Blind Justice: the Wine Edition

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.

Sugar in veraison

Acid in veraison
When grapes are in veraison, they’re doing two things. They’re developing sugar, but also developing their phenolic ripeness, which are the aromatic compounds in the wine. Recently producers and regions, in a desire to push for complex phenols are disregarding their sugar levels. In order to get the phenols as ripe as they dare, producers wind up with wines with very high alcohol levels. The southern Rhone has fallen victim (or developed positively, depending on how you personally look at this) to this recently in a very hard way, as has Alsace. So, great, you have a huge fruit character (that’s definitely not necessarily a negative), your acid is low (but you can correct that in the winery), and your wine is at 15%+ alcohol, or (in the case of Alsace) lower alcohol, but sweet. When I stick my nose in the glass of 15% wine, I can immediately smell the alcohol to an overriding (for my taste) degree. I drink wine for the other aromas, and rarely find myself wanting a wine this high in alcohol. From a winemaker’s perspective, I believe the idea is that the fruit character in the wine will be so massive and dense as to override the possible boozyness of the wine. And yes, this is definitely achievable (I love Amarone, for example), but it makes for a very inflexible wine. The wine almost becomes too big to pair with food, and I only want to drink so much of such richness and denseness alone. I need some levity.

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!

About Morgan

Liquid enthusiast. Sommelier and wine communicator living and working in New York City.
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