14.5% alcohol or higher and seemed sweet, overripe and alcoholic.
I remarked to Ben that the fruit in the wines was fantastic, and it would have made great wine at 12.5% or 13.5%, but at 15+% they were over-the-top and would have made good fortifieds.
I cannot think of any practical food pairing for wines this big. It was obvious they were designed to appeal to the likes of Robert Parker and co. who at the time were championing old-vine, big, ripe, Barossa Shiraz.
Ultimately balance is about getting what you paid for – and balance and varietal character must be present in equal parts.
Remember our definition, “In a good quality wine, the sweetness and the fruitiness will be in balance with the tannin and acidity.”
Balance is also important in longevity – if you plan to cellar wine for more than a year then it is important to look for wines that are balanced, before they are laid down.
How to find balanced wines
- Become familiar with house/winemaker styles and avoid the winemakers and brands that consistently produce out of balance wines.
- Learn the vintage characteristics for the wines you prefer to drink – avoid unripe vintages and hot vintages affected by extended heat-waves late in the ripening season.
- Look for wines with balanced alcohol levels – 11.5-13% for whites, and 12-13.5% for reds.
- Read reviews from trusted wine bloggers or major wine shippers and avoid wines where descriptors indicate lack-of balance. I buy most of my wine and really like the research and tasting notes K&L Wines provides. Only once in 20 years have I had to return a wine that did not stack up to its description
Here are a couple examples of balanced wines that are delicious now and will improve with short term cellaring, but won’t break the bank, – try these beauties.
La Massa Super Tuscan
2014 Commanderie de la Bargemone Coteaux d’Aix en Provence Rosé (Don’t cellar this, just drink it!)
Written By: Mark Gibson
Mark Gibson Bio:
I grew up in a small country town near the Barossa Valley in South Australia, Australia’s most famous wine growing region.
I had my first wine experience at the age of 12.
My friend would purloin the odd bottle of Moselle or Riesling from his father’s wine cupboard and we would steal away and drink them out of the bottle. I’ve had a lifelong passion for Riesling as a result of this early experience.
Fast forward 50 years and a career that includes selling computer systems to chief winemakers at most of the major wine companies in Australia. I have organized and run wine clubs in Australia, England, Scotland and here in the US.
I am fortunate to have been to and tasted wines in many of the World’s great wine growing regions, including Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone, South of France, Tuscany, Stellenbosch, most wine growing regions in Australia, as well as Chile and California.
I’ve tasted many thousands of wines and have developed a pretty good palate in that time.
The pursuit of value wines has become a hobby and a passion I like to share. By value I mean the wine delivers true varietal flavor, is free of faults, is balanced and displays quality that is not normally associated with wines of the same price, or in the vernacular, the wine “punches above its weight”.