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As in TCM, so in wine: harmony, balance are key
2013-12-12
By John H. Isacs

Allow me to preface all that is to come in this week’s column by saying I make no pretence of knowing much at all about traditional Chinese medicine. But when asked to write on how wine is related to TCM, I was open to the challenge.

While there are no direct links — other than ancient and even modern records of Chinese doctors sometimes prescribing wine for certain ailments or bodily imbalances — I did find some intriguing conceptual parallels.

Balance

A fundamental principle of traditional Chinese medicine is balance. When we assess a wine, one of the most important criteria is balance — are the different qualities of the wine in tune with each other with no one element dominating or obscuring the others?

For instance, in a white wine we desire a fundamental balance between fruit and acid. Newcomers often favor more fruit while old fogies like me crave acidity.

Both preferences are acceptable, as long as they are balanced by their counterpart. What’s not okay is a wine that’s all fruit and no acidity; this is what we call fruit juice. Conversely, a wine with massive acidity and little fruit is more vinegar than wine. In dessert wines we seek a balance between sweetness and acidy.

On the palate your initial perceptions may be intense sweetness, but the finish should be nicely acidic leaving your mouth clean and refreshed. Great sweet wines like Sauternes, Tokay and Vin Santo nobly achieve this.

On the red wine front, we look for a balance between fruit and tannins and sometimes also acidity or freshness. Again, beginners are attracted to more fruit while more experienced drinkers usually desire more tannins or acidity to balance out the fruit.

It’s not a question of right or wrong, as long as the components are in balance then all is well. Sounds a lot like traditional Chinese medicine, right? Top Bordeaux blend style wines from both the new and old worlds are beautifully balanced, as are better examples of Italian Sangiovese and Nebbiolo reds.

Harmony

The concept of harmony takes ideals of balance to new levels. Harmony is when all the parts are not only balanced but when combined they create greater pleasure or beauty. In the wine world as elsewhere, the ideal of harmony may be a bit esoteric and also subjective, but when achieved, most of us can appreciate it and revel in its beauty even if we don’t fully understand it.

But I guess that’s part of the beauty of harmony, it’s somewhat ineffable yet undeniably pleasurable.

Another way to describe harmony in a wine is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, when the myriad of aromatic, taste and textural qualities combine to make a symphony of pleasurable sensations.

Likewise, in gastronomy any one ingredient may be lovely by itself but when harmoniously combined with other ingredients and properly prepared, it reaches new heights of tastiness.

Food

What and how you eat is of critical importance in traditional Chinese medicine. While Western medicine has only relatively recently emphasized the importance of food in one’s health and well-being, TCM at its roots has always emphasized the importance of proper diet.

Similarly, food is of critical importance to wine. As I’ve frequently lamented in past columns, the scores of new wine accreditation-seeking students who diligently study the technicalities of winemaking and specifics of wine tasting but don’t equally emphasize food pairing just don’t get it.

Wines and foods have been inextricably linked throughout history. You can have an encyclopedic knowledge of wine but if you don’t know food; you’re knowledge is tragically deficit.

Related to the concepts of balance and harmony, wine without food is missing its soul and beauty. Only when we discover the role of foods in completing wines, can we truly understand and appreciate wines.

Three perfect wine and food combinations are goose liver with a top Sauternes, grilled baby lamb with a well-aged Spanish Tempranillo red wine, and simple vanilla ice cream with Pedro Ximenez Sherry, half poured on the ice cream and half drunk.

While drinking wine may not cure your ailments like TCM, appreciating the roles of balance, harmony and food in wine appreciation will embellish your wine life.

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