Winemaking. It’s all about balance, people

Vines in a dry, sun-drenched spot near Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley

Being in the midst of the Olympics, as the whole world is watching athletes striving to go faster, higher, stronger, it’s good to remember that winemaking is not an athletic endeavour.

It may be about better, but it’s not about bigger and more. It’s about balance. It’s about working out a set of variables so that the total becomes more than the sum of the parts. Which does not mean that the parts in question need to be maximized. It’s a game of give and take.

That’s the main point I tried to make in my blog post about Vanity Winemaking and a totally overblown reserve wine from Cahors, on Palate Press. The wine in question is Le Pigeonnier 1999, a wine of ridiculously low yields and extremely high oak infusions that got a 95 from Robert Parker, giving newfound attention to the Cahors appellation, about ten years ago. For all the wrong reasons.

By turning everything up to 11, in Spinal Tap fashion, Michel Rolland and Alain Dominique Perrin created a monster, a parody of a wine. At ten years of age, it’s not good at all and won’t improve. Because it has no balance.

The problem with that wine is not unrelated to the reasons that have caused The Collapse of Cabernet, as Dan Berger called it in an excellent article in the Napa Valley Register, last month:

I was a judge at the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition last week and one flight of 60 cabernets was utterly disappointing: almost all were huge, ungainly red wines that had no aroma I ascribe to cabernet. And these oafs had no food compatibility whatever. (…) There are complicated reasons for this turnabout, but the bottom line is that we may have lost cabernet for all time. I can’t drink them young; I can’t imagine they will age well, and I cannot figure out why so many people are still buying them. (…) I hear rumors that wine makers are trying to cut back on alcohols. But we are locked in to a system that calls for this sort of mediocrity.

As Berger himself points out, elegance is still to be found, if you look for it. If you can get your hands on some Smith-Madrone cabs from Spring Mountain, or Corison cabs from the St Helena appellation, you’ll find that balanced, finely tuned cabernets can indeed still be found. Some cabs in the new winemaking paradigm manage to find balance, too, but it just isn’t centered around the same notion of balance that you could find in just about all 1997 California cabernet sauvignons, wines that are still youthful and full of life today.

Charles Smith, from Smith-Madrone, on Spring Mountain, a winery that doesn't push its cabs over the top. The rieslings are something else, too...

There is often a simplistic opposition, in wine writing, between “big” and “delicate” wines, between concentrated and thin, a dualistic view that recently led Robert Parker to lament, in a recent tweet, about the heavy discounts on “Aussie shirazs..out of fashion among the anti-flavor wine elites”. The remark generated a Facebook page for the Anti-Flavor Wine Elite, where people proudly exclaim with ironic glee how much they have been enjoying wines that had no flavor.

I can assure you that there is plenty of flavor in many of the anti-flavor wines. And I’m sure there are Aussie shirazes that the “Elite” also enjoy. Virtue is in the middle, as the expression goes. Not everyone has quite the same middle, but the extremes make little sense, whether in the high-volume, characterless end or in the extremely extracted, hyperconcentrated end of the spectrum.

Reading Tweets about the Wine Writers’ Symposium currently taking place in Napa Valley got me thinking about this particular aspect of the whole issue of balance. Jeff Morgan, a wine writer turned winemaker, known for his high-end Covenant kosher cabernet, was quoted by participants as saying that California wines were routinely acidified, and almost as routinely “watered back” to reduce the high alcohol levels. Remedial winemaking has become standard? If so, natural balance is certainly becoming a rare thing. Wine lovers take note: there’s something… pretty ripe in the kingdom of California.

Anyhow, this particular tweet from Joe Roberts got my attention too:

Jeff Morgan: unripe tannins *never* soften or integrate in wine bottle aging.#wws2010

Which immediately had me firing back that:

And I would add: neither do tannins from overextraction or overoaking. #wws2010

Too much tannin, whether from lack of ripeness or from overextraction, makes for an unpleasant wine, because it tends to dominate the mix, and block the rest out. In other words, it throws the wine out of balance.

It doesn’t mean there can’t be a lot of tannin in a wine. Some grapes are more tannic than others, of course. But whether it’s pinot noir or malbec, there’s a point where those tannins will become overwhelming, dry, tough, and have a negative effect on the wine.

You go too far in one direction or the other, and it will show in the wine. Sugars, phenolics, acidity, concentration, tannins all have to be well-evaluated, and winemaking has to be worked out according to those parameters. If grapes aren’t as ripe as the previous vintage, it’s highly likely that using the same amount of new oak will not work as well. If the vintage was exceptionally dry and hot, producing thick skins and lots of tannins, long macerations and lots of punching down of the grapeskins will likely give the wine a harsh texture, if not a bitter finish.

Year to year, grape to grape, vineyard to vineyard, all the variables will work themselves out differently. Resolving those variables well, starting in the vineyard and in harvest decisions, is crucial to making great wines. Case in point, the 2009 vintage in Bordeaux, which yielded exceptionally ripe grapes and thus, a lot of high-alcohol wines. But as Bill Blatch puts it in his extremely detailed evaluation of the vintage, published on JancisRobinson.com:

Then there were many growers, mostly in lesser areas, who got frightened by the abnormally high September sugar readings and who picked there and then, before true phenolic ripeness, often realising their mistake afterwards and trying to catch up with longer macerations, which just made it worse. There will be some examples of these rather hard and bitter wines in the spring tastings. Then, at the other end of the scale, the habitually very late pickers, especially on the right bank, have certainly sometimes made wines that will be incredibly alcoholic, very dryly tannic, ultra low in acidity and maybe prone to brett. We just have to hope that the counter-trend that we have noticed in our tastings of the bottled wines of such estates since the 2004 vintage towards more balanced wines will have continued.

Careful, attentive winemakers will always find some kind of balance – whether that balance is found at 15% or 12% alcohol, with lots of new oak or no oak at all. Last weekend, I tasted a superb Ribera del Duero from Bodegas Alion, a winery created by the legendary Vega Sicilia. This 100% tinto fino (tempranillo) wine was juicy, big, smooth, sustained by a reasonable amount of acidity and a sort of gentleness, despite the fact that it clearly came from a hot vintage.

Indeed, it was a 2003, a year that showed little mercy to the vines, especially in hot regions like southern France, Spain, Southern Italy, etc. In a way, it was a vintage cranked to 11. Somehow, the people at Alion found a way to turn it down a notch or two, and work out the variables of that particular wine, in that particular vintage. And that’s how they made their way to that elusive, complex place that produces balance and harmony. I’ll bet that, thanks to that careful, well-thought out approach, it will be a lot better for a lot longer than the 1999 Pigeonnier.

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8 Comments

  1. Jeff Morgan
    Posted February 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I wish Remy had been at my talk the other day. He (she?) might have actually learned something of value first hand. While wine criticism is certainly a just pursuit, writers might consider the pitfalls of advising the public (and winemakers) about which techniques should be employed to acheive a desired result in the bottle. Remy’s comments are the kind that indicate a well-intentioned questioning of the status quo– always a good thing, since there is always room for improvement. But his/her self-assured tone belies a simplistic, romantic understanding of what (we) winemakers do. And that kind of attitude will only yield simplistic and inaccurate reporting.

    • Posted February 19, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

      I wish I had been at your talk too, Jeff. I’m sure I could have learned a few things. And asked a few questions about some of your statements that seemed, at least when expressed as 140-character tweets, rather surprising, to say the least. Saying that Bordeaux producers water back in good years is quite a sweeping statement: as far as I know, it’s illegal to do so in Bordeaux and, indeed, in most of Europe.

      However, I don’t understand what you’re saying about writers advising the public about techniques. If you mean to imply that my post was recommending any techniques or any specific approach, you completely misread it. The post does no such thing – although it does point to a particular wine as being a clear failure on all counts.

      On the contrary, I’m saying that there isn’t a single way to go about things in the vineyard or in the cellar. That seeking balance means paying attention to details, being empirical rather than dogmatic. I don’t see what’s “simplistic, romantic” about that.

      My remarks also stem for what I’ve learned from hands-on experience at winemaking over the last couple of years, especially with the 2009 harvest at Closson Chase Vineyards, where I’ve taken my own decisions at a number of levels, to produce a particular barrel of chardonnay. I may not have his experience in winemaking, but I’m not talking about all this in a purely theoretical manner either.

      I’m disappointed in your rush to judge. Who’s being simplistic, really?

      • Posted February 20, 2010 at 3:04 am | Permalink

        More worrisome is the implicit assumption that wine writers, no matter their experience, couldn’t possibly understand the intricacies of what winemakers (they) do…. as if there are dark secrets that no laypeople could understand.

        • Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:55 am | Permalink

          That was part of my surprise at the comment too. Winemaking is complex, but there are no dark secrets – or at least, there doesn’t have to be.

  2. Posted February 19, 2010 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    I have no idea why Jeff Morgan has such a problem with this article. It is very well researched and written. In fact, this is one of the better articles I’ve read on this issue. Oh, and I agree that the 2003 Alion is outstanding (As is the 2003 Pintia from Toro, also made by Vega Sicilia). I’ve found that good producers have done good things with 2003 – exactly to your point.

    • Posted February 20, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      I was surprised as well. I don’t feel I was making accusations, just raising questions about some essential aspects of winemaking.

  3. Posted March 6, 2010 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I found the article extremley well read. It explores many depths and raises interesting discussion and thoughts. How else are people to grow in this area of expertise unless conventional ideas are challenged and probed.

    • Posted March 7, 2010 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the kind words. Glad you’re enjoying life in Prince Edward County, as I’m seeing on your blog. It’s a place I’ve certainly learned to enjoy quite a bit over the last year.

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