A Case Study in Balance: Zinfandel

The model for Pinot Noir cannot apply to every grape
Nov 12, 2012

Balance in wine, as most of us describe it, is the harmony of fruit, acid, tannins and alcohol, such that no one component is all elbow, so to speak. Sounds agreeable, but the word balance—and what it implies in the modern wine world—has become a more complex and symbolic topic than that description suggests. And generalizing what balance means in wine, whether via degrees alcohol or grams of residual sugar, has become risky business.

The word balance in California, for example, has come to symbolize a movement toward restraint and lower alcohol levels, particularly in Pinot Noir. Rajat Parr, one of the wine world's most respected sommeliers and the beverage director at the Michael Mina Group, has earned three Wine Spectator Grand Awards for his wine lists. He has also become infamous for refusing to sell Pinot Noir that clocks in over 14 percent alcohol at RN74 in San Francisco and has started an organization called In Pursuit of Balance, along with Jasmine Hirsch, of Hirsch Winery in Sonoma. It's composed of producers making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay who are advocates for balance, which they believe is achieved at lower alcohol levels (though the percentage is not precisely defined).

Parr's taken heat (lame pun intended), but he has a very good point when it comes to Pinot Noir. In my experience, when Pinot starts creeping over 14.5 percent alcohol, more often than not it turns into a tall glass of Lawrence Taylor; it struggles for the complexity and elegance that make the grape great. Though I don't consider it an absolute, I do think it's much easier to use degrees alcohol as a guide to seeking balance in Pinot. But Pinot's model cannot, and should not, be applied as a set of parameters for all grapes seeking restraint.

Consider Zinfandel. To be fair, Zin's body image issues began before it was placed in contrast to California's balance movement as told by Pinot. In fact, no other grape in California has suffered a rap worse than Zin's when it comes to questions of balance. In the mid-1990s, Zinfandel built its image on massive, opulent wines that would flirt with 17 percent alcohol and, to add insult to injury, residual sugar. These were wines to grease your door hinges with, or turn a friendly dinner party into an all-night rager, hangover included. But Zin, like Pinot and Chardonnay, can also claim a growing crop of producers like Turley, Bedrock Wine Co. and Carlisle, to name a few, that are moving Zin away from the noise of the '90s and back toward the "claret style" of Zinfandel—characterized by lower alcohol and higher acid, sans residual sugar—popularized in the 1970s.

By virtue of the way the grape grows, even the more classic expressions of Zinfandel clock in around 14.5 percent or higher. Unlike Pinot, Zin's movement toward restraint cannot be packaged neatly under 14 percent alcohol, and that's why Zinfandel—despite the number of restrained wines being made today—has found itself ostracized, to a certain degree, from California's balance movement; its alcohol levels have become its stigmata. The same could be said, though to a less visible degree, about Grenache. Some of the best versions of the grape being made in California, like Angela Osborne's elegant and balanced A Tribute to Grace Grenache Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, often flirt with 15 percent alcohol.

Although the balance movement seems to be exacerbating some of Zin's image issues, Morgan Twain-Peterson, the son of Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson and the owner and winemaker of Bedrock Wine Co., sees the movement as still having a potentially positive impact on Zin, at least from a winemaking standpoint.

"Zin by nature accrues higher alcohol," said Twain-Peterson. "But the current movement toward fresher, brighter wines still does benefit Zinfandel; it's a very different thing when you get a Zin from picking at 29 Brix and watering back and adding acid as opposed to picking at 23.5 to get to 25 Brix [because of Zin's uneven clustering, alcohol levels tend to increase after crush] without adding water or acid."

But many producers—including those who have always made more restrained Zinfandel, like Mike Dashe of Dashe Cellars, Jay Heminway of Green and Red and Paul Draper of Ridge Vineyards, as well as Turley, which led Zin on its mid-1990s crusade for girth but has since become a clear voice in the quest to bring it back to the claret days—are still left clinging to the footboard of the balance bandwagon, hoping someone will offer a hand. That's a shame, because their work in rebirthing the claret style of Zinfandel is as important to the future of California wine as the work of winemakers like Ted Lemon, Jamie Kutch or Ross Cobb when it comes to more elegant California Pinot Noir.

Part of allowing for a more rounded and complete balance movement in California will require that we do not apply Pinot's model to every grape. If we do, we may all miss out on a whole lot of progress.

United States California Red Wines Zinfandel
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