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February 10, 2013
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Canes & Casks: Wine balance is all about harmonious interaction

Today marks the first foray into a new column.

Chris Lake, director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College, and I will discuss topics of general interest related to the art and science of grape growing and winemaking. Lake’s background is viticulture, or grape growing, so he will focus on vineyard issues, while my training has centered on enology, or winemaking.

Let’s first discuss a somewhat vague concept to most wine consumers: wine balance. Balance is achieved when the different elements in a wine interact harmoniously, with no one aspect of the taste or aroma overpowering the others. That sounds great, but what are we actually talking about?

One of my favorite authors on the topic of wine balance is the late French wine educator and consultant Emile Peynaud. He stated that the main components affecting balance in white wines were acid and sweetness. For reds, they are acid, sweetness and astringency. Let’s explore these in more detail.

Sweet and sour

The major factor in white wine balance is the interaction between acidity and perceived sweetness, which counteract each other. A simple example of this is lemon juice, which may be transformed into lemonade by adding sugar. Like lemonade, all wines also contain acids that make wines taste tart and refreshing. Some wines, most commonly whites, contain some amount of sugar to counteract the acidity. Alcohol and chemical compounds derived from oak barrels can give us the impression of sweetness without sugar. Thus higher-alcohol wines and those exposed to new barrels during aging can seem slightly sweet without actually containing sugar.


Red wines are slightly more complicated because they contain chemicals called tannins that give wines astringency. This is the feeling of roughness or dryness inside the mouth, derived from the skins and seeds of grapes. Astringency levels in red wines vary significantly among grape varieties and wine styles. For instance, generally a pinot noir will be less astringent than a cabernet sauvignon. The feeling of astringency is increased when wine acidity is increased, so tart wines are generally less astringent than lower-acid wines. Astringency is also decreased by sweetness. Until recently most red wines did not have sugar left in them, but the perception of sweetness could be increased by increasing both the alcohol content and new oak influence.

Balance achieved?

Peynaud described balance in red wine as a competing triangle between the perceptions of sweet, sour and astringent. Wines that contain higher amounts of acid without sugar or the perception of sweetness may be described as tart, acidic or green, while those containing too little acid or too much sugar may seem flabby, flat or rich. Wines with too much astringency can be described as severe, harsh, rough and tannic. Wines with “balance” are described as well-structured, round, mellow or harmonious.

Balanced wines are the goal, but there is still a lot of wiggle room for winemakers to express themselves. The winemaker may make a refreshing Riesling with high acidity and low alcohol, but moderated by a noticeable amount of residual sugar. Or the wine could be a tart, lively pinot noir with lower astringency. Or it could be a big, burly cabernet with loads of astringency, but mellowed by high alcohol content and very low acidity. These wines will taste very different but each may still be considered balanced.

Finally, wine reviewers also talk about balance with regard to aromas in wine. Here again the idea of balance is that one character of the wine’s aroma, be it fruity, oaky, vegetable or other aromas does not dominate.

At some level the idea of balance in wine becomes an issue of personal preference. Like beauty, wine balance is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

• Dwayne Bershaw is the associate director for the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College.

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The News-Review Updated Feb 11, 2013 12:49PM Published Feb 10, 2013 12:04AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.