Use your Favorite Dessert for Ultimate Wine Balance

I was part of an incredible training group last week for Prostart’s Summer Institute.  Over dinner one night, some of the participants asked me about how a Sommelier goes to a restaurant and picks out wine.  My answer was that there are a number of factors (how many people, food pairing, what’s on the wine list) but, it comes down to balance.  Everyone was asking about what that means so I decided to explain this today for you.

Last week, I discussed Malbec and Texas BBQ.  By the way, the Malbec was fantastic when I opened the bottle.  Great aromas and flavors and just enough tannin to keep everything in balance but also to match the food.  What is balance?  Webster defines it two ways:

Both are great definitions that make sense.  However, in order to have equal weight or element integration, we need to know what the elements are.  For White wine, we look at sugar and acid.  For Reds, we look at sugar, acid, and tannin.

Why Do We Care?

Before I get into a deeper discussion, why do we care about balance in the first place?  Think about it.  When we open a bottle of wine, we want it to be good (a.k.a. un-faulted) and tasty.  Some people like me care about matching it with food to elevate the food and wine.  Others just want the glass to drink.  All of these reasons are great because everyone ends up happy. 

However, there is the age-old question and that is ‘what do you like in a glass of wine?’  As a Sommelier, this is one of the hardest aspects of our career.  Somehow, we need to figure out what components, aromas, and flavors YOU like.  Even though we have a common ‘wine language’ for the industry, not everyone knows it.  Also, some of the terms have multiple meanings or get used in the wrong context. 

When I discuss or attempt to find out what people like, it’s difficult as they try to explain it and I try to understand.  You can see frustration building as well.  It’s not intentional and completely understandable.  To limit the frustration, I ask one question:

  • What’s your favorite dessert of all time and describe it to me?

This allows me to gain an insight on three components that will guide me to ask questions and pick out something for you.

How the Question works

The question above related to your favorite dessert tells me a great deal about you.  For example, let’s say your favorite dessert is a chocolate fudge brownie with an inch of rich fudgy icing on top.  AWESOME.  This tells me the following:

  1. You like depth of flavor (due to the rich chocolate), and you want something we consider sinful (as you don’t care about the calories).
  2. You like sweetness since brownies can be extremely sweet.
  3. You like levels of harmony among the dessert (icing and brownie) but also can break away a bit from this (since anyone who likes tons of frosting can be daring).
  4. While you may like fruit, it was not your first choice, so you want something richer and not acidic.
  5. Lastly, it tells me you are willing to splurge a bit (as you want to be happy and not worry about the extra).

Now I will ask if you want the wine to be white, red, or sparkling and I will always ask for a price range.  This tells me now where I can look at the wine list to see what will match this profile.  What’s their profile?

  • They want something rich,
  • A little sweet but not crazy like drinking honey,
  • Something not too acidic and
  • We can look at the upper levels of the price range.

Let’s now compare this to balance charts for whites and red wines to see where it falls.

White Wine Balance

For white wines, we are concerned about two components which are sweetness (sugar) and acidity.  Now if you look at the chart above, you can see that both of these are overlayed on each other with acidity on the bottom and sweetness on the left.  The higher your plot, the sweeter the wine is.  The further right you go, the more acidic the wine is.

If you indicate that you like some sugar but not acidic, I’m looking for a wine on the left side of the curve (on the left side near the watery line).  This gives me some insight into your profile and then I can use this to guide me to a selection.  For the brownie example, I would place the customer just to the slightly upper right of the center of the chart.  On the expanded chart below for white wine balance, the brownie example would fall on the line between lively and sustained.

The Center

On this chart, the direct center point where sweetness and acidity meet is called balanced.  My term for it is ‘rainwater’ as you are unable to detect the sweetness or the acidity.  On the palate, the wine will be neutral to sweetness or acidity.  Please note that you will still have flavors and aromas in the wine.  Here’s a fun fact:

  • In my numerous tastings over the years, I’ve never had a balanced wine. I’ve come close to it but never balanced. 

If these components are balanced, the wine will be missing two major components and feel like water on your palate.  Most people do not find this interesting.  Most people would be upset that they consumed water and paid for wine!  I would love for you to write to me to tell me if you ever had a fully balanced wine as I’d love to experience it.  This does not include the winemaker’s description on the back label stating the wine is balanced (it’s used for marketing purposes).  Most of the time, it’s never balanced but a great buzz word.

Red Wine Balance

Red wines add the addition of tannin to the mix due to their method of production.  Therefore, a fully balanced wine means that the tannin, sweetness, and acidity are equal.  Again, in most cases they are not balanced. Customers look for these components at certain levels in addition to their flavors and aromas. 

Referring to the brownie example, they want sweetness, richness (which means increased tannin levels) and some acid but closer to the balanced areas.  On the chart above, this would fall right above the center point  and slightly off to the right for sweetness.

When we look at the expanded chart below (which when I show students, they consider a beast and I agree), the person who wants the brownie will fall around the ample to robust area.  Fits the description of the brownie, right?

Final Thoughts

As you look at all of this information, let’s go back to the basics which are:

  1. Everyone has a profile on what they like based on sugar, acid, and tannins.
  2. Everyone’s profile can be plotted on the charts to help make sense of what they like and then pick out a bottle.
  3. Balanced wines really are not balanced.
  4. The charts are a guide to assist but you still have flexibility.

The dessert question is a great guide to understanding someone’s profile.  Understanding your own profile is great for selecting a wine.  It will give you the tools to explain what you like per component.  This is a tremendous help to sommeliers to guide you.

I will leave you with a question – what is my favorite dessert of all time?  Send me a note with your guess.😊


Quick sidenote:

All of the charts are not mine.  I was unable to find a direct reference for these since I found these years ago.  However, the information is based from Le Vin: Votre talent de la Degustation, by Jean Claude Buffin (Doussard:  Hobby Vins, 1988)

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