Second of two parts on California pinot noirs
Listen to wine lovers talk about their favorite drink and you will soon hear the word “balance.” Some are so enthusiastic about balance, they might as well be discussing their favorite sports teams.
A group of California winemakers called In Pursuit of Balance is leading the movement back to elegance with regard to pinot noir and chardonnay, two wines that are rather easily knocked out of whack by heavy handling in the winery. The group was started last year by Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, a leading pinot producer on the extreme northern Sonoma Coast, and Rajat Parr, wine director for the Michael Mina Group of restaurants, including Bourbon Steak in the District. Parr refuses to sell pinot or chardonnay in excess of 14 percent alcohol at his RN74 restaurants.
“Our intention is to promote and celebrate pinot noirs of elegance, balance, non-manipulation and site specificity,” Hirsch wrote in an e-mail interview. “For the most part, these are not wines that attack your mouth with big fruit flavors and oak. They are more subtle wines that are exciting for their finesse and complexity. So they perhaps require a bit more from the wine drinker, but ultimately I believe that this approach to pinot noir is the most rewarding.”
So far, consumers are responding. In Pursuit of Balance held standing-room-only tastings in the past few weeks in San Francisco and New York. But what is balance in a wine, and why are so many people debating it?
Balance refers to the relationship among wine’s four main elements: fruit, acidity, alcohol and tannin. If one or more of these dominates the others, the wine is unbalanced. If a wine’s tartness makes you pucker, it has too much acidity; if it tastes dull and flabby, not enough. If a good, healthy sniff singes your nostrils and the wine burns on your palate, the alcohol is out of balance and the wine is “hot.” But the discussion is more than a description of negative attributes. With the four elements in harmony, the wine maintains balance and often displays an undercurrent of energy that stimulates the palate. An oenological umami, if you will.
Balance is inherently subjective. We can’t measure it by the alcohol level, pH and total acidity, even if all that information is on the label. I might feel a wine is balanced delicately on the tip of a corkscrew, while you might find it clumsy. Our sense of balance reflects our preferences in wine styles.
And that’s why “balance” is a code word. Its adherents are reacting against a style of wine that has become popular and even dominant over the past two decades, especially in California wine. The style emphasizes lush fruit (“fruit-forward”), power and body (high alcohol) and opulence (lavish oak, increasing a wine’s tannins). It is frequently blamed on wine writers who give high point scores to such wines, but it’s not that simple. Changing viticultural practices played a role, as did an emphasis on “physiological ripeness” of grapes, the idea that ripeness and the all-important question of when to harvest depend not simply on sugar levels but also on the color of the seeds and the suppleness of the skin. That led vintners to delay harvest for additional “hang time” on the vine, and as a result, sugar — and alcohol — levels increased. Besides, Americans like big, sweet drinks.
The new emphasis on balance is an attempt to ratchet back some of those characteristics, especially alcohol levels, and produce wines with a more classic flavor profile. The pendulum of style is swinging back their way, creating an equilibrium of flavor. I certainly welcome that, as California pinot noir has unfortunately followed the path merlot trod before it: wild acceptance followed by overproduced, manipulated, clumsy wines.
It’s time to restore balance.