Let it be said that I am an acid freak. I love ripping high acid wines: Loire Chenin Blanc, German Riesling, white Burgundy, Nebbiolo of any sort, Barbera, cool-vintage red Burgundy. I’ll extend that to beers. I have found my self drinking nothing other than Guezes and Lambics recently. The Saison de Pipaix (bottled in ’95) I had the other night was one of the best/weirdest things I’ve ever imbibed. I was also at a very fine cocktail bar recently, and found myself routinely requesting that the bartender to add just a spritz of lemon or lime juice to most of my drinks (I’m a Philistine, I know). I really enjoy the way all these high-acid beverages cruise through my palate like a laser. They linger, but they are also unrelentingly (what I like to call) “directional”. They always take me on a journey. But again, this is a personal preference.
That being said, I felt really silly during my Certified Sommelier exam when I was tasting one of my wines, which was clearly New World, and I realized I have no idea what this grape is because I never buy wine in this style. So, then the question comes up, what is balance? We can certainly talk about some dimensional criteria here, but ultimately, it’s up to the end consumer to decide whether or not a wine is in balance to their tastes.
So, in wine, when we talk about “balance” we’re talking about three dimensions to a wine. Most experts would say they are the alcohol, acid, and the fruit/mineral (you can have one or the other, or both) character of the wine. These three function relative to each other in a sort of checks-and-balances way. Much like the three branches of American government, each element regulates the other two.
If the fruit/mineral element is too large relative to acid, you get a “flawed” wine. Wines that have a tendency to this flaw are universally hot climate wines like California viogner, Chateauneuf-Du-Pape blanc, Argentinian Malbec, or Amador Zinfandel. Grapes are basically little, green, acid-filled BBs for most of the growing season. Then the grapes enter their ripening period, called veraison. In most regions this happens in early August (or the Southern Hemisphere equivalent). Sugar production takes off at a ridiculous rate at this point and will continue until harvest. The hotter and sunnier it is, the more sugar you get. Acid struggles to keep up, but in hot climates/hot vintage years this just isn’t possible. In wine balance, acid tempers fruit and fruit tempers acid. Consequently, this is why acidification (remember the story of California Chardonnay?) is common in hot regions. If it’s not warm enough, you get the opposite problem and you need to chaptalize, which means the addition of sugar to the grape juice in order to get your alcohol levels up (think about the fermentation formula). Cool climate regions frequently practice chaptalization.Wines with the tendency to require this are generally very high acid and are, well, just look at the first line of this post.
As I write this post, I realize how inseparable these elements of wine are. You can’t talk about any of them on their own. They are integral to the function of each other in a wine, and whatever your taste, you should be able to identify these three elements in the wine yourself so that you can begin to describe wine that you like to people who really know their product, in order to get the right thing in your glass. These seems like a marginal amount of information to know, and I strongly believe it will lead you to better drinking. Just start thinking about wine in these three dimensions. Try to evaluate all wine on these three criteria, and you’ll be able to develop a way to describe your own taste. Do you like high acid, lean wines? Do you like low-acid, dense wines? or do you like them somewhere in the middle? There are other combinations to be had between these three options, but generally wine will fall into one those three categories. Above all, I suggest you explore. You may surprise yourself!