I find myself using the expression “well balanced” in the tasting room quite often, and it is common to see it used on the back of a wine label and by wine critics far and wide. So obviously it is a useful descriptor, but what does it actually mean?
The elements that make up a bottle of wine are acid, alcohol, sugar, tannin and water and when these five elements are in harmony, the wine has good balance. And by harmony, I mean they each exist in the appropriate ratio to one another. If there is too much or too little of any of these elements, the wine will be lacking or unbalanced!
Sugar, water and acid are the predominant elements in grape pulp, and harvesting grapes when the sugar level and acid level are in harmony is quite a challenge. As sugar levels go up, acidity goes down. This is why the decision to harvest is key to ensure this sugar/acid balance is at the right levels. Too much acidity is not a nice mouth feel, yet too little acid leaves a wine feeling flat and without crispness.
Another element in your bottle of wine is the alcohol. Alcohol is the result of yeasts consuming sugar and converting it to alcohol during the fermentation process. Alcohol is a key element to wine, but must still be in balance with other elements. Too much alcohol can leave you with a burning sensation in your mouth and a rather nasty hangover in the morning, disproportionate to the amount you actually drank!
Residual sugar is present in wine, giving some wines a sweetness that is popularly desired, but for some of us undesired. Sweet wines are typically not balanced on purpose, as they are designed for people with a sweet palate. The residual sugar is present when the fermentation process has been stopped purposefully to create a sweet wine. So typically a sweet wine has lower alcohol, in order to retain the residual sugar flavour in the wine.
Tannin is a vital member of the balancing act of winemaking. Tannin brings the dry mouth feel and is formed from grape skin and seed contact and is also derived from the use of oak barrels. Red wine typically has higher levels of tannin, as the juice has more contact with the skins. Tannin has a critical role to play in the ageing of red wine; however, too much tannin leaves your mouth feeling parched.
Then there is water. Yes, water makes up a significant part of your bottle of wine and is essential to balancing the other elements. But no, water is not added to wine; it is present in the grape pulp.
So with all these elements working in harmony together, you have what’s called a balanced wine!