One of the most widely sought after descriptions from the mouth, or pen, of a wine critic is the term “balanced.” The term is meant to convey a harmonious interplay between the different components in a wine, including tannins, alcohol, sweetness and acidity. Should any one of these components stand out from the others, that wine would be deemed out of balance, and so in some measure lacking or less than the ideal.
Of particular importance in a balanced wine, especially one whose flavors are especially pronounced, are those elements that provide a counterpoint. So for example, fruity or tannic wines are thought to need an acidic balancing counterpoint, to bring the wine together. In the case of a dessert wine, such as a sauterne, acidity is desired to check the wine’s sweetness so that it does not become boringly unctuous like a jam or jelly. Likewise too much acidity would render a wine tart and unappealing. A wine with ideal acidity keeps these other elements in check, and is perceived as cleansing, refreshing and encouraging of another sip. Any wine that does not encourage the imbiber to take another sip, is probably not enjoyable enough to drink anyway.
The acids in wine develop naturally in the grapes as they grow, and some acids also develop naturally during the fermentation process. For our readers with a biochemical orientation and wine-geek inclination, we refer you to the numerous online and print resources about grapes and winemaking. The rest of us will be satisfied to know that grapes grown in cooler climates, and those that see wide daily temperature variations with hot days and cool nights have greater acid levels (and usually lower sugar levels). Wine producers will sometimes compensate with an additional fermentation to soften the acidity in the wine, like a chardonnay, where a second fermentation, known as malolactic fermentation, is used to convert (harder, green apple-like) malic acid in the wine into (softer, more butter-like) lactic acid. In wine regions where grapes tend to have low sugar content and high acidity, wine producers will also sometimes add additional sugar to the vat of unfermented grape juice to enrich the juice to assure that there is enough fuel for the yeasts to do their thing to create wines with more alcohol and more sweetness to balance the otherwise naturally high acidity (this is known as chaptalization, after the French chemist, Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal, who developed the technique).
An example of an ideally balanced kosher wine is the tropical fruit-scented Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($15), a delightfully complex, well-balanced citrus, peach and pear flavored wine with melon, guava and figs in the bright finish. Perfect for summer sipping or during the first courses of your holiday meals.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d spend some time with blended Scotch whiskies again.
Blended Scotch is simply a mix of malt whisky and nonmalt grain whisky. Nonmalt grain whisky is easier and less costly to produce, using large, highly efficient continuous distillation, column stills, but the resulting spirit is thought to be lighter, less interesting and less full of character and flavor. Malt whisky, which is made of 100 percent malted barley, is comparatively expensive and slow to produce. It is made in a less efficient batch-distillation, pot still, but is thought to render a more intense, more interesting flavor. Blends are generally designed to be consistently and cheaply reproduced, so that a recognizable brand can be produced in vast quantities without fluctuation in taste or quality.
Johnnie Walker, for example, is the world’s most successful Scotch whisky, selling more than 130 million bottles every year. The Johnnie Walker brand began when the eponymous Walker, aged 15, began a small grocery shop in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in 1820. He specialized in blending tea — a skill that would lead him to blending whiskies. Walker’s son, Alexander, joined the family business in 1856 and it was he and his sons who really transformed the grocery into a Scotch whisky empire. Though the Walker family cashed out in 1925, the brand had already become a colossus and today continues to dominate (under the ownership of Diageo — the world’s largest producer of distilled spirits).
The whisky brand was originally called “Walker’s Kilmarnock Whisky” and then “Walker’s Old Highland Whisky” with “Special” and “Extra Special” variants. In 1909 this was changed to “Johnnie Walker” “White,” “Red” and “Black Label.” The “White Label” disappeared around 1920, and then in 1936 “Johnnie Walker Swing” was introduced — the undulating bottle design was meant to cope with ocean waves, presumably, as felt in the first class lounges of transatlantic liners. “Blue Label” was introduced in 1992, “Gold” in 1995 and “Green” was introduced in 1997, and then “Double Black” was introduced a couple of years ago. In various travel retail (“Duty Free”) markets, there are a few other expensive official variants knocking around as well.
“Johnnie Black” (40 percent abv; $35), as it is affectionately known the world over, is a complex, 12-year-old blend of 40 or so grain and malt whiskies (including Cardhu, Cragganmore and Caol Ila single malts). This is a fine balance of the smoky West Coast style with lighter Speyside malts, with the middle gap filled — its is widely thought — with Highland malts matured in sherry casks (the actual “formula” is not only a trade secret, but is also subject to variation based on the available component whiskies at any given time). The result is a beautifully blended, balanced, elegant whisky with some real ponderous depth and heft to it, with rich, full, complex, sweet aromas of honey, malt, apple and oranges, and a whisper of peat; the nose is followed through with big and bold flavors of orange, raisins, vanilla, cream, hazelnuts, almonds, some very mild smoke and lovely dark chocolate. The finish is long and spicy. A true class act.
It is worth noting that in Israel a variation of the production formula is apparently used to produce a kashrut-certified whisky, under the auspices of the OK, Johnnie Black. According to the rabbinic supervisor at the OK, the Johnnie Black that is imported to Israel does not involve any sherry casks — he couldn’t vouch for how the production run differed, if at all, from any other run of Johnnie Black, merely that the run he supervises is free of any wine cask concerns. Inquiring minds want to know.
Another blended whisky we think highly of, particularly when the cost is taken into consideration, is the “White Horse Blended Scotch Whisky” (40 percent abv; $18): famously made with a healthy percentage of Lagavulin, Talisker, Caol Ila and Linkwood single malts, this fabulous, complex, balanced, inexpensive whisky presents with aromas and flavors of smoke, malt, oak, caramel, fruit, honey and toffee, ending in a long, complex, absorbing finish that includes flavors of creamy vanilla and spice. L’Chaim!