On my first visit to Napa Valley in spring 1979, I was fortunate to meet two icons of the growing California wine scene, Mike Grgich and Charlie Wagner. I often reflect on that momentous visit as I was also unknowingly introduced to a pivotal concept in fine wine. Without really understanding what I was discovering at our farewell dinner over a bottle of 1974 Joseph Phelps Insignia, I did know I was drinking something very special.
That experience encouraged me to delve further into wine, and the 1974 Insignia soon became a benchmark in my memory bank to define balance and structure. On returning home to Los Angeles after my “maiden voyage” to the Napa Valley, I began a journey that led to learning more about wine through reading everything I could find, joining various tasting groups and attending some informative wine classes. The search was on and I was a willing explorer.
Truly great wines are not necessarily a product of a critic’s score or a lofty price tag. Rather, they are separated from the pack by exhibiting pristine balance and a well-defined structure that ensure not only early enjoyment but also an ability to stand the test of time as they age gracefully in the bottle.
Balance is achieved only when the key elements — fruit, acidity, tannin and alcohol — complement rather than overshadow each other. There is no formula for calculating or creating balance and the component levels will fluctuate because of multiple influences of the vintage, growing area and varietal to name a few.
Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the grower to protect the health of the vine and its fruit through the growing season. The winemaker must then shoulder the responsibility of making the proper harvest decisions and carrying his expertise forward in the winery to maintain balance from fermentation to bottling.
In our everyday lives, we appreciate balance as essential in many ways, but its role in the world of food and wine may seem more elusive. Do we overscrutinize the individual flavors and textures of a great dish as they coalesce to yield a memorable culinary experience? Maybe not.
But when vinaigrette tastes more like vinegar, lemon pie is far too tart or chili is “on fire,” we can appreciate just a few examples of how one ingredient present in excess will draw attention to itself rather than the dish as a whole. The same is true with wine.
Structure is a bit harder to define. And as an analogy, I usually look to our own bodies in drawing some parallels. The definition should come into better focus when we think of acidity as the backbone and skeleton supporting the weight and dimension of everything else. Tannin represents the musculature holding the skeleton together while adding shape to the frame. Fruit is the flesh adding its own character to complete the picture.
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It’s easy to see why wines without proper acidity become “flabby” and collapse on the palate. This is why acidity is considered by many as the key player in defining structure. It assumes a dual role (skeleton and musculature) in white, sparkling and rosé wines as they have very little, if any, tannin for support. Tannin is an integral part of all reds albeit at different levels for various varietals (e.g. lower in pinot noir and higher in cabernet sauvignon), and the flavor impressions contributed by fruit round out the experience while playing an important role in defining the character of each wine.
Alcohol contributes to the body and mouthfeel of wine by adding a softening touch, but in excess it can add heat on the finish and an awkward sense of sweetness to the palate. Most overly alcoholic table wines are a result of over-ripe fruit at harvest that also brings along lower acidity, soft “mushy” tannins and prune flavors to the finished wine, diminishing both balance and structure.
But how does all this talk of balance and structure affect our enjoyment of a particular wine and where does aging potential enter the picture?
I see balance as the ultimate arbiter of a wine’s quality. And when a wine is in balance, the structure will naturally follow as it is itself a product of the components creating balance. Wines are considered in balance when the influence of fruit, acidity, tannin and alcohol meld together to create a seamless tapestry with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
In a fine wine, each element of the bouquet, flavor and texture is recognizable on its own but none overwhelms the other. As a balanced wine ages, all of the elements continue to grow in harmony creating added layers of complexity along with secondary aromatics and flavors that become the rewards of aging.
However, when a wine lacks balance in its youth, it will present itself as clumsy, flabby or distorted in countless other ways. And no amount of aging will correct the situation. It is a well known axiom in the world of wine that, “a wine out of balance in its youth will not develop balance as it ages.”
Seeking out wines displaying balance and structure doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices and limited availability. The search only leads to a more satisfying vinous experience for current enjoyment and aging potential.