In reviewing and describing wines for both our column here in The Press and for customers in the shop, we frequently talk about restraint and balance in winemaking. Much of this is based on what our palates prefer as wine consumers and less about a quality judgment. We taste wines all the time from a wide array of winemakers working with an even bigger array of varietals from appellations all over the world that are well made but for a variety of reasons just don’t appeal to us.
We tend to prefer a non-interventionist style in winemaking and one where oak, alcohol, sugars and acids are in harmony. Where the use of outside influences is minimized and winemaking is both balanced and restrained. This begs the question though: “What does balance and restraint really mean?”
Perhaps the easiest example is American Chardonnay. Many produced here in the States are now made in a style that is so rich and opulent that they have become a meal in themselves, which to us is neither balanced nor restrained. Winemakers accomplish this style variation by first allowing the fruit to get very ripe and picking at a point in the day when the temperatures are a bit warmer. This ripeness results in elevated sugars and in many cases depressed acids leading to a wine that is higher in alcohol and if not completely fermented may even leave some residual sugar in the wine.
The other winemaking decision made to get this very rich style is the oak barrel choices. More new barrels are used in the mix resulting in more prominent oak flavors. Also the barrels are “toasted” to a higher level further increasing the prominence of oak flavors in the wine. The resulting Chardonnay or any other wine handled in this way will be so rich with certain flavors (butter, vanilla, caramel) and profiles accentuated that the wine just tastes out of balance and in many cases is unlikely to age very well. Technically speaking the wine is well made but these choices are just ones that don’t agree with our palate.
A winemaker can gain balance and restraint in their wine by making some decisions along the way that are the opposite of the ones we just mentioned. Allowing the fruit to get ripe but not so ripe that very high sugar levels result in exaggerated alcohol levels. Some of the wines we enjoy the most too come from winemakers and growers who harvest very early in the day or in some cases the wee hours of the morning when sugars concentrate and acids elevate hitting the desired “balance” between these two key fruit components.
Restrained oak treatment too comes from the use of a mix of new barrels as well as some that have been used for a previous vintage or 2 or 3 vintages and in some cases are completely “neutral” barrels. Recently too we are seeing more whites that see a mixture of stainless steel tanks and oak barrels of varying ages leading to even more limited oak prominence. When tasting European wines many times we will find this desired restraint and balance is even more prominent. In Europe all manner of vessels are employed for fermentation and ageing including concrete vats, glass jugs and the like to minimize the prominence of oak.
For reds too many of the same decisions are made to reflect the tastes of the winemakers, so just like whites most of the reds out there are well made but some are not always done in a style we prefer. With reds though almost all see some oak barrel ageing. We find though that the most well balanced wines are those where the winemaker recognizes which varietals can best handle more aggressive oak usage. Just like for white wines a more aggressive oak profile will be garnered by the use of more new barrels, those that are toasted more heavily and perhaps some that are manufactured in the U.S. as opposed to those from France. (Oak grown in the U.S. is cut to enhance the grain which imparts more oak flavor.) Also the balancing of the sugars and acids in the berries themselves at harvest time result in similar results for reds.
Most every wine professional including us keeps an assortment of wines that span these stylistic differences since we know not all wine consumers appreciate the same style of winemaking. While our own palate prefers the more seamless and harmonious style that comes from minimal intervention from the winemaker and an eye to balance, not everyone is the same. So as a wine consumer it is best to know your style preference so when you ask your favorite wine professional they know whether to point you toward the big and bold or the more restrained.
If there is a topic you would like to read about or questions on wine you can email George@thedinnerpartyshop.com or make suggestions by contacting the Healthy Community section at the Coeur d’Alene Press.
George Balling is co-owner with his wife Mary Lancaster of the dinner party – a wine and table top decor shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. George is also the managing judge of The North Idaho Wine Rodeo, and is the wine editor for Coeur d’Alene Magazine (www.cdamagazine.com). You can learn more about the dinner party at www.thedinnerpartyshop.com. You can get all of these articles as well as other great wine tips by friending us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.
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