In Pursuit of Balance?
It has become quite vogue to say you make wines of balance. I admit, I’ve said it myself. Peay is even a founding member of a group of wineries who promote balance in wines and cross the country (soon, the globe) spreading the word about balance in California Pinot noir and Chardonnay. But does anyone think they make wines of imbalance? Oh sure, there are a few people who embrace their hedonistic, full-throttle, fruit-bomb style (perhaps encouraged by a couple of influential wine critics) and declare more reserved, multi-faceted wines to be lacking and perhaps a little sissified. But the majority of folks feel they make wines of balance and, in most cases, they can defend their claim as balance is a mushy word. It lacks a clear definition.
Remember those big black boxes with the ten or twenty numbered levers audiophiles used to stack in their stereo cabinets? Folks over 40 will. I never understood exactly what each lever did, but my father had an “equalizer” and I would tinker with the levers when he was blaring his opera around the house on Sunday afternoons. It was interesting to see how changing a level would effect the overall impression of the music. Bizet’s Habanera would become muffled, shrill, or simply careen in a jumble depending on which level(s) I moved in an extreme direction. At any volume setting, Carmen’s famous aria was identifiable but altering the frequency of an input would throw the whole song into disarray. The essence, the soul, of the song revealed itself and attached to my body and brain only when the levels were in the correct, um, balance with one another. No one frequency was over-powering or muted, altering what makes the song individual and arresting. Each component of sound, though not necessarily in the same magnitude, would adhere to the overall intelligence of the song. It is like Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture pictured to the right. The tower is comprised of big rocks, small rocks, sharp rocks, rounded rocks. Each one must – is mandated by laws of physics—to consider the overall balance of the other components of the tower or the result would be a pile of rocks. And what is so unique about a pile of rocks? The logic is the same with wine.
Every vineyard has a unique signature or fingerprint. The ridges of the fingerprint are made up of many sensory components, some inherent from the site, some shaped by the husbandry, and some created by winemaking decisions. These sensory components include: alcohol, fruit expression, acidity, non-fruit flavors, tannin, oak flavors, stem flavors, oxidative qualities, off aromas, et al. These are the frequencies, the sensory vibrations, the consumer tastes and smells when drinking a wine. When the winemaker determines where to source the fruit, when to pick, and how to make the wine, her decisions tinker with the levels of these flavors. The wine may need some oak for lift and framing. It may need tannins to provide structure and texture. It may need stems to provide lift and floral aromatics. Nothing should be done doctrinarily, but in consideration of what is necessary to best reveal the signature of the vineyard.
Humans can understandably be reductionist, preferring a simple short-hand for guidance as the world is rife with complexity and no one can be a polymath, understanding all dimensions on every subject. As a result, some—perhaps most—people focus on one or two characteristics as indicators of a balanced wine. Low alcohol levels are the ne plus ultra these days with many racing to see who can pick earlier and make wine with less alcohol and claim the crown of hippest winery of the moment (“Ha, I picked my chardonnay at flowering.”) Of course, most of these wines lack balance as the fruit is unripe, the acid shrill, and the flavors simple and out of harmony. But the alcohol is 11%! As if low alcohol alone would mean the rest of the components of the wine are at their ideal level and the identity of the wine has emerged. And that is the goal of making wine; to bring into light the unique personality of a wine made from a specific site.
When a wine is young, the flavors you experience are obvious; I can easily write tasting notes for young wines as the aromas simply leap out at me. They are bold and strident, each fighting for recognition. Only with time will they meld into a cohesive person, with an identity, a personality, and dare I say, a soul? In aged wines, it is not as easy to pick out the flavors. The fruit fades a little and floral aromas become more lifted making the wine ethereal. The oak-derived flavors no longer are as evident but meld with the other flavors to give the overall wine a boost of energy. The tannins soften to gently frame the wine. Stem flavors, if there are any, will become floral and sweet tasting and, hopefully, lose their astringency and green edge. It is difficult to actually pick out any individual flavors. Instead the drinker remarks, “that tastes like Peay Vineyards Pinot noir (or Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, or Roussanne.)” And that is why balance is important. Balanced wines will allow the essence of the wine—the character of the fruit and where it is grown— to emerge harmoniously over time.
That is the ideal, however. If the tannin level in a wine is very high, the aromas will never cross the palate. They will cease to be inhaled as the aromas dry out on the mid-palate never reaching the olfactory sensors. The risk is those tannins may never “resolve” or polymerize; a fate I fear for a few of the Barolo I have in my cellar. If the wine is dominated by oak or the winemaker has used heavy charred oak barrels, the wine may always taste like oak and the flavor will never become one with the fruit. Wines that show astringent tannins and green flavors due to high use of unripe stems, face a similar dilemma. Twenty years down the road the green flavors and dry tannins may soften and the wine may become lifted and pretty. Or not. The wine may always be gritty and mean. Massive, high alcohol, fruity wines have a worse fate as the dried fruit flavors (prunes/raisins) will always be overripe and taste like what fruit grown anywhere tastes like when it becomes overripe. Years down the road, you will end up with a tired, leaden, “hot” wine that tastes like prune juice. The best moment for those wines is on release when the monochromatic fruit character of the wine impresses with sheer power.
We seek to make wines that speak of our little piece of land on the West Sonoma Coast. These 51 acres have a unique voice. Depending on the weather conditions, some years the grapes may express more of one flavor component than another. Nick considers how best to farm so you can feel in our wines the windy, foggy, hill top. Vanessa is very focused on picking the fruit and turning it into wine in a fashion that summons the vineyard’s voice. In any vintage, you should be able to clearly know that you are drinking Peay Pinot noir (or Chardonnay, etc.). As for balance, it is a pursuit. A pursuit worth the undertaking.