Many would argue that higher level aesthetic values, e.g. elegance, harmony and balance, are key in evaluating the quality of wine. But I think that, despite what we may have been taught and initially think, they are not necessarily positive values. In this blog post I shall look closer at the term balance, as somehow it seems more straightforward to me, but I believe elegance and harmony are related terms, and can be subject to a similar analysis.
In a very narrow context, balance is very easy to understand. The best wine example is in the balance between sweetness and acidity, which I discussed recently. The wine can be too sweet and cloying, or it can be unpleasantly acidic, but if you can get the balance right the effect is pleasing. Of course, it is not quite as simple as that. People might prefer difference balances, and different balances might suit different purposes. I would also add that, to my taste at least, balance between extremes is very different to balance between more moderate points of the spectrum.
Balance in the many other aspects of wine is a more complex issue, but perhaps it can be illustrated by describing the opposite of balance. An unbalanced wine has one or more properties that stick out and draw your attention to them, distracting from the appreciation of the whole.
Generally speaking, balance is indeed important to me. I would like most of my wines to be balanced, particularly if I am drinking the wine with elegant food of the classic European tradition – food that people of my cultural background would say is itself well-balanced.
But how boring it would be if all wines were balanced! And I do not see lack of balance as being necessarily negative for wine. Indeed, when I try to recall wines I have enjoyed a lot, it seems to be the unbalanced ones that more readily spring to mind. One or two of these have featured on my blog, e.g. Blandy’s Bual 1954 and Huasa de Trequilemu. For me, those two in particular come under the category of interesting and thought-provoking wines. I don’t think one can generalise on whether unbalanced wines demand food; the Madeira should be enjoyed by itself, but Huasa de Trequilemu is very much a food wine. What I would say, though is that any matching food needs a character that is assertive, though not necessarily strongly flavoured and rustic.
There are also wines that are unbalanced in a much more subtle way than those described in the previous paragraph; they are just a little too tannic, acidic or sweet. For these wines, it is often just a question of finding the right food to set them off and restore the balance. There is not necessarily anything wrong with either food or wine, but the combination improves both. A good example is the match of tannic or acidic wine with fatty food, where the wine is said to “cut through the fat”.
In conclusion, I would agree that balance is an important factor to consider in wine, and often a well-balanced wine is a wonderful thing. In such cases I think critics probably tend not to comment on balance at all, and that probably reinforces the idea that balance is always a virtue in wine – because you only hear about it in a positive sense. But there are also excellent wines that cannot at all be described as balanced.