May 2011

In Pursuit of Balance

By: Christopher Sawyer
photos by the author


Just when you thought everything was beautiful and glamorous in the world of Pinot Noir, a technical glitch has been reported. Of course, I'm talking about the new wave of heavy-handed winemaking techniques which create bold Pinot Noirs with over-ripe flavors, too much oak and high levels of alcohol. While many of these high-octane styles appeal to some critics and consumers who enjoy drinking bold wines, most are sharp contrasts to the graceful nature and subtle nuances of wines made from Pinot Noir vines planted in the premier coastal regions of California.

The seminar featured a cast of all-star wine professionals: Jeffrey Patterson of Mount Eden Vineyards, Sashi Mormon of Evening Lands Vineyards, wine writer and moderator Ray Isle, Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards, Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines and Geoff Kruth, Director of Operations of Guild of Sommeliers and Wine Director at Farmhouse Inn, Forestville, CA.

In late March in San Francisco, this intriguing topic was explored in detail at California Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance, a special seminar and tasting created by sommelier Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and RN74 restaurants and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards. The concept was designed to promote wineries who are striving to produce balanced wines made with ultra-premium Pinot Noir grapes grown at extraordinary sites.

At the event, it didn't take long to discover that the term "balance" is subject to many interpretations. "To me, balance is a static movement," said Paul Wilkins, owner/winemaker, Alta Maria Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. "As a fine Pinot Noir ages, it creates reaction and evokes pleasure. It's a joy to all those involved, from the grower to the winemaker and, in the end, the consumer who drinks the finished product." Winemaker Ross Cobb of the Sonoma County-based Cobb Wines had a more concise definition. "Be it the lack of fruit, too much oak or the burn you get from too much alcohol, if too many factors are sticking out, then the wine is out of balance."

Some winemakers have learned these lessons over time. Among them is Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines, one of the panelists at the exclusive seminar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Instead of adding water and acid to adjust the alcohol level and ageability of the wine, in 2006 Guthrie started picking his grapes in Anderson Valley at a lower sugar level. "Our winery is on a continual search to find the magical blend of balance, tension and kinetic energy that influence our wines in a positive way," said Guthrie. "Today, the wines we make are fresher, brighter and have more depth when they go in the bottle."

Another winemaker, Vanessa Wong of Peay Vineyards, believes it's critical to balance the amount of structure, acid, tannin and oak to allow the true characteristics of the vineyard to shine through. "Truth is we are not in Burgundy, so we should make wines based on the expressions of each given site," said Wong. "Clearly, I'm not into making a wine that has a shock value."

Rajat Parr of Michael Mina and RN74 in San Francisco at the Pursuit of Balance seminar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

Then there's the continual pursuit: taking advantage of what Mother Nature has to give during each vintage. "From a grower's perspective, we need to remember this is the New World. It's taken 20 to 30 years to achieve balance, and it will take generations to find out a site's real potential," said David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyard, an isolated site on the northwestern tip of the Sonoma Coast appellation. "Getting married to your site is a very long process!"

Finally, from a consumer's perspective, there's the simple opinion from Jeffery Paterson, winemaker/owner of Mount Eden Vineyards: "When the last glass is better than the first glass that tells it all!"


Chanin 2008 Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley ($43)
Ten-year old vines; 12.9% alcohol. Beautiful aromas of fresh raspberry, earth and subtle spice; delectable flavors of ripe red fruit, dark chocolate, white pepper, elegant texture and layers of finesse.

  Lioco 2007 Michaud Vineyard, Chalone ($48)
Enchanting aromatics of concentrated red fruit, blood orange peel and tobacco; bustling flavors of ripe cherry, mineral and clove.

Kutch 2009 McDougall Ranch, Mendocino Ridge ($48)
Vineyard planted in 1998 with clone 114. Powerful flavors of wild berry, red currant, black pepper and Thanksgiving spice.

Copain 2009 Monument Tree Vineyard, Anderson Valley ($50)
Floral aromas of red fruit, crushed violets, and forest floor; flavors of raspberry and cherry, integrated oak, and burst of bright acidity on the finish.

Wind Gap 2009, Sonoma Coast
From Gaps Crown and Griffins Lair vineyards, seductive aromas of cedar, ripe plum, raspberry, and a fresh charcuterie plate; concentrated flavors of ripe red fruit, blackberry, currant, perky acidity, firm tannins, and only 12.3% alcohol.

Peay Vineyards 2009 Pomarium Estate, Sonoma Coast
Graceful pinot noir with aromas of bright red fruit, tobacco and cured meats. On the palate, vibrant notes of wild strawberry, cherry, licorice, tea leaf, mineral, layers of subtle spices and balanced tannins.

Ceritas 2009 Escarpa Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Planted in 1978; 3.6 acres of Swan clone. Balanced notes of black cherry, blue fruit, mineral, baking spice and a smooth finish.

Failla 2009 Pearlessence Vineyard, Sonoma Coast
Elegant textures with pure racy fruit profile highlighted by notes of sweet cherry cola, firm tannins, savory spices and a true sense of purity.

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