Balance: cancellation or synergy?

“Who wouldn’t want to make balanced wine?” —Terry Leighton

Balance is perhaps the most universally pursued quality in fine wine. Balance in one form or another is what we seek in a healthy vineyard’s vines and in berries ripe for harvest; it is the desired terminus of a wine’s élevage; and it is, in a sense, the essence of the relationship we seek to establish when we pair wine with food.

Yet despite its conceptual and discursive ubiquity, the definition of balance is often imprecise and sometimes warmly contentious. To some degree, of course, imprecision is inevitable when attempting to define a category so unavoidably subjective, susceptible of measurement only by the palate. Balance, moreover, is as often as not observed, as it were, in the breach.

But my reflections on the subject focus on the concept of synergy; the idea that balance in great wine is not merely a passive moment of cancellation, where no component dominates another, but rather a moment of harmony, where a wine’s components resonate together.

This seems to be borne out by the process of blending, where tiny differences in cépage can transform aromatics, or by the pronounced effect that minuscule variations in alcohol content make to the expression of a wine’s bouquet—a fact much broadcast by those who advocate adjusting alcohol levels via reverse osmosis or spinning cone. But it is also illustrated by the way in which a great barrel amplifies a wine while remaining unobtrusive, lifting its aromatics and filling in its existing structural framework. Indeed, the concept of synergy seems extensible to many of wine’s fundamentals.

Much of my musings on this subject were stimulated by Terry Leighton, of California’s Kalin Cellars, who began by revealing the remarkable marriage between dry Semillon and the heat of chilli peppers. Spicy foods are commonly paired with off-dry Riesling, sugar cancelling out heat, but the synergy between Semillon and Sichuan cuisine is considerably more profound: the hotter the dish, the more flavourful the wine becomes!

Anyone who attempts the marriage cannot fail to be struck by its almost disconcertingly vivid effectiveness. And if equivalently profound synergetic relationships exist between terroir and microflora and between wine and cooperage, then the concept becomes very interesting indeed.


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