A Question of Balance

Balance, like Justice and Equality, is often more aspiration than reality.   That was one conclusion I reached following the “In Pursuit of Balance,” tasting I attended recently in NYC.  Conceived by Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch, the notion is to highlight a wine “in balance when its diverse components – fruit, acidity, structure and alcohol – coexist in a manner such that should any one aspect overwhelm or be diminished, then the fundamental nature of the wine would be changed.”

Now, even though this comment refers to the diverse components in wine, we all know that this conceit was conceived to counterbalance the notion of the big, fat California Chardonnay and the Pinot Noirs that seem to highlight alcohol as much as any fruit flavors. I also think that it’s a bit of a red herring to focus on alcohol (or any other single element).  I agree with Adam Lee of Siduri, who argues that a wine may have relatively high alcohol and still be balanced – it’s a question of overall coherence and the totality of the wine: does the wine have sufficient concentration, say, to counterbalance the alcohol?

I can say flatly that I didn’t go with any conscious pre-conceived notions.  I can appreciate and enjoy a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from California.  I might not have been surprised if I’d found many very good wines.  Alternatively, I might not have been surprised if I’d found the wines too ripe and rich for my taste. Looking back on my notes, I can see how I tried hard to look for the positive in the wines, with comments such as “well-integrated oak,” or “supple tannins” or “full-palate coverage with a concentrated core” peppered throughout.  Try as I might to think well of elements of individual wines, or of specific wines themselves, having tasted for about an hour, it suddenly hit me how boring the tasting was.  For all the talk of diversity, even with each winery showing different cuvées, the overall effect was largely monolithic.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have the capacity for nuance, but California still has a way to go to achieve it.

I also was not prepared for the remarkable number of flawed wines, with significant volatile acidity, or at the opposite extreme, wines that lacked acidity, and the number of wines – especially Pinot Noirs – that were decidedly sweet.  I have a suspicion that this is a consequence of attempts to lower alcohol levels.  Among other things, alcohol gives the impression of sweetness.  Thus, lowering the alcohol level changes the palate impression of the wine.  I suspect that a number of producers are trying to retain their style, and leaving some degree of residual sugar to compensate for the lower alcohol level.  Sometimes the level of sugar is barely perceptible, and sometimes it is quite perceptible.  (Given that many Americans still prefer wines with perceptible levels of sweetness, these sweetness levels are unlikely to detract from the wines’ appeal.)  This is where the question of “balance” is a muddied, or the experience of balance is  subjective.  To my view, however, sweet or not, volatile or not, many wines were clumsy: straightforward, perhaps, but not nuanced; often they ended rather abruptly.  All were weightier, without the nerve, of the Handley wines I’d just tasted.

In pursuit of fairness, I list a few of the wines I found impressive. The Chardonnays were layered, with a mineral impression underneath the complexity of fruit, an element of delicacy, and a subtly pulsating central nervous system.  The Pinots had density of concentration promising a harmonious future as they unfold, with full palate coverage, supple tannins and nerve.  They all are unabashedly Californian (as they should be): ripe, rich, generous.

Copain “Brousseau” Chardonnay, Chalone 2010

Ojai “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley 2009

Cobb “Emmaline Ann” Pinot Noir 2007

Kutch “McDougall Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2010

Ojai “Bien Nacido” Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2008

Ojai “Presidio Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara County 2008

Peay “Pomarium” Estate Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast 2010

Peay “Scallop Shell” Estate Pinot Noire, Sonoma Coast 2009

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5 Responses to A Question of Balance

  1. Balance is a tricky thing, of course, and it could well be that some of the wines could become more ‘balanced’ as they age, though I suspect that a number of the wines about which you write will probably never come into balance, much less even age well. Still, I’m really thinking of the better wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which can and often will come into balance over time, and I just don’t think that much of the wine of California has that capacity, given the way that they are often handled (mishandled?) in the winery. In other words, they have to try too hard.

    • granikmw says:

      José, I largely agree with you. One of my teachers, Michael Schuster, once commented “a balanced wine is born balanced.” I think that, in truth, a lot of California winemakers are still trying to juggle two different things – figuring out what “balance” is for their own wines, and second, what is commercially viable. I don’t like to compare California to the classics of Bordeaux and Burgundy, largely because it’s unfair – the growing conditions are so very different, and France has such a long, relatively uninterrupted history of experience California lacks. In the end, I don’t want California wines to try to ape any other region. They need to look within, embrace what they have, and then try to exploit that to its best potential. (Easier said than done.) I would just hope, that in the doing, their subjective definition of balance would coincide with mine. Then again, I may not be the audience they seek!

      I also think a good number of these wines will not age well. So many of them lacked acidity; it was as if they had no central nervous system (a comment I had in several of my notes).

  2. Allen says:

    California wines are indeed their own animal. When I first got into the wine business in the early 80’s, California wines were balanced with backbone and nerve. The alcohol levels were under 14%. Wineries were making wine from several varieties, some as many as 10-12 different wines. There were always producers that specialized in Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. These wines were 100% (or nearly so) varietal. They needed to be cellared to temper the tannins. Those wines evolved into something quite special.

    By the end of the 80’s several innovations led to the wines that we know today. The most impactful was their love-affair with new oak barrels. Secondly, the idea of green pruning, leaf pulling, full-blown malolactic fermentation for chardonnay, and using drip irrigation to prolong the hang-time led to the wines we know today. They also have the weather to accomodate just about any style of wine they choose to make. Of course the critics had as big an impact on “Califonia Style”. They rewarded the producers who decided to make these behemoths. Consumers in the US couldn’t get enough of these wines. They were ready to drink, highly enjoyable and most importantly, swung the pendulum from a country of largely spirit drinkers to wine drinkers.

    There were also lessons learned regarding where to plant specific varietals, relative to climate and profitability. The notion of planting pinot noir in California’s cooler climates is not a recent revelation. Walter Hanzell and Joseph Swan both figured that out 40 years ago. To think that it took a movie to alter the way wine drinkers think about a varietal like pinot noir – only in America!

    I do think that there is a concientious effort for a lot of California producers to back off the alcohol levels, reduce the amount of malolactic fermentation for chardonnay production, and bring back the notion of terroir into their wines. The one thing they cannot change is, for better or worse, is the gift of sunshine. Over the years I have spoken to enough producers in France, while they extoll the virtues of their climate and soils, would like the idea of 8 ripe vintages out of 10, rather than 3 or 4.

    The balanced wines you seek are produced in California, you just have to look for them. Critics forced American consumers to believe that bigger is better, and if you are to select wines for a tasting that have mid-nineties scores, big and ripe is what you will get. Thus, these wines have been put into a pigeonhole. When I am looking for American fine pinot and chardonnay to drink, I am usually more enamored by the wines that score 89-91 points. To most, this indicates a flaw. The flaw is usually balance.

  3. Rodger Parsons says:

    It’s diverting to consider unbalanced as a category in the discussion of wine. The big oak butter bomb chardonnay of yesteryear (and still right now?) could hardly be called balanced and yet that development led to some interesting diversions into more refined and variegated Chad. The oak chip guys had their go at pretending new oak barrel aging and the tasting amongst those who thought they could tell the difference was most embarrassing. Concerned about tipping their hand, they did a lighter run and got away with it. In fact, the oak chip specials were quite good, far better balanced.

    I’m not so concerned about balance as I am about overall presentation. How does the wine feel on its own or when paired with something that enhances its nose or palate? A number of vineyards in Santa Barbara have come along in making true to the fruit Chard. Some are austere some are piercing, almost pungent. Out of balance? There’s a rather large number of entrants in the category and I’m not sure they’re out of play.

    • granikmw says:

      Rodger, you’re saying a lot of things here, all thoughtful. In the market economy, wine historically has been a consumer-driven product, so those former and current oaky chardonnays have an audience who is unaware, or doesn’t care, that someone with critical judgment might consider them unbalanced.
      Theo good people behind the Pursuit of Balance movement are indeed responding to their notion that too many American wines are unbalanced, be they over-oaked, over-extracted, overly alcoholic, etc. While I believe these wines tend to be more in the pursuit of balance rather than the achievement of it, I support their efforts.

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