A Careful Balance
In almost 35 years of making wine, I have watched the California wine industry grow and evolve. As a winemaker and a wine lover, it has been fascinating to witness both the small and the tectonic shifts in how wine is made and appreciated. From the rise and fall of overly sweet white wines to the recent ascendance of varietals such as Pinot Noir and Syrah in California, the wine world is rarely static. Change comes from many places. Sometimes it reflects short-term fads, other times it heralds an elevation of awareness among winemakers and wine drinkers as they embrace what is essentially a world filled with many appealing wine grapes and styles.
Lately in California (and in other winegrowing regions such as Australia), there has been a great deal of debate about two hot-button style issues—oak and alcohol levels in wines. Simply put, wines vary dramatically in their apparent (and actual) levels of these elements. For instance, white wines can be fermented and aged in 100 percent stainless steel, or they can be crafted using new or older oak barrels. As for alcohol levels, two decades ago wines commonly tipped the scales in the 12 percent range. These days, it is not uncommon to see red wines coming in at a whopping 16 percent alcohol.
Adding fuel to discussions about what is “correct” and “appropriate” are concerns about wine scores—both in competitions and in the press. Some people claim (rightfully so, at times) that heady and voluptuous high-alcohol wines unduly muscle out more subtle and sophisticated wines in side-by-side blind tastings. Because these debates directly influence people’s livelihoods, they can get contentious. Instead of being subjective discussions about personal preference, lately they have taken on more polarizing echoes of “I’m right, your wrong!”
For my part, I think there is common ground to be found. Making good wine is never about just one thing, it is about the composition of the whole—it is about structure and balance. At least that is my experience. When I founded MacRostie Winery and Vineyards over two decades ago, my goal was to create balanced and lush wines embodying the elegant depth of their cool-climate origins (which at the time in California was a rather radical approach). Over the years, this goal hasn’t changed. Whether we are making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, or Merlot, we strive to craft wines that reflect the character—not a caricature—of the varietal. This means wines that are rich and supple, while still dry and offering refreshing acidity. Though we always try to show restraint, the amount of new oak used and the alcohol levels in these wines depend on the vintage and the quality of the fruit, not some preordained formula.
As I have watched oak and alcohol levels soar at some wineries, I am reminded of the boom in fusion cuisine during the ‘80s. For a time, many American chefs played with a new global palette of ingredients like kids in the proverbial candy store. From ginger and lemongrass to chili peppers and exotic fruits, they pushed the limits, exploring the boundaries of acidity, spice, heat and flavor combinations, often with mixed results. In the end, they learned to use their new ingredients to create multifaceted yet harmonious dishes. They made it all come together.
I think the wine world is charting a similar course, which is not surprising considering the intimate relationship between wine and food. While these issues are still being hotly discussed, people on different sides of the oak/alcohol debates seem to be reaching a consensus around the idea of balance. Instead of saying “you’re wrong” for liking this or that kind of wine, they are instead acknowledging the importance of overall composition, praising wines in which the various parts come together to elevate the whole. Sometimes these wines have more oak or higher alcohol levels, sometimes they don’t. That’s part of the artistry of great winemaking, as each winemaker explores their vision of what makes a great wine.
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