For better or worse, wine professionals often use abstract concepts to describe concrete ideas. Words like “clarity,” “focus” and “balance” find their way into a lot of wine writing, and some wine-lovers may feel mystified by these terms. Today I want to focus on balance to see if I can clear up some industry jargon.
When wine pros talk about balance, we’re looking for harmony among a wine’s primary components. In the context of wine, the three primary “notes” that we’re looking for are tannins, acidity and alcohol. Let’s take a step back and briefly define these terms.
Tannin is an organic compound found in the skins, stems and seeds of the grape that imparts an astringent texture on the corners of your mouth; because more than one tannic compound appears in a bottle of wine, we usually say “tannins.” Found in red wines and skin-contact whites, tannins have a slightly bitter taste and are sometimes confused with the term “dry” because they feel astringent, or dry, in your mouth when you swallow the juice. Think about what it feels like to drink a strongly brewed cup of black tea; you’ll experience a similar sensation when drinking tannic wines.
A wine’s acidity is its brightness and liveliness. Think about squeezing a lemon over your food and the uplifting effect that can have on a dish’s flavor. The same is true for wine. In addition to contributing tartness on the palate, acid causes your mouth to water in a pleasant, refreshing way. Too much acid can cause a wine to be sour, while wines that lack sufficient acid can be dull and flabby.
Alcohol may not need as much of an introduction, but determining how much alcohol a wine contains isn’t always easy. The best way to approximate it is to take a big sip, swish it around in your mouth to coat your palate, swallow it and then exhale deeply. The level of heat you feel in your cheeks and on the roof of your mouth is an excellent indicator of that wine’s degree of alcohol.
For a wine to be considered balanced, these three crucial elements—tannins, acidity and alcohol—must exist symmetrically alongside one another at similar levels of intensity. One way of thinking about balance is to use the musical analogy of a major chord, with three discrete notes being played at once. If one note is played more loudly louder or softly than the others, the chord as a whole sounds wrong and this lack of balance between pitches is distracting to the listener.
Unbalanced wines can often feel disjointed or confused on the palate, and they can be frustratingly difficult to pair with foods. A prime example would be the excessive use of barrique aging in the production of many New World Chardonnays. This protocol can cause those wines to be dominated by notes of vanilla, toast and spice at the expense of acidity, freshness and varietal character. While these qualities may be desirable to some, those wines lack balance and therefore function better during cocktail hour than on the dinner table—among other attributes, acidity makes food taste better.
However, don’t mistake this to mean that all wines with unusually high levels of tannins or alcohol are necessarily unbalanced. Ultra-tannic wines such as Paolo Bea’s Sagrantino di Montefalco Pagliaro require higher levels of acidity to coat the palate and harmonize with the tannins’ textural effect. Conversely, wines bottled with some residual sugar, such as Antinori’s Muffato della Sala, will also contain a higher degree of alcohol, which helps prevent them from being cloying.
Whenever you taste a new wine, ask yourself this question: are the wine’s tannins, acidity and alcohol mingling seamlessly, or does one element stand out or shy away? You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll notice about your wine once you know what to look for. Repeating this one simple practice will improve your tasting and assessment skills while also deepening your understanding of your favorite wines. Report back and let us know what you discover!
Back in May, I shared a sliver of my family’s adventure to Italy from earlier this year. I focused on Barolo and my visit to one of the legendary estates in the region, Poderi Aldo Conterno. Today I offer you a glimpse into the more relaxing aspects of visiting Italy, its gorgeous coastline. Welcome to Cinque Terre.
Tucked away in Liguria on the Italian Riviera and just northwest of the city of La Spezia lies Cinque Terre (the Five Lands), so named because of the five villages that comprise the region, all of which is located inside a national park. This location can make Cinque Terre very difficult to access. We didn’t do our homework, so we entered the park from the north and found that the main road has been closed for four years due to landslides. While we did find an alternate road, it was essentially a goat trail that wound its way along the rugged and terraced landscape, slowly descending to the sea—there was a lot of breath holding and white knuckles for sure. The easier route is to enter via car from the south through La Spezia, but it’s even easier is to park in La Spezia and pay just a few Euro to take the subway/train, which makes stops in each of these unique villages. Once you have reached the villages, you also have the option of hiking between them or taking a boat that leaves every 30 minutes or so.
I struggle to find the words to properly describe the beauty I encountered in my two days along the Ligurian sea. I think what I found most remarkable is that the region feels trapped in time. Sure, there is a lot of tourism to the villages, but because of the limitations provided by the geography, there is little that people can do to modernize. There will never be a brand new Hyatt or a luxury residential building. The buildings of Cinque Terre will forever be made of stone and stucco. The Internet is still spotty even at the most luxurious of accommodations, and that’s almost a blessing because if only for a couple days you have to remove yourself from the “real” world and allow yourself to soak everything in. Below is a taste of what I experienced.
One of the wonderful fringe benefits of working at IWM is that we get the occasional visit from some of the top wine producers in Italy. Last week, we had a moment that most people in the industry dream of—Dal Forno Romano visited. One of my favorite producers is Guiseppi Quntarelli, who earned the nickname “The master of the Veneto.” Quintarelli didn’t grant many interviews, but one rare time he did, he was asked who he thought was the next important Veneto producer. He said, “Dal Forno Romano.” It’s no wonder; Dal Forno studied under the Maestro Quintarelli for almost two decades before starting his own estate.
Dal Forno Romano produces three wines, and all express their terrior: a Valpolicella Superiore DOC, an Amarone della Valpolicella DOC, and Vigna Seré, a dessert wine. Michele Dal Forno the son of the estate’s founder, poured a vertical of Dal Forno’s Amarone along with one Valpolicciela and a Vigna Seré. All the wines were spectacular, one better than the next. The vintage that I found mind-blowing was the 2009, which Michele later told me his father thought to be the next great vintage for his wine. Like Quintarelli’s wines, these Dal Forno wines are magnificent expressions of place, but, more importantly, they express the undying passion of the winemaker and the standards that have made Dal Forno one of the most esteemed producers in the Veneto.
This Valpolicella is a joy to drink. Although it’s approachable now, it will hold nicely in the cellar to enjoy its evolution. In the glass, it’s dark and dense. The nose is full and opulent with bright black fruit, tangy cherry and mocha notes. The palate is chocolaty velvet, followed by great acidity, dry dusty tannins and minerality on the finish, which lasts for a minute. Drink 2015 to 2015.
Tight and full of red fruit, this ’09 offers typical Amarone notes of coffee, earth, tobacco, spice, and sweet cherry. With its impeccable balance, this wine flows across the palate from initial sip to the lingering finish. It’s smooth, warm, and velvety; slight herbal notes on the palate are followed by a nice, lingering chocolaty finish. This wine requires patience, but it will reward with an amazing drinking experience. Drink 2019 to 2035.
In Aspen, rosé is Queen. Like honeybees to wildflowers, locals and visitors alike gravitate to rosé during the spring and summer months. While there is no strict rule about rosé wines for Aspen’s discerning palate, there is a range of specific preferences. While some rosé enthusiasts prefer a deep garnet rosé with red fruit notes and a hint of sweetness, my preference is a crisp and light-hued wine with citrus notes and a hint of under-ripe fruit. I gravitate to something to sip on a patio in the evening, while snacking on some fresh local produce, and feeling the light Colorado winds. The 2014 Sesti Rosato Castello Di Argiano is perfect for such a moment.
In contrast to the deeply hued, red-fruit rosé reminiscent of raspberries or cherries ripened in the hot sun, Sesti Rosato from Castello Di Argiano brings a distinctive twilight imagery to mind. There is lightness to this wine that I find refreshing and cool. The light, shiny, salmon-pink hue, the delicate tartness on the nose, and the crisp minerality on the palate combine to make an ethereal quality that reminds me of the moon. This notion isn’t too far-fetched; Sesti’s founder, Giuseppe Mario Sesti began his career as an astronomer. Through applying his knowledge of the moon’s influence on living things to his vineyard management and winemaking, as well as employing an eco-friendly philosophy, he reduces the level of sulfites used in the vineyard.
This wine is mono-varietal Sangiovese Grosso, something I could discern in the distinctive scents of lilies and tart cranberry. The wine’s aromatics brought back a specific memory, and I was instantly transported to the cool, white oval room of the Musee de l’Orangerie in France, gazing at Monet’s Water Lilies. There is something tranquil about this wine that reminds me of the large green, purple and pink paintings. The palate of this rosato offers a satisfying simplicity. It’s not sweet or fruity; rather, it’s earthy, with deep minerality, coupled refreshing acidity, and notes of clementine and Meyer lemon rind. This wine is bottled in the spring and meant to be drunk young.
This fantastic wine is only available to the lucky IWM clients who visit the IWM Aspen showroom this summer, where the ‘14 Sesti Rosato Castello Di Argiano is available for $26. My suggestion is to peruse the Saturday Farmers Market, pack a picnic, see Francesco Vigorito for a bottle, and take the gondola or to a local park to enjoy your summertime goodies!
If you’re not in Aspen, join us online or at IWM NYC, where you can find a range of stunning, summer-ready rosé wines.
Revisiting wines is one of the many treats of collecting and buying a case or half case, and this revisiting is one of the most fun aspects of wine. When I look at bottles in my cellar, I find myself asking, “Where is it now? How is it showing?” Last week I had lunch with a very good friend who introduced me to a few new wine enthusiasts, and we enjoyed an incredible spread made by IWM Chef Mike Marcelli that included a very large selection of antipasti, squid ink spaghetti, strengozze (flat hand cut pasta) with veal Ragu, lombata di vitello (veal chops) and Waygu sirloin. Needless to say, we had a great meal. The wines? Well, two that stood out were the Cupano Brunello di Montalcino 2003 and the Sassicaia 2005. Both of these wines were incredible and made the lunch even more special.
Toscana – Sangiovese Grosso
This Brunello is easily one of the fastest selling wines at IWM in the past year and amazing value. Anyone who has enjoyed Cupano has agreed that this is a rockin’ Brunello and won’t hesitate to grab a case of it. You might be saying to yourself, “But this is an ’03—wasn’t it really hot in ’03?” Yes, it was, but you’d be surprised at the structure and fruit forwardness of this bottle. We poured this with nine other wines at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and it was the one we finished first. This wine is drinking amazingly right now, and I highly recommend grabbing some bottles while we have a little left.
Toscana – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc
This wine needs little introduction because we all know Sassicaia. What you may not know is that almost every bottle of ‘05 in Italy is an amazing surprise. In between two great vintages 2004 and 2006, the 2005 vintage went unappreciated and unnoticed upon release. It’s a good thing because these ’05 babies are phenomenal and always an incredible value. The 2005 Sassicaia was perfect—balanced, smooth, structured and perfectly filled with fruit—it was an ideal pairing with the veal ragu, wow! There was enough acidity that it can go for another 5-10 years easily, but it’s so good now. If you have some you should drink it, if you don’t then you should get some. This ’05 Sassicaia is one of my favorites so far this year.
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