For the past three years, a small group of California chardonnay and pinot noir producers has gathered for a conference and tasting called In Pursuit of Balance. In past years it's been staged in San Francisco and New York; in 2013, for the first time, they brought their wines and their message to Los Angeles.
The organization represents the concerted effort among these winemakers to pursue, revisit or otherwise reclaim an aesthetic once rumored to be lost in California: wines of proportion and restraint. For the better part of two decades, the trend in wine styles has been toward making riper, more buxom and more extracted wines, with softer textures and higher alcohols, a trend rewarded by critics and snatched up by consumers — and heeded, needless to say, by the wine community.
The wines on display at IPOB, many from the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages, represented leaner styles, less extracted, less ripe, lighter in alcohol and higher in acidity, and their exceptional, consistent quality compels me to say that at this moment in California, balance need no longer be pursued. It's being achieved.
As far as the market is concerned, these producers and their wines are still very much in the minority. Most California chardonnay and pinot noir remains juicy and plush; most privilege fruit above all other attributes and exhibit a fleshiness of texture that sort of feels the way that sounds: sensual, satisfying, a tad indulgent.
What's not to like about such attributes, you may ask. Well, nothing. Many of the wines made in this style are downright irresistible. But things go missing. In all that ripeness, the expression of place — one of the many things we love about wine — gets squishier, harder to read. Big wines have a dispiriting uniformity to them, with fruit obscuring all other attributes.
The most prized wines in the world — whether from Burgundy, from Hermitage, from the Rheingau or the Piedmont — are revered for the interplay of fruit with a host of other attributes, how the wine manifests soil and climate and steepness of slope, the vagaries of place known as terroir — all working together toward some harmonious and unique outcome.
Of course, wines of this type aren't as immediately gratifying as riper wines — the chardonnays presented were crisp rather than rich, built up not by oak but by lees and acidity. The pinots were more given to savory attributes: pine frond, plum blossom, mushroom, tea.
But what you may have missed in terms of fruit was made up in tension and drive, a compressed textural energy that induces you to take another sip.
Sommelier Rajat Parr, one of the event organizers, describes the wines as “crunchy,” a marvelous word not only for its connotations of freshness but because it seems to capture their kinetic quality, their textural energy and drive, the difference between a puddle and a stream, a cinderblock and a skipping stone, a baked apple and one just plucked off the tree.
For these producers, balance is not static but kinetic, like one of Pollock's paintings or Calder's mobiles — wildly turbulent, even as they stand perfectly still.
For a list of participating wineries, go to inpursuitofbalance.com.
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Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.