Columnist, Food

Rudy Marchesi noticed a change in tone. It happened a few years ago, as he attended regular meetings of fellow winemakers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Instead of talking about extract and power in their pinot noir, Oregon’s signature wine, his colleagues were espousing elegance and restraint.

“There was an awakening,” he says. “People started realizing that the best expression we have here in Oregon is not to clobber people over the head with big wines, or to try to out-California California, but to go for the beauty and elegance that comes from a cool climate.”

As owner and winemaker at Montinore Estate, Marchesi has favored elegance over brawn. He’d watched as his fellow vintners, in search of “physiological ripeness,” left their grapes hanging on the vines until the skins shriveled, the seeds turned brown and the levels of sugar — and, ultimately, alcohol — soared. He’d listened as winemakers bragged of tossing dry ice and yeast-enhancing enzymes into the fermenting wine to speed the breakdown of the grape skins and make their color and tannins more soluble. The key word was always “extraction” — more color, more tannin, more power — at the expense of subtlety and complexity.

“We’re lucky to have one signature red grape variety here, and the beauty of pinot noir is its seductiveness, its prettiness,” he says. “You have to coax that out with a deft hand.”

Marchesi welcomes the trend he sees in Oregon in which winemakers favor balance, subtlety and regional expression over sheer power. But it’s not limited to Oregon. In Australia, known for blockbuster shiraz with jammy flavors and alcohol topping 15 percent, vintners are scaling back. California producers of pinot noir and chardonnay who are disenchanted with heft are uniting in a group called In Pursuit of Balance, preaching the gospel of moderate alcohol. Even in Napa Valley, California’s powerhouse of cult cabernet sauvignon and “more is better,” vintners are beginning to emphasize restraint and terroir.

This is not exactly a return to the old ways of making wine, nor is it simply a rejection of certain wine writers and their 100-point scores that favor the more-is-better approach. Until the 1990s, grape ripeness was gauged by measuring sugar content. Then winemakers changed their methods, waiting for grape skins to toughen and seeds to darken in order to elevate ripe (jammy) fruit flavors over green, vegetal ones. That meant they had to let the sugar levels rise, which resulted in higher-alcohol wines.

Today, through improved vineyard practices, vintners are learning to achieve ripeness without excessive sugar. The result is better balance in the wines. (There is also a recognition that “green” can mean an attractive herbal quality, not just undercooked vegetables.)

As for Oregon, the climate does not favor blockbuster wines, except in unusually hot, dry vintages, such as 2006 and 2009. So that style always seemed artificial, as though winemakers were trying to force their grapes to produce something unnatural.

“I don’t think the low-alcohol, lighter, elegant style now is taken as weakness, as it once was,” says Harry Peterson-Nedry, co-owner and chief winemaker at Chehalem winery in the Willamette Valley. “It’s seen more as maturity in winemaking. My mantra is still ‘all things in balance,’ which pretty much sums up what more wine consumers and winemakers eventually get around to.

“I personally make wine I like to drink,” Peterson-Nedry adds, “and assume there are enough like-minded consumers to buy it.” 

There are many like-minded consumers, and we raise our glasses in salute to winemakers who embrace nuance and subtlety over flash and brawn.

McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.