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