Has the wine term "balanced" been co-opted? I feared as much when a group called In Pursuit of Balance published its manifesto a couple of years ago. The group, which numbers 29 California wineries, has called for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays to be relatively low in alcohol and high in acid. Its proponents also prefer a flavor profile with more savory flavors than mere fruit.
That this runs counter to the prevailing style of these varietals in California is intentional. In Pursuit of Balance is very much a reaction to what its adherents characterize as overripe, overblown wines. From the top, I can say that I have liked my share of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in that more delicate or savory style, but my view is that there is a wide spectrum of legitimate approaches to the grape that can be called "balanced." The word is not a synonym for "light and crisp," and frankly I resent the implication that richer, more full-bodied wines can't be balanced.
Now that that's out of the way …
Last week, In Pursuit of Balance staged its third annual tasting event in San Francisco, pouring its members' Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of recent vintage for trade and consumers. I was traveling for the first two, but I made it a point to get to this one. I wanted to see what the fuss was about.
It is not lost on the balance mongers that they are struggling against a tide. Balancians hate it that most wine drinkers seem to believe that a delicious wine ought to taste of ripe fruit, feel rich in the mouth and need not tingle with extra-sharp acidity.
As I waited to taste samples of Kutch, one of the darlings of IPOB, Tom Dehlinger sidled up. Dehlinger is not a member, probably because his wines veer toward the rich end of the spectrum. "Any of these wines similar to Oregon?" he asked.
Dehlinger knows I review Oregon wines for Wine Spectator. That state's wines swing closer to the delicate end due to a relatively cool climate, but I find that the best of them center on ripe fruit, even at alcohol levels well below the dreaded 14 percent level. At least those are the ones I tend to recommend.
I asked Dehlinger why he asked. "Oh, my wife and I tried a lot of Oregon Pinot Noirs about 10 years ago," he said, "and she hated them. They were too light for her." I mentioned Domaine Serene and Bergström, a couple of wineries I thought she might like.
In the IPOB tasting, I kept looking for the kind of flavor intensity, texture and depth that I seek in Pinot Noir. I searched for Chardonnays that offered more than a tart pucker and some flavor complexity. I know those aspects are possible at moderate to low alcohol levels. I did find a few, but much of what I tasted simply lacked depth and persistence, attributes I believe wines must show to be considered outstanding.
Among those I liked, Lioco Chardonnay Sonoma Valley Hanzell Vineyard 2011 delivered focused, distinctive flavors, polished texture and real length. Kutch's Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast McDougal Ranch 2010 showed much more depth and complexity than others on similarly light frames. I liked Red Car Pinot Noir Seaview Fort Ross Estate 2011, which filled its open texture with pure dark fruit and wrapped it with elegance.
Time was running short so I skipped some producers I already knew and liked—Calera, Sandhi, Mount Eden and Wind Gap among them, but I did find a favorite. The most impressive table to me was Failla's. Its wines delivered a wide spectrum of flavors, centered on fruit but flashing nuances that persisted into long and refined finishes. Failla Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2011, silky and refreshing, and its elegant Chardonnay Napa Valley Coombsville Haynes Vineyard 2011 both had stunning depth of flavor. I also warmed up to the crisp focus and impressive depth of Failla's Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Hirsch Vineyards 2010.
Some Balancians might consider Failla's wines over the top, but to me they proved that rich, ripe wines can indeed be balanced, too. In fact, in Burgundy some of the most celebrated bottles, such as classics produced by Henri Jayer, might be considered beyond the pale if the folks in the "balance" camp were to taste them blind. In my experience, his wines were indeed richer and more fruit-centered than most other Burgundy reds, at least when tasted young. The alcohol levels were higher too.
Although they know they are swimming against the tide, Balancians believe in what they are doing, and that's a big part of what it takes to make compelling wines. They just need to get more consistent at getting the depth of flavor and length on the palate that distinguishes great wines made from any grape anywhere. Making wines in their preferred style also involves a higher degree of difficulty, like a diver adding extra somersaults and twists. Ripe flavors are easier to drink, even if they often come with higher alcohols and lower acid levels.
I hope the Balancians get better at it, though. It's a style worth cultivating, when it works.