“To learn as we grow old
The secrets of our souls.”
- Question, Moody Blues
My intention today is not shock you into your Monday morning with cheesy Moody Blues lyrics (though I’ll admit to jamming out the bass line to Question dozens of times when I was in high school and songs like Question seemed really, really deep and important), but to call your attention to a blog post today by my friend, Wine Enthusiast editor Steve Heimoff.
The more astute reader will immediately recognize that I refrained from calling Steve a colleague, since in my mind that would actually be insulting him, though now that I think about it maybe I should have done that and then asked him for a small fee to remove the reference… anyway…
In said blog post, Steve talks about a recent Napa tasting in which he tasted some big-ass Cabernet wines and walked away thinking that many were, on the whole, quite balanced despite their, uhm, generous sizes. In reflecting on the tasting, he hits on what I consider the king-among-princess of a wine’s better qualities:
“Among all these impressionistic words… I think the most important is balance. Balance is central to wine’s quality.”
On this point, Steve and I are, using a term of which one of my friends is particularly fond, in “violent agreement.”
For my money, nothing, and I mean nothing, in a wine’s lineup of admirable qualities – including things like place of origin and pedigree – trumps balance…
It’s why personally I can shower the love on large Napa Cabs, but diss overly-acidic whites, or give a high grade to very sweet wines. If they’re balanced, then almost nothing else matters.
Notice I say “almost” – sometimes the quality of one attribute of a wine (for example, depth, purity and focus of the fruit) trumps other aspects to the point where it needs to be celebrated. But if I had my druthers, I’d pick a a balanced wine over any other style just about every time.
I’ve told this story many times but it bears repeating: at a dinner event earlier this year celebrating a friend’s WSET diploma program graduation, I had the good fortune of trying wines of various styles, pedigree, and age (including a Haut Brion from the late `20s). I was seated with a group who included a fair amount of Francophiles, to the point where they actively praised a white Burgundy that was clearly faulty (hello sauerkraut!) and disdained a fairly well-balanced CA Cab without tasting it, passing their judgments based on a quick sniff after hearing that the wine was over 14% abv.
My reaction was more or less: “Uhm… ooookaaaaay… Delude yourself much?”
I felt kind of sorry for those people at the time – not in an arrogant way (they all had deeper wine knowledge than I did), but just genuinely saddened that they’d let themselves be manipulated so much by their preconceptions instead of trying to find the relative merits of each wine on its won. A faulty wine is almost never balanced, but a high abv wine certainly can be balanced, given the right amount of fruit, acidity, etc. that the wine also presents. It’s for that very reason that I can lower my ‘score’ for an expensive wine that I find faulty and at the same time praise one that has high booze but high everything else and so achieves a pleasing balancing act.
Balance rules. And it matters more than a wine producer’s history, more than their vineyard location, more than the scores a wine has achieved in previous vintages, and – most importantly – it matters a hell of a lot more than our preconceptions.