I spent a couple hours yesterday at the “In Pursuit of Balance” tasting in West Hollywood. The tasting, organized by sommelier and author Rajat Parr and Jasmine Hirsch, sales and marketing director of her family’s eponymous winery, “seeks to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California pinot noir and chardonnay.”
I was not able to attend any of the seminars, so my impressions are based solely on the tasting itself and the adjunct materials. Nevertheless, it was enlightening.
To give this tasting series context, it has been the opinion of many in the wine geek elite that much of the chardonnay and pinot noir produced in California is over ripe, over oaked and, in short, out of balance. In response, over the last 7-8 years, a new wave of wine makers (as well as some establishment converts) have begun producing very lean, higher acid versions of these wines with little or no oak aging in an attempt to restore balance.
Let me preface by saying that many of the wines I tasted were very good. Some were among the best California pinots and chards I’ve tasted. I do think, however, that this movement is overall misguided. It is also doing a disservice to the end consumer by advocating for a very particular style of wine that is not to everyone’s taste and is “in balance,” only based on one very particular definition of the word.
(I should also say that this was not an ideal showcase for these wines, as many of the wineries were forced to pour barrel samples or recently-bottled examples of their 2011 vintages, 1-2 months before scheduled release and probably 6-8 months before the beginning of ideal drinking time. Recently bottled wines are, notoriously, temporarily out of balance.)
There are some fundamental facts about California that make it unique and particularly suited for wine making. We have a very long growing season. Even in our cooler pockets we can harvest grapes well into October. In many of the Old World regions that these balance advocates seek to emulate, it is rare for grapes to hang on the vine that long, lest they risk destruction by frost or autumn storm. Fundamental to our climate is the simple fact that grapes end up riper than in many other parts of the world. That ripeness can produce more fruitier flavors, less funk, and less acid.
But what the balance advocates don’t recognize is that these riper wines can still be in balance. You can make a 14% alcohol pinot noir that is still well balanced. It can taste like ripe fruit instead of sour cherries and still be off-set by enough acid and tannin to be deliciously food-friendly. A prime example is Navarro Vineyard’s Methode a l’Ancienne.
I remember tasting the pinot noirs that were very popular in the mid-2000s and they were flabby, out of balance messes, but this was because they were attempting to emulate the rich, extracted style that was in favor by Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator at the time. One highly-scored producer out of the Russian River area produced syrupy cherry cough syrup pinots that I couldn’t stomach but were immensely popular.
And that’s what we’re forgetting! These wines are popular and it’s foolish to think that their popularity is based solely on a lemming-like following of point scores or the immature palates of American wine drinkers. They’re popular because there are fundamental aspects to these wines that people enjoy.
Radically opposing a wine making process that fosters the richer aspects inherent to California wine will produce wine that will only ever have a limited appeal and will continue to allow the advocates for manipulated wine to dig in their heals. Instead, I would encourage California wine makers to produce natural, honest wine–free of oak chips and tartaric acid, mega purple and powdered tannin–but which also allow the bold fruit flavors and aromas to shine.
These are the wines California is meant to naturally produce and this deliberate production of under ripe wines is fundamentally unnatural.