Listen to wine lovers talk about their favourite drink and you will soon hear the word “balance”. Some are so enthusiastic about balance, they might as well be discussing their favourite 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. Parr refuses to sell pinot or chardonnay in excess of 14% 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 flavours 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 recently 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 tannin. 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. 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. Our sense of balance reflects our preferences in wine styles.
The new emphasis on balance is welcomed 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.