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Hard to define “balance” but I know it when I taste it

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A Facebook friend commented to me:

I rarely have to purchase wine .. but here in Ontario Canada we have to do so at a WINE STORE … so I walked in yesterday and was floored by the number of wines that had been judged by Steve Heimoff !! so like any good wine guy I purchased several bottles where scores above 90 were given. mostly 90 and 91 and a few higher. (price point on wines above were ridiculous). Familiarizing myself with your palate a bit was quite an experience. so Mr. Steve it brings a question to mind … When judging wines .. what characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine ? I would like to think if this question gets an answer it will be more than the word BALANCE but knowing you I doubt that is possible. Cheers and Libations.

I replied (maybe a little touchily after that “knowing you” remark), “Balance, certainly. This is a topic I could write a book about and have explained on many occasions in my blog.”

The guy replied, “been reading through it .. looking for where you site a particular point or something specific you look for … and i’ve been reading it for years .. no luck .. so I thought the question may wake something up and prompt a ‘Heimoff’ Answer … without being a ‘WANK’ lol”

The reference to “a WANK” was to my post from yesterday.

So, all right, I should probably explain from time to time what I do and how I do it and why.

What characteristic stands out most for you that boosts the score of the wine?

He doesn’t like the word “balance,” so I’m looking for another one-word answer and the best I can come up with is Strikingness. It’s when the wine has that hard-to-define Wow! factor. I have a Platonic notion in my mind of what the perfect Wow! wine should be. Ninety nine percent of all the wines I taste fall short of it. I suppose the perfect Wow! is a perfect 100-point wine. The further away from perfect Wow! the wine is, the lower the score. At some point, wines that fall short are still enjoyable, so they get scores in the 85-90 point range. At a still lower point, the wines become increasingly irritating, until finally they’re almost or entirely undrinkable. This is your 80-point range and, at Wine Enthusiast, the ultimate Purgatory, 22 points.

As I implied earlier, it would take a book to get into all the details of what constitutes the Wow! factor. All that “balance” means is that nothing sticks out over everything else. Too much oak is unbalanced. In my blind tasting, I will critique a wine for being too oaky. Once I know what it is, I may suggest that the oakiness might become more integrated into the wine with age, but the score doesn’t change because it’s still too oaky. Same with residual sugar. Most people know I hate it in a table wine that’s supposed to be dry.

I know that doesn’t fully explain “balance.” Maybe this helps. Yesterday I got an email from Kevin Willenborg, who’s winemaker at Vina Robles, a winery I like. He wrote: “If a vine is balanced it is capable of producing its true potential – more evenly ripened, physiologically mature fruit that reflects the terroir.”

An important part of the Wow! factor is the ability of a wine to stand out in a flight. I’ve said before that I don’t see how it’s possible to give a very high score to a wine you taste all by itself (I mean, if it’s blind. If you know you’re drinking 2010 Latour at the chateau, it’s a whole different story). A wine needs to be tasted in the appropriate context of its peers, in order to be fully understood. Say you’re tasting a flight of Napa Valley Cabernets from great producers. Everything scores highly, but one or two of those wines will dominate the others, even after two hours or so of continuous back and forth and development in the bottle.

What does “dominate the others” mean? The conventional wisdom is that the biggest, most extracted, oakiest and, yes, most Parkerized wines will always dominate a less bold wine. I don’t know about other tasters, but that’s not true for me. I can taste a gigantic wine that’s too big for its britches, one that’s cynically designed to get a high score. Such a wine will not get a high score from me. It lacks balance–but here we go again, because that’s the very word my Facebook friend asked me to expostulate on. I’ve done my best, within the limits of a blog post.

  1. “A wine needs to be tasted in the appropriate context of its peers, in order to be fully understood”.

    I guess I am clueless when it comes to understanding this 100-pt scale (be it the RP, the WS, the WE, whoever’s, 100-pt scale you choose to use). I gather that you cannot be given a single wine, blind, and precisely assign a 100-pt score to it?? I thought a wine was a 93, or a 94, or a 91 on an absolute scale…independent of all other irrelevant associations. You’re saying that you can only assign it a score if you’ve tasted it with a tableau of its peers? I would then think that a wine’s 100-pt score would therefore depend on what the peer group is you’ve chosen to taste it with? The choice of a peer group is not always obvious to me.
    Suppose you’re given a MimbresVlly VidalBlanc made in qvervi w/ extended skin contact. I can think of no other peers that it could be tasted with. In such a case, that wine cannot be accurately assigned a 100-pt score?? At least that’s the way I read this post.
    Tom

  2. Your Facebook friend is looking for a “flashcard” answer to assessing wines. Balance is certainly important. But in one of your earlier posts you also allude to the “more sublime” aspects of wine characteristics like structure, elegance, finesse, deliciousness.

    It’s like looking at a beautiful woman. She may have great cheek bones, long legs, fabulous eyes, striking hair, and also be well built. But it’s the overall, collective effect that creates that “wow factor.” It’s the aura that captivates.

  3. I guess this is the sort of problem with this tasting format.

    Rarely are bottles consumed this way. I’d bet you the intaobserver variability would be high even if the scores range +|- 3 pts that means that the difference among good wines is more negligible that the wine scores are accurate. Not that scores are such a terrible way of picking a wine as long as you know the reviewer.

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