Wine appreciation and architecture

I’ve been taking a bit of a break from wine recently and catching up on an old interest of mine – architecture – and eventually came across my copy of Andrea Palladio’s The Four Books on Architecture. Here I paused, partly because I was just so impressed by Palladio’s work, and partly because my mind started wandering back to wine. Specifically, I was thinking about well-balanced wines.

All classical architects stress the importance of balance and harmony, but one of the strongest proponents is Palladio. For him there was little compromise. Architecture should follow the precedents laid down by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who in turn seem to have spent a lot of time obsessing about what looks right. And form should be determined by function: columns should look solid, arches unbroken, and the exterior should reflect the interior structure – there is no room for deception and trickery. The Villa Rotunda is perhaps Palladio’s most famous building – see drawings above. I find it difficult to imagine any building more balanced, harmonious, stable and restful. Just looking at the drawings makes me thing of a beautiful well-balanced wine: one with all the correct elements present, but nothing out of place or obtrusive.

OK it’s beautiful, but isn’t this all a bit boring? In both architecture and wine? I’m not sure I would use the word boring. I actually find harmony and balance rather stimulating in a quiet sort of way. But on the other hand I would not want everything to be balanced. Wonkiness, funk, flamboyance and individualism has its place. But it is reassuring to be able to return to the comfort and safety of classicism now and then.

And isn’t the definition of balance rather arbitrary? It is all very well for the ancient Greeks and the wine trade to define balance in their respective fields, but what about the rest of the world? Yes it is arbitrary, but even if there are billions in the world who might disagree there is a broad consensus in our own little corner of Western culture. Sometimes, while not being blind to others, we just have to accept the culture in which we live.

I might return in my blog with further architecture-wine pairs as there must be others if I put my mind to it. But for now I shall stick at this single example – one that occurred to me spontaneously – Palladianism and balanced wine.

Just one final thought. Discussions of music and wine always seem to slip into matching the two, whatever that means. So how about a bit of architecture-wine matching? I have not tried it, but would love to. Of course, architecture is not meant to be enjoyed from drawings any more than wine is from technical specifications, so you should really taste the wine while wandering around the building, inside and out. It would be a lot more difficult to organise than music-wine matching, but if anyone would like to transport me to Villa Rotunda with some nice wine I will happily comply. The idea of enjoying wine in a Palladian villa sounds wonderful!

The Yin and Yang of wine appreciation

Yin_and_Yang_svgI don’t want heavy-in on Chinese philosophy here, partly because I am not convinced Yin and Yang match very well onto what I have to say. But they suit my purpose in that they represent different aspects of the same thing, and that thing is strongest if the Yin and Yang are in balance. Rather than enter into a debate about which aspects of wine appreciation are Yin and Yang, I am simply going to declare that I am using Yin to represent the tendency to collect wine and intellectualise about it, while Yang is for drinking and enjoyment.

The Yin of wine appreciation
Yin is the shady side of the hill or valley.  And where better to locate your cellar?  It should of course also be underground, and with plenty of shelving for your unopened cases, and racks for bottles, each major wine region and producer in its own section. There may be a few wine books down there, but your main library of well-thumbed book is more accessible. Drinking wine breaks up your collection, and seems like a bit of a waste. If you are to open your bottles, you would prefer to use them as an educational opportunity, with like-minded people in vertical and horizontal tastings. Yin usually represents the female aspect of something, but I bet you are a bloke.

The Yang of wine appreciation
Yang is on the sunny side, and in the summer you will be out in the sun drinking a bottle of something. You have a good palate, and can easily tell the difference between the good stuff and plonk without seeing the label, which is just as well because you really couldn’t be bothered to read the label. But you have a picture of it on your phone, and you might remember what you were told about the wine at the time of buying or consumption. Drinking wine gives you a great deal of pleasure at many levels, and you would find it hard to live without it. There’s a small selection of good bottles under the stairs, though you are never entirely sure what is there. Yang is supposed to be male, but you are just as likely to be female.

I hope I have made my point by now: wine appreciation has an intellectual and a hedonistic aspect, but in my opinion it is strongest – and most fun – when the two are in balance. In my portrayals, I suspect that Yang seems more normal than Yin to most of us, as it is closer to the social-drinking end of wine appreciation. But do let at least a little Yin into your life, even if you think the balance should not be fifty-fifty.

Is balance always a good thing in wine?

BalansMany 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.

(Image is licenced under GFDL, and attributed to Josh from nl)