Ramble – Throw Down – Balance

23 Mar

A shout out to Fort Worth – a great performance that’s 37 years old.

This past weekend, Anatoli over at Talk-A-Vino posted a great piece on balance in wine. You can read it here. What it did was get me thinking about that very topic. Well, actually Anatoli challenged us to think about balance in wine – what it really means, how we view it, how we value it, and what characteristics affect our take on balance. And, then post our thoughts.

Here’s my take. For years when asked what made a great wine, I’d almost always include “Balance”. It was a bit contrived, running with the herd, and disingenuous. I appreciate ‘balanced’ wines but there are times that I (and I realize many wine drinkers) love wines that are a bit skewed in one direction or another. So what does that say about balance?

The best way that I can describe my concept of balance is by referring to my second love – music. Where balance seems to oddly fit is rock music. If you’ve read Keith Richards’ autobiography, Life, you’ll have read a treatise on rock music. In particular, the rock guitar. Keith believed that the guitar wasn’t to be the primary sound of rock music. It was about the band as a whole, a wall of sound (apologies to Phil Specter) – limited guitar solos, no drum solos; just the band and the lyric. When I read that, I thought he was joking – it’s The Rolling Friggin’ Stones – there are guitar riffs and the musical thread is led by the guitar usually. But he’s right, primarily the sound, the experience of The Stones is that of a band, blending together their individual instruments to make a sound, a great and wonderful rock and roll sound. Love that balance! I get The Stones.

Now, how does that explain my love for Joe Bonamassa? Nothing classically balanced there just guitar, guitar and more screaming guitar. Or Bruce Hornsby – prodigious piano. Um.

Do I have to rethink this music parallel? I don’t think so. I think that actually reinforces the analogy. It just means we have to redefine balance – as a wine experience specific. Balance is relative – it’s never absolute or, more importantly, a substitute for equal.

balanceStay with me here. Different varietals, different regions, and different winemakers have calling cards. Some are accepted as the ‘truth’ of the grape or that particular region. And wine drinkers allow many, many takes on that card. But, they expect that calling card shows up. So, I guess what I’m saying is that some wines are in balance when they aren’t…..in balance, that is. They are the Joe Bonamassa’s – loud veins of acidity and crisp saltiness, say in a white wine like Sancerre. Anything but objectively ‘balanced’. You wouldn’t want to balance away the acidity. You would want every other note to fill out and support the crisp ambition of the wine. If it was objectively in balance, it would taste shitty. And, most importantly, it wouldn’t be Sancerre. When it’s done right, I get Sancerre.

Another example could be California Cabernet – known as big and fruit forward in some quarters. Not purely in balance. But, what needs to happen to take those big Cabs to ‘great’ is a cast that supports the notion of big and fruity. That means rhythm guitarist (tannin) and drummer (acidity) supporting the superb vocals (heft and alcohol) and lead guitar work (fruit) of the Cabernet.

Oh we’ve all had wines where we opine about the balance – an aged Bordeaux, say tasting like The Rolling Stones or Steely Dan – every note supporting the whole, every sniff filled with Bordeaux, every swallow followed by Bordeaux and a little Mick Jagger on the finish. I guess what I‘m saying is that balance is different in every wine. It’s really the wine being genuine, true and then having every other component recognizing and supporting that truth. That’s proper balance. Balance out of balance but just the same – right?

Confused? I might still be too. I’ll keep working on it. Life long learning, I say (tongue in cheek). But, I did respond to the challenge. And quickly too. Thank Anatoli for that.




4 Responses to “Ramble – Throw Down – Balance”

  1. Michael March 23, 2015 at 4:39 pm #

    Balance? Apparently your response supports what I have long surmised; Balance is in essence meaningless.

    Does “Balance” describe a push to the middle a la the VQA enforcing a strictly “balanced” flavour profile for Ontario wines? That would be one interpretation. But therein lies no creativity.

    It is, indeed, the balance of imbalance that is significant. Not just between vintages or grapes or bottles but within the individual bottle itself.

    Musically let’s discuss Jazz here. Who could, today, say Miles Davis and “Kind of Blue” is not balanced? And yet upon its release that modal style was roundly criticized as abhorrent. “Give me back Count Bassie” they cried. Where is Sarah Vaughn? Theirs were a “balanced” offerings. And spectacular! But is there no room on the balance for Rufus Harley, master of the jazz bagpipes? (If you haven’t tasted this guy’s stuff you can’t imagine what you are missing. A very weird combination of acid and tannins, alcohol and fruit that must be balanced. Mustn’t it?)

    Modal Jazz as a genre requires the individual musicians to create a “palette” around a central, shared theme or “riff.” Often this is done in the first take of recording and its essence is improvisation. Now consider tasting that ’94 Brunello or ’13 Reisling or that ’06 Rioja. When you open one of those beauties your heart is all aflutter, is it not? That first taste is, perhaps, magnificent. But is the second the same? I think not. But is it not just as magnificent?

    And what of the intervening flavours that inevitable accompany that revered quaff? Don’t they alter one’s impression of the wine? How to explain “balance” in this context? I think “balance” changes minute by minute, sip by sip. If “balance” is to mean anything it seems that it must be a description of a multiple event (tasting) experience. From beginning to end of the bottle. (Or at least to half way through)

    When someone says “Balanced” to you what do you think? Nothing comes to mind for me. It leaves me utterly in the dark. Tell me that the first taste is of Sobey’s parking lot gravel, (from Kanata of course) and that the second is perfectly balanced snow bank road salt from the east side of Jarvis at Dundas (because the sun only gets there in late afternoon). Now I can conjure an impression that will be meaningful.

    So when the pundits say “Balanced”, I say LAZY!


    • Duff's Wines March 23, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

      Yeah, I guess I did almost declare that balance is anillusive construct in wine. I get the Jazz reference too. I remember Bitch’s Brew and how I listened and listened and then I simply experienced it. Stopped making sense of it, describing it, let it come to me. Wine at its best is like that. If you let yourself, you can get it without a flavour wheel. The challenge in writing about it is that you need to express what you’ve experienced. Words can fail. I think that’s where we sometimes use words like balance and integrated. It can indeed be lazy. thanks for the comment


  2. talkavino March 23, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    Bill, this is an excellent post. So I guess I started it, which is fine. However, unfortunately, we are getting into an issue with the words and their meaning. There is a great saying in Russian – “thought spoken is a lie” – which means that whatever we say is only an approximation of what we actually think” – and it gets to play here all the way.
    Let me dig myself deeper and give you another definition of balance in wine – I would say that wine is balanced when is produces a happy and joyous EMOTIONAL response from the wine drinker, when all the components are in complete harmony.

    Extending analogy with music, I’m perfectly, enthusiastically happy with just a guitar, just a piano, just a violin, even just drum (I’ve heard a few of those too) – as long as the melody and performance lead to that happy emotional response. This is where the balance resides. Same as with the wines, appreciation of music, especially appreciation of the different kinds of music is a learned skill – and someone might simply hate Jazz, and someone might strongly dislike Rolling Stones – which is totally fine. As I said in my post, everything which relates to wine is personal. The balance is not universal – in wine or in music – it is personal. Of course well made Sancerre is balanced. Same as Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine with its steely acidity – you need to get there to say “i like it” when first-time drinker will taste only the acidity.
    When I said “balanced wine”, I never implied that the wine will have equal amounts of fruit, acidity and tannins – balance doesn’t mean “dull and boring”.

    Think about your guitar example – if someone will be rhythmically hitting two strings for 10 minutes, or hitting the same accord for 10 minutes – versus a beautiful Spanish Guitar – which one would you enjoy? Nobody would enjoy that hitting of two strings – and many, but not all, will enjoy the Spanish Guitar. Music is personal, wine is personal, but actually “bad music” will not appeal to anyone. Similarly, bad wine will not appeal to anyone. So the balance in wine would simply mean that there is a good chance of finding oenophiles who will be really happy to drink it. Okay, enough said. Let’s go look for balanced wines. Cheers!


    • Duff's Wines March 23, 2015 at 6:04 pm #

      I’ve already found one. Thanks for the idea and prod.


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