Balance: This word is thrown around a lot in the world of wine and is arguably the most important element necessary for a quality wine. The trick, however, is detecting, judging and understanding what balances what.
A wine is balanced when its elements are harmonious. The “hard” components — acidity and tannins — balance the “soft” components — sweetness, fruit and alcohol. A well-balanced wine displays a balance of components with no single element dominating.
Acids are what makes wine taste refreshing. Their presence in the wine makes your mouth water, and they can also play a role in protecting the wine from spoilage. The acid in grapes balances out the sweetness from the sugar, creating crisp, zingy characteristics. Too much acidity and your wine will cause your lips to unpleasantly pucker; not enough acidity creates a flabby wine.
Ethanol is the main type of alcohol produced during fermentation. Yeasts create ethanol as they process the sugar in the grape juice; it also contributes body and texture to the wine. Wines with higher levels of alcohol may feel warm on your palate. As with the other elements, alcohol needs to remain in balance with the other components in the wine.
A grape’s sugar levels are highest when it reaches optimal ripeness. The main purpose of sugar in grapes is to be converted by yeast to alcohol. Any remaining sugar from the fermentation process is called residual sugar. Too much residual sugar translates into a sweet wine, while not enough sugar leaves the wine a bit harsh. Warm, sunny growing regions produce riper grapes that translate to ample levels of sugar.
Tannins are the components in wine that leave your mouth feeling dry. Tannin in wine adds bitterness and astringency, as well as complexity. Tannins are crucial in the process of aging wine, softening out over time. Too much tannin in a wine will leave your mouth feeling uncomfortably parched.
Having sufficient fruit is critical. Wines with little or no fruit characteristics are weak in flavor, thin and even hollow. The fruit concentration is much like the “flesh” that fills out the other more structural components.
Wine quality depends on grape quality. Our region’s abundant sunshine is crucial to cultivating world-class grapes. But sun alone is not enough to grow the caliber of grapes required to produce world-class wines.
There is a dramatic difference between day and night temperatures in this valley during the growing season: afternoon highs in the 90s to 100s plunge down to the 50s after midnight. It’s what climate scientists call diurnal shift, and it enables the grapes to retain their natural, flavor-enhancing acids. The heat allows the grapes to build sugars, and the experienced growers and winemakers aptly navigate the development of the grapes and production of the wine.
The climate of this region combines sunshine, water, heat and cold temperatures like almost nowhere else on Earth. Most remarkable is the way this balance is achieved across multiple varieties, from riesling and chardonnay to syrah, merlot and cabernet.
The next time you taste a wine sourced from Yakima Valley fruit, think about each of these characteristics and how balanced they are to one another. The climate of the Yakima Valley is an integral piece of the harmony you taste in your glass.
• Barbara Glover is executive director of Wine Yakima Valley, an industry group representing member wineries. Her column runs every other week in Friday’s Explore.
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