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In Pursuit of Balance: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay


The buzz at yesterday’s second annual In Pursuit of Balance tasting was all about low alcohol, as in below 14%. Vintners were excited about the 2011s, still in barrel. David Hirsch told me some of his lots clocked in at 13.1%, low even for Hirsch Vineyard. “And what do they taste like?” I asked. David just smiled and said “Fabulous.” Unfortunately the ‘11s won’t begin to come out for at least 18 months or so, so we’ll just have to wait. But in the meanwhile we can savor the 2010s, another cool vintage that offers tantalizing hints of yet to come.

Jon Bonné, the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran wine writer (he’s now been around long enough to merit the v-word) was there. I congratulated him on his column, from Sunday, in which he officially blessed the cool 2009, 2010 and 2011 vintages, writing that they “proved the virtues of restraint.” It was interesting that he made a comparison between 2011–so much cold and rain and, in some cases, mold–and 1998, a vintage universally panned here in California for much the same reasons. However I know a lot of people who say the ‘98s were better than originally portrayed, and are in fact aging well. As if in proof, at In Pursuit of Balance Josh Jensen had a bottle of his Calera 1998 Pinot Noir (I forget which vineyard from his estate on Mount Harlan; sorry. Reed?) that he particularly wanted me to try because of the vintage’s evil reputation. It smelled and tasted just fine, a wine of purity, elegance and harmony, and still fresh in fruit. So next time somebody says a vintage sucked, don’t believe them (unless it’s me!).

I won’t remark on individual Pinots I tasted, because my formal reviews will be appearing in Wine Enthusiast.

I have a big Chardonnay article coming up, so I was also interested in tasting as many Chards as I could, determined to get to the bottom of what makes for balance in that variety. The thing that fascinates me is how some Chardonnays taste too oaky even if the amount of new oak isn’t particularly high. Vice versa, too: some 100% new oak Chards are balanced. Lots of this is dependent on the base wine, of course: a big, fruity Chardonnay can take more oak than a thinner one. Still, I don’t think there’s any one right answer. Some vintners–Adam Tolmach, at Ojai–have largely moved away from new French oak because they prefer to let the fruit talk about the terroir. Others aren’t afraid of new oak and love it. Emmanuel Kemiji, M.S., whom I knew when he was sommelier at the Ritz Carlton San Francisco and who now owns the fine brand, Miura, lavished 50% new French oak and 50% one-year old barrels on his 2009 Chardonnay, from the Talley Vineyard. I love Ojai Chardonnays and I loved that Miura. But, as Kemiji pointed out, if he didn’t have grapes from Talley, with all that natural stone fruit and acidity, that much oak would be too much.

  1. Some of this is Twilight Zone stuff. No one can have any complaint about good wines at any alcohol level, but 2011 is so atypical that trying to use it to prove any point about CA potential borders on vinous sophistry.

    There are lots of lovely low alcohol wines, by the 14% rule, which is totally artificial to begin with and exists only because it continues to be a dividing line that was created decades ago to distinguish so-called dessert wines from table wines, and it did not take 2009 to 2011 to teach folks like Peay, Dutton Goldfield, Freestone how to make them.

  2. Hmmmm
    In 2008 I wanted to put together a tasting of wines made from grapes picked at no more that 23 Bx.
    This would have been a Somm/Media event.
    Raj was one of the people I contacted.
    As is often in this business, people were either reluctant get into the issue of low alc or wanted to get compensated for showing up.
    The whole damn thing fell apart with so many people wanting their own way with it, but now, that we’re in what seems to be a pro-low-alc trend, I suspect people would be willing to pay their own way to an event like this.
    I know little of Parr and he was kind with his time to a guy he did not know and people close to him vouched for but when I saw this I couldn’t help but think of how bell bottoms came back
    20 years after their demise…..

  3. Charlie, what would happen to the (a)typicity you speak of if there were more double lyre, CA sprawl and goblet vines and less Smart-Dyson or VSP vines?…

  4. Steve,

    I am afraid that you may well be correct when you point out that the focus on balance has become a focus on alcohol levels. And yet, these two are not synonymous.

    I have had the honor of purchasing fruit from the aforementioned Hirsch Vineyard since 1995. Let me share a few “geeky” numbers from the fruit that we purchased over the last 3 vintages:

    2009 24.1 brix (14.5% potential alcohol) 3.44pH 28% malic acid

    2010 23.6 brix (14.2% potential alcohol) 3.54pH 44% malic acid

    2011 22.2 brix (13.3% potential alcohol) 3.56pH 37% malic acid

    It was in the highest potential alcohol vintage that the strength of the acidity was highest. And the lowest potential alcohol vintage that the strength of the acidity was lowest. From a winemaking point of view, we had to add acid in both 2010 and 2011, but not in 2009.

    So in which vintage was the juice more balanced and in which vintage will the wine be most balanced?

    And yet the focus seems to be on alcohol as the primary determiner of balance.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  5. I think Charlie is right about reading too much into the 2011 vintage results, as it was so different from most that we experience. As I have mentioned here before, I am loving some 2011 Russian River Chardonnay lots currently in the barrel at a client’s winery, harvested from 20.7 to 22.0 brix under pressure from rain and botrytis. But in the same vineyard we have often tried picking a block at 22.0 brix as a hedge against excessive alcohol in the blend, and found the resulting lot to miss the mark–thin, narrow, acidic, lacking flavor and aroma. However, these were picked in early September, while in 2011 harvesting was weeks later: longer hang time, berries soft and translucent, not hard and green.

  6. Adam, your points are valid. Yet I’m sure you would not discount the utility of sugar levels (and thus potential and finished alcohol) as a loose indicator of balance (to a winemaker and the consumer in their own rights).

  7. To discuss 1998 based on a Pinot is a mistake. Pinot ripens much earlier than Cab, and often shines is a vintage like 2011 or 1998 when Cab is rained or rotted out. Especially a Pinot from Calera, a very warm place. There’s an old Mourvedre vineyard nearby. What’s that tell you?

  8. I find it odd that nobody complains about wines being out of balance, weighted to acidity. While this may not be a common problem in CA, it is certainly abundant in many European (as well as eastern US) regions. Should one start a movement based on the 1er and grand cru Burgundies that are so acidic that only the fattiest foods make them palatable?
    I’m suspicious that Parr et al really are concerned with balanced wine. It seems to me that they are more interested in derision of a certain style of wine and those people who would enjoy them.
    The most troubling thing in the wine world is not the prevalence of one style or another, but the heated rhetoric that has escalated over the last several years.
    Wine, it seems, will soon be divisive enough to take up major segments on Fox News and MSNBC

  9. Steve, I made two other comments in addition to my response to Adam. You may have missed them and they are still awaiting approval.

  10. Arthur, you’re right. I don’t know why they didn’t go up automatically. They’re up now. Thanks.

  11. DR, I agree with your remarks. I think all styles of wine should be appreciated when they are well made and delicious.

  12. Arthur,

    Over the last decade, average Pinot Noir sugars at harvest in Sonoma County have (according to the Grape Crush report) varied from 23.9 (potential alcohol of 14.2) to 24.9 (potential alcohol of 14.9). If you throw out the highest year (the hot 2004 vintage) and the lowest year (the cool 2011 vintage), the sugar range is very narrow, from 24.1 to 24.5.

    What that narrow of a range tells me about balance and their relationship to alcohol as a whole in Sonoma Pinot Noir is beyond me.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  13. wow, there is a god.

  14. Thanks, Randy. I appreciate the recognition.

    I thought my remarks were good, I did not think they were that good.

  15. randy: Amen!
    Thanks Steve for the forum!
    Since Siduri Wines are amazing, stupid folks like me will just enjoy them no matter the vintage, PH,abv, or acid.

  16. Adam
    Are you able to make any correlation between, Bx and TA or pH in those remaining years (after ’04 and ’11 are tossed out)? Is there any pattern?

  17. cody parker says:

    its about barrel selection for Chardonnay. It takes a lot of research and chard tasting to figure out what those barrels are that can be 50%new, 50% one year and not even hint towards being over oaked. But the baked spices and flavors can be astounding. Where as one of the wrong kind of barrels can over shoot the line of balance. Drink more wine, and ask more questions in order to make the puzzle pieces of the flavor profile fit in BALANCE !

  18. The brix range I gave you are for all of Sonoma County purchased Pinot Noir fruit.

    If you look at our section specifically at Hirsch here are some numbers:

    2005 25.3 brix 3.57pH 8.1 TA
    2006 23.8 brix 3.58pH 6.9 TA
    2007 24.8 brix 3.61pH 7.0 TA
    2008 25.3 brix 3.51pH 7.5 TA

    and then the brix and pH I gave you earlier.

    Is there any pattern? Couple of things to consider. Yield is important. Too small a crop, such as 2008, leads to some facors, such as brix, running ahead of other factors. A poor set makes it much more difficult.

    A cool season also provides you with, potentially, much higher % of malic acid. That means that there will be a greater shift post ml in the pH. So you need to have really good pH levels in a cool vintage to deal with that shift without the addition of acid.

    Other than that, not sure what conclusions you can consistently draw. I do think you can say one thing — you have to listen to what nature and the vines and the fruit tells you, not tell nature what your winemaking philosophy is and make it adjust to you.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  19. Steve Hare says:

    Time will tell if the wineries and vintners are serious about the low alcohol wines they now tout. If we take a vintage with weather patterns like we enjoyed in 2007, let’s see if the vintners are still picking their grapes at 22.5 brix. I’d bet that the vintners will be back to picking at 25.5 (plus) and the PR departments will be signing the praises of extraction and richness.

  20. Thank you, Adam.
    So assuming that 2008 was the most atypical, difficult vintage, there is a loose correlation between Bx and TA – an inverse relationship, so to speak, which goes with the *general* rule of thumb that as sugars increase, acids decrease.
    Certainly, it’s not absolute, but when you have an even year without the problems you mentioned, the trend of sugars up, acids down can be seen, and when vintages with comparable weather and crops (same site assumed) I think the relationship of those numbers can generally fall in line with organoleptically perceived balance.
    And finally, maybe this is points out that those who dismiss vintage variation in CA ought to take a second look and recognize that not all vintages in this state are the vintage of the millennium. They do vary and the wines are different.

  21. Steve Hare: lol!

  22. Arthur,

    While I appreciate the hard-fought effort to narrow down winemaking and balance to brix and TA….I think there are a few points you are overlooking.

    1) TA is the total amount of acidity…but not the strength of the acidity. You can have high TAs but also high pHs and vice versa. Personally, I spend a great deal more time looking at the pH numbers than the TA numbers when it comes to red wine. This is largely because….
    2) Red wines go thru malolactic fermentation. The converstion of malic acid to lactic acid has a far greater effect on the pH than on the TA. So once a wine goes thru ml it will have a higher pH, effecting the balance of the wine. That is why, in my original post, I quote % malic. We consider “normal” to be about 33% malic…but in certain years we see that % higher or lower andif that variation is significant it very much effects the balance of the wine. We often see this in Oregon, where the grapes come in at low sugars, high TAs, low pHs, but the juice is 60% malic and thus, post-ml, the wine will be quite flat without a modest acid addition.

    Again, it is nice to try and boil it down to higher brix, lower TAs but nature, and the nature of making wine, is not so simple.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  23. Adam
    And all:
    Thanks for the good comments. I think your decision to pick later is more of a factor than most might realize. Picking at 22.5-23 Brix is appropriate for a more balanced alcohol, pH, and TA. This allows for a winemaking without manipulation with water, acid, nutrients and yeasts. All of these additives tend to create a vitamin flavored, juicy, ripe and unbalanced pinot noir.
    Adam’s numbers only reflect his delayed picking decisions.
    I do not encourage anyone to pick early, if the flavors aren’t ready.
    What is “ready” is the real question.
    I don’t mean sound like my wines are better, because quality is subjective.
    Ripe versus balanced?
    Lower alcohol is not the only criteria for balance.
    Otherwise, every fruit bomb that has been watered back to 13.9% would be “balanced”.
    Of course, the answer is vintage’s climate, vineyard climate and picking decision/ date.
    Hot climates or vintages tend to require more hang time to achieve flavors, resulting in higher alcohol and fruitiness. Water back, but these wines still taste fruity and unbalanced.

    There is a reason why Rioja, Chianti, Rhone and Languedoc pinot noir hasn’t caught on.

  24. Ross,

    Fun…we disagree on so many things that we could have our own World of Pinot Noir panel?

    Let me start at the bottom — the reason that Rioja, Chianti, and Rhone Pinot Noir hasn’t caught on is because you are not allowed, legally, to plant Pinot Noir in those regions and call it by the name of the region. As far as Languedoc Pinot Noir, you may want to check your statistics — but there were over 160 million bottles exported of Languedoc Pinot Noir between 2006 and 2008 or about 55 million bottles a year. Burgundy exports about 100 million bottles a year…so only half of what Burgundy does, but still significant. —
    — However, I think your comments on this issue are representative of a common mindset which places the decisions made by our vinious European founders in the “unquestionably correct” category which I don’t choose to accept. I don’t believe that all of the decisions made as to what grows best where, made by Monks who also believed that the world was flat and the sun circled the earth, are to be taken as gospel.

    As far as the specifics of the numbers go, perhaps you would like to familiarize yourself more with them before you go saying that “they ony reflect his delayed picking decisions.”
    For example, at 22.2 brix in 2011, hardly a delayed picking decision and one which produced lower alcohol than the 13.1% Steve mentioned in his column, the resulting pH was 3.56…higher than the previous two higher brix vintages and required an acid addition, unlike the higher brix 2009 vintage. This alone seems to disprove the sweeping nature of your statement that “picking at 22.5-23 brix…allows for winemaking without manipulation…..” I’d be happy to look at YAN levels and the like with you as well….since we’ve been sourcing fruit from the same section at Hirsch since 1995, we have all of those numbers and you can see what correlation you can and can’t draw between the brix and the other numbers.

    As far as what the additions do or do not do, we can leave that for a blind tasting at your leisure. I would be happy to have you over and taste a selection of wines and you determine which wines have had additions made to them and which have not.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  25. Balance is the subject of this panel.
    Sounds like a good panel. I believe that the use of yeasts, nutrients, enzymes, water, acid and oak have contributed to a very popular style of wine that many find outstanding. I personally believe that these wines taste like alcohol, vitamins, Welch’s grape juice, and oak. The purpose of wine is to smell, drink and be easy on the system; ie. result in a minimal hangover. I have found that lower alcohol wines, picked at a lower brix, require no additives. I have not added an enzyme, nutrient, fining agent, or copper in 19 years of pinot noir winemaking. This is achievable when picking a cooler site vineyard and picking on the early side. The nutrient levels are naturally suitable for a complete fermentation. An alcohol level which is moderate, (less than 14.3%), requires no special yeasts and additives.
    The wine that is made from hotter sites requires more manipulation, including the additives above.
    I am not arguing with your points of acid, alcohol and nutrients, but find them to be a moot point when referring to the style of pinot noir that I like.
    Some find my wines to be to delicate and pretty.
    I like Burgundy and still use a few, top producers as a benchmark; Roumier, Mugneret-Gibourg, Dujac, and Compte Armand; to name a few.
    The battle cry to discredit Burgundy is a bit absurd and short-sited. The history in Burgundy is incredible, but it is also necessary to take with a grain of salt. It is wonderful that we don’t have the rules that many European countries have. But we must be critical of our own path, and not be complacent. I believe that it is important to wave the American flag, but without discrediting the history. To be too cavalier, while heralding our accomplishments outside of Europe’s influence, is not wise. The same French attitude towards the American wine market has come back to haunt France. They are feeling the competition.


  26. It is sad to see that the Wine World is starting to mimic the greater World Politic, where the questioning of something is viewed as an attempt to discredit. Of course we need to be critical of our own path. Look at things like AxR which we somehow believed to be immune from phyloxera. From my own personal experience, I have always kicked myself for not recognizing that the absurdly high yields in 2005 needed a bit of saignee, and that bothered me particularly because it was so reminiscent of my 1997 experience and I made the same mistake a second time!

    But to not question winemaking techniques and methods even in Burgundy is just as problematic. Look at this interview with Andre’ Porcheret from Burgundy.
    Questioning what is being done is a positive thing as is honesty in what is being done. His willingness to be honest is, IMO, refreshing.

    I noticed you left acid out of the list of things you haven’t added in your 19 years…why is that? You also left out water. What is that? And what are your thoughts on chaptalization? Is that problematic?

    Once again, if you would like to compare Pinot Noir numbers from sites all over the west coast, please come by and I can show you lower pHs and higher TAs than from the Sonoma Coast, but also higher brix levels. I can show you lower pHs but much higher malics from Oregon (so that proves to be problematic post-ml).

    As far as the types of Pinot Noir that you like, fantastic. We all should like the wines we like…and hopefully find those that we love as well. But to create dichotomies like “ripe versus balanced” as you have chosen to do, rather than realizing a wine can be both, is a rather unfortunate path.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  27. Adam
    You have mentioned picking with low pH, high TA and high brix? That is usually the result of dehydration. As the berry dehydrates, the water to acid and sugar ratio changes, with the brix increasing, the pH decreasing and the TA increasing.

    I am very happy when I can pick my fruit at 22.5 brix and not have to add any water, acid, or the aforementioned nutrients (and other additives). Most winemakers would agree that the addition of sugar (in low brix years) and acid (in high potassium or hot years), and water (in hot years) can bring the wine into acid and alcohol balance. I would rather not use any water or acid, but may reluctantly use small amount of organic tartaric acid to pull out excessive potassium, but not to add acidity. One may have to add water, if the berries are collapsed, but not overripe, like in the scorcher vintage of 2004. I might have used sugar in 2011, but instead have 12.5% alcohol wines.

    But to use these method, as a standard for wine making, is quite vapid. The use of acid, water, sugar, nutrients, enzymes, yeast, and fining agents can often create the fruity and boring wines I have referred to.

    Over ripe (or under ripe) wines can often translate to unbalanced wines.

    My humble opinion…and I do enjoy the Siduri wines immensely, but more so from Sonaterra and Hirsch.


  28. Ross,

    I don’t think we are as far apart as it might have initially seemed.

    My issue is that, even in vineyards such as Hirsch and Sonatera, we often have to make small additions. I mentioned 2011, where at Hirsch, despite lower brix than either 2011 or 2010, the pH was higher. Or in 2010 at Hirsch where the Pommard in our section at Hirsch came in at 22.9 brix and a pH of 3.55 and the Mt. Eden was 24.1 but a pH of 3.51.

    Oof…and Sonatera. Take 2011. 115 picked at 20.4 brix but a pH of 3.82 and TA of 6.0. But the 667 was 23.6 and a pH of just 3.41.

    I could go on and on with countless examples and bore everyone (except perhaps you Ross)…but the point is this happens to us in location after location, vintage after vintage.

    I fully agree that questioning every decision and doing only those that you believe are necessary is the way to go. But I also am not certain that the techniques you mention are what lead to fruity, boring wines but I might look first to the farming.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

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