Reflections on Alcohol and Balance in California Pinot by John Haeger

Reflections on Alcohol and Balance in California Pinot – A Short Q&A with Myself


Plaints about very ripe-picked, extracted and high-alcohol wines -- from somms, retailers, members of the wine press and yes, even some consumers -- may not yet have reached choral dimensions, but their frequency does seem to be increasing, and a disproportionate share of the unrest seems associated with pinot noir.  Last year Jim Cook, the wine director at La Casa Sena in Santa Fe, circulated an amusing open letter to pinot noir, accusing “her” of various infidelities and infelicities, including weight gain, loss of her formerly “lean and sexy shape,” and “sleeping with syrah.”  It was a good read.  More recently and perhaps more seriously, the issue has been framed as a tension between alcohol and balance in American pinot noir, first in a seminar early last month at World of Pinot Noir and then in a seminar and tasting combo organized by Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr in San Francisco: “California Pinot Noir: In Pursuit of Balance.”  Here are some personal reflections.  Thoughts from somms and other wine professionals eagerly solicited.

Can any dry red wine (pinot or otherwise) be “balanced” at 15°+ alcohol?   As long as the question is asked and answered narrowly, I think the answer can be positive.  “Balance” is an analysis of wine defined by sensory perception, not chemistry.  As long as the wine doesn’t taste “hot,” and alcohol doesn’t completely dominate both tannins and acid, the wine can probably be said to fall within “balanced” space, IMO.  Since there is usually no shortage of tannins when extractive winemaking is practiced on very ripe fruit, and at least part of the almost inevitable acid deficiency from long hang time has been “adjusted” upward, such wine can often pass for balanced, IMO again.  At least on release, and if not too much of it is consumed.  But the devil appears from the details if the question is restated to define balance more broadly.  For example, what tastes most balanced at release is not necessarily what tastes best later on.  We all remember the 1993 and 1994 vintages of Oregon pinot, right?  OK, no 15+ wine in either vintage, but 1994 was dramatically the riper of the two.  At release, 1994 was a darling of the critics.  Ten years later, almost all the 1993s were drinking far better than their 1994 counterparts.  Wells Guthrie told the San Francisco seminar that he thought his pre-2006 pinots had been “balanced” at release, but lost “nerve” and “tension” with bottle age.  (Problem solved by picking earlier post-2006, but that’s another story.)   Véronique Drouhin-Boss has argued that pinot’s age-worthiness depends especially on acid.  

Is it significant that apologists for high-alc pinot phrase their defense of these wines as “…but, it’s balanced” or “…even if the alcohol is 15.N, the wine tastes balanced?”  Italics mine.  Yes, Virginia, there is probably a subtext here.  Even the apologists drink fabulous Burgs and old-fashioned Médocs that have finished around 13, and most of them have at least tasted apostate California pinot (think Copain, Inman Family or Rhys) that has managed the same trick.  Their discussion of high-alc pinots is implicitly comparative.  Lurking behind “but” and “even if” is an admission that the alcohol in high alc wines is not any sane winemaker’s objective, but collateral damage.  And/or that the chemistry of the juice from which the wine was made, albeit wacked at harvest, was “successfully” adjusted during winemaking.

If high alcohol is collateral damage, what was the point of the very ripe pick that produced the collateral damage?  Since I am both asking and answering the questions here, I get to exclude some answers that are, IMO, completely disingenuous.  Like “virus-free plant material ripens too fast” or “we have been suckered into planting French clones that were selected for early ripening.”  In other words: Forgive-me-I-didn’t-want-to-pick-so-ripe-but-the-devil-made-me-do-it.  Winemakers should probably not repeat these formulations to St. Peter at the pearly gates.  Perhaps more credible: “the flavors were not ripe when the potential alcohol was in natural balance, so I was forced to wait” or “high sugar was the price of phenolic ripeness.”  In the service of a longer conversation, let’s take these seriously.  Let’s say that “ripe flavors” and “phenolic ripeness” are worthy goals.  And let’s even say that the only way to get them in California, from most vineyards in most vintages, whether the object is pinot noir, or cab, or even zin, is to pick very ripe sugar-wise, and deal with the consequences later.  If high alc were the only baleful consequence, things wouldn’t be so bad.  But it is not.  It is barely the tip of the iceberg.  Any or all of the following may have happened along the road:  Aggressive canopy “management” to increase the grapes exposure to sunlight.  Late season irrigation to “trick” the vines into extended hang time.  Acidulation to compensate for naturally low acid and high pH.  Sulfur to discourage naturally occurring yeast too weak to manage the high sugars, plus cultured yeast selected especially for high alcohol environments.   DMDC to control for the microbiological activity permitted by elevated pH, especially when the winemaker is philosophically opposed to filtration.  Or coarse filtration before DMDC treatment to be sure the DMDC is effective.  Water additions to dampen the finished alcohol just a bit.  Or de-alc technology to dampen it a lot more.  (We all know that plenty of pinots labeled 14.1 or 14.2 began as fruit harvested with potential alcohol well over 15.) No option for stem inclusion since this would compound the high pH problem.  Etc.  Wines, in the end, whose organoleptic space is so fully occupied by dark fruit and barrel-derived by-products of élevage that little space is left for anything else.  Like brighter fruit, floral elements, earthy stuff and minerality.  To say nothing of wines, as Ted Lemon has pointed out in a recent release letter, albeit loaded with ripe fruit flavors, which have little hope of expressing very much about the sites where the fruit was grown.   Is no amount of collateral damage too much?  We expect more restraint from generals on the battlefield than we get from some respected winemakers working with California (and yes, also Oregon) vineyards.

Or is the winemaker innocent, and the marketplace guilty, in the matter of high-alc pinot?  When Jim Cook circulated his breakup letter to pinot last year, more than a few ultra-premium winemakers responded in online environments.  A few, including some I respect consummately, argued that the “classical” style goes unrewarded critically and economically.  “A one-way ticket to market obscurity,” said one, adding that “…sadly, the bloated style has gotten all the love in the press and therefore all the dollars.”  This seems a fair observation, at least to a point.  Most of us can make lists of California pinots and other wines disproportionately rich in primary fruit and barrel seasonings that are routinely showered with critical praise and points.  But consumers don’t buy wines year after year, and pay high prices, unless at some level they like the wines.   Or think they like them.  Or ought to like them.  This behavior is, for better or worse, a marketplace reflection of what Geoff Kruth, in his remarks at the San Francisco seminar, called the American Cultural Palate.

 While we are on the matter of perceived sweetness, would anyone like to discuss fruit-sweetness?  Many are the New World red wines (of many varieties) that are said to be dry but taste sweet.  Like many others who write about wine, I’ve had to embrace “fruit-sweet” as a descriptor, to avoid confusion with RS.   Lots of California pinots, high-alc and otherwise, display abundant fruit-sweetness.  Most makers are pleased with that property of wine; winery PR touts it.  It feels almost like some winemakers’ grail: “loaded with sweet forward fruit” etc.   Has anyone seen any useful literature on fruit-sweetness and what’s behind it?  Or how it behaves vis-à-vis wine’s other structural properties?  Is this poly-alcohols (aka sugar alcohols) at work?  Is it possible that whatever causes fruit-sweetness damps the perception of alcohol and/or tannin?  Is fruit-sweetness relevant to the perception of balance?  I really have no idea; guidance gratefully received!

Given the current debate, is it appropriate to leave the definition of “balance” where it began – with the sensory chemists and related scientists?  It is tempting to reclaim balance, and I have stumbled in this direction once or twice in my answers to the preceding questions.   However, on balance (pun intended!) I think it’s OK to leave the definition more or less as it is.  If there is enough alcohol to carry the tannins, and enough acid that the wine does not taste hopelessly flat, and not so much alc that the wine tastes hot, it is OK with me that the wine be called “balanced.”  Even among sensory chemists, after all, “balanced” is closer to a minimum condition than a pinnacle of success.  Lots of wines can be “balanced” without being especially pretty, well-built, elegant, terroir-expressive or in any way distinctive.  Lots of jug wine is balanced.   However, speaking personally, I think I will leave “balanced” as a wine descriptor where I have previously left “Burgundian” – on a list of terms I generally avoid.


John Haeger is the author two books on Pinot Noir; North American Pinot Noir and Pacific Pinot Noir

  • Great post on a hot topic.  Another, and more organic, factor, for bigger, hotter wines from the mid-90's to the mid-2000's might be that they were chasing the food.  As Bobby Flay introduced Southwestern influences and chiles to a broader public, and Emeril was taking flavors up many notches on TV, we needed bolder wines to stand up to them.  

    Also, I need a good book just on Pinot: of the above two, I'm leaning toward Mr. Haeger's Pacific Pinot Noir, but looking online it's described as a profile of producers. I am hoping it also has all the authoritative information of the previous volume, just updated.  Can anyone confirm or recommend?