By Dan Berger
What it comes down to for me is structure and balance.
Many of the articles I write are intended as an explanation of why a style of wine is appropriate, or not. I’m not as concerned by greatness as others are. Distinctiveness is a far more interesting way to evaluate wine quality.
A recent article I wrote looked at my desire for better balance in Zinfandel. In researching that article, I had a number of discussions with wine lovers on the subject of balance.
Balance is hard to define other than to say that all elements in a wine are of equal or matching weight. Too much of one thing and I tend to lose interest in a wine quickly.
The structure of a great table wine has to include good acidity for the wine to work for me, whether or not there is food on the table.
A few folks over the years have lambasted me for arguing that over-ripe, port-y, raisin-y Zins are boring. They say such wines are fine for sipping all by themselves. They’re entitled to their opinion, but for me a wine without balance and loads of alcohol is merely alcoholic grape juice.
When I use the term structure, I refer to a number of things, not least of which is the acidity and pH, but also the weight of the wine and how it plays with the other facets of it, such as tannin and viscosity.
I do not use a meter to determine what’s there. After three decades of drinking wine with an eye to what’s in it, I have gained an appreciation of what structure is, and though I can tell that a wine has the proper structure when I taste a wine, it is hard to put into words.
The balance in a wine usually means that no single element dominates it. Wines with a lot of alcohol can taste balanced, but chances are they won’t since to offset high alcohol I usually seek a wine with high acidity, and few wine makers who love high alcohol do not like high acid in the same wine.
One of the reasons I like balanced wines is that I usually have access to more flavors. The higher the alcohol in a wine, the more that element covers fruit.
Does a lack of concentration make for lesser wine? Some people would argue that concentrated wines are “better” than lighter-weight wines. To me, it comes back to the structure. A lighter style of wine that delivers varietal character as well as structural finesse can be a delight. Not every red wine has the potential to be a First Growth Bordeaux.
Cru Beaujolais has a place in this world, and it can work superbly with some foods that would taste pretty bad with a Bordeaux.
Some observers would argue that lighter wines are “shallow.” These are the same people who excoriated Robert Mondavi in the 1970s and 1980s for his adherence to the Mondavi house style of Cabernet Sauvignon that I first saw in 1975 when the vintage didn’t yield as concentrated a wine as did 1974.
The wine maker at the time, Zelma Long, chose to go with what Mother Nature gave her, which was a wine that had all the classic flavors of the grape variety, but with the structure to age nicely, giving Father Time a chance to work his magic.
In the early 1990s, two major wine writers argued that Mondavi was shortchanging its customers by making balanced wines and by intentionally avoiding ultra-ripe grapes and thus missing a chance to make much bigger wines.
These number mongers all seemed then to feel that bigger was better. As a result, many then-novice wine collectors were happy buying wines of huge construction, unaware that the foundation of these wines was weak. The structure was faulty.
As time has gone on, I have tasted some of the so-called cult Cabernets of the 1990s and see that many have now faded a lot sooner than the wines of the 1970s and 1980s ever did.
To me, the main reason for this is a failure to attend to the basics of structure. To me, the greatest wines in the world offer balance, not mindless intensity.