How do you tell the difference between a good wine, (i.e., a well made wine), and a poor one? When a popular T.V. detective asked this question while researching a homicide case involving winery principals, the merchant whom he had asked, looked down at him from over his bifocals and haughtily replied, “The price, sir!” Needless to say, the Lieutenant nailed the guilty party, despite having been fed this amusing bit of misinformation.
At WOMC we know first-hand that quality does not automatically rise in direct proportion to price. What, then, determines the real quality of a wine?
The key to the answer lies in that somewhat elusive characteristic of wine called balance. Wine tasters mention that such-and-such a wine is “well-balanced”, while another has a component that is “out of balance.” Proper balance for a given wine has to be determined not only for the category of wine, (e.g.; sherry, burgundy, blush), but for the individual wine in question, this year’s vintage of Chateau Malaprop, for instance.
To break balance down into its basics, let’s look at the main components of wine. These are: color (pale, medium or dark); nose (aroma and bouquet); texture (the mouth-feel of the wine); sweetness (or dryness); acidity (tartness or the lack of it); alcohol content (whether strong or mild); carbonation (or the lack of it); and tannin (…that straight-black-tea-on-your-tongue sort of taste). If any one of these components should dominate the palate too preemptively, it renders the wine out of balance.
A winemaker strives to proportion the above components into a palate pleasing whole. Moreover, in wine, what’s sauce for the goose is not always sauce for the gander. A full-bodied dry red Zinfandel, for instance, can take gobs of raspberry-like fruit flavors and be very much in balance. But an overabundance of berries would flaw a Cabernet; it’s inappropriate.
Let’s look at some examples of good balance. A German Riesling Kabinett (see last month’s #392B) offers a pale color, a delicate, flowery nose, delicate lightness of body (very, very smooth), low alcohol, no carbonation (some Rieslings have a little), a touch of sweetness, a refreshing tartness and no appreciable tannin. A good California Cabernet usually offers a dark color, big complex nose, rich, full body, around 13% alcohol, no sweetness, plus abundant acidity and tannin (for aging potential). But, I’ve tasted quite a few wonderful Cabernets that weren’t full-bodied, yet all the ingredients were there, all the same, each in the right amount.
A balanced wine, no matter what its price range, will have all the appropriate components in correct proportions for that particular wine. What’s more, it’ll taste better, too!