Raging self doubt and curiosity fuels an unremitting panoply of cross examinations intended to dig up the root cause of my shifting preference in wine style. Have I fallen victim to trend and popular fashion? Is my palate simply evolving? Or, have I discovered regions and varietals I once dismissed without fair chance? Did I subconsciously succumb to a new breed of wine opinion leaders? Or, are global wine economics telling my brain to prefer something different than before? It’s all bothersome.
I have uncorked enough bottles to occupy an entire landfill brimming with caramel tinged Chardonnay, fruit driven Zinfandel, ripe Syrah, big California Cabernet, and young voluptuous Bordeaux empties. Now, not so much. My palate’s eye drifts to Loire, Beaujolais, and elsewhere in search of grace and balance, gripping acidity and rocky, stony, mineral driven wines offering restraint, purity of fruit, and low alcohol levels. It’s no secret that I am not alone, but I hate to think that I have been swept away by popular wine opinion to abandon the style of wine I preferred to cut my teeth on during the last 25 years.
Last year, Ojai Vineyard’s Adam Tolmach repentantly told the LA Times that “The [new] goal is to produce 14%-alcohol wines with nuance…to avoid overripe prune and jam flavors and preserve acidity to allow the more delicate floral and herbal qualities to emerge. I want to take the Eurocentric sense of balance and apply it in California.” And last week in the New York Times’ Eric Asimov wrote about the old California “Chardonnay Mafia” and offered some insight into the range of styles, from rich to lean, that either existed or emerged over the years. Asimov struck a chord with me in his reference to a long time favorite California Chardonnay and Pinot producer, Steve Kistler. Steve has more at stake than I do working his way through a familiar style preference shift; Kistler is reinventing a successful business model to follow his own palate. Learning about Kistler’s evolving personal preference provided some relief to my trend-adverse palate paranoia:
Kistler is still popular, but its style is evolving, the wines becoming less oaky, less powerful, more graceful and focused. It’s an extremely rare instance of a winery, at the top of the heap, altering a successful formula, and the subject of my column this week.
What does Kistler’s evolution signify? Well, let’s be clear. Kistler is not pandering to a shift in the marketplace or of public tastes. It’s more about following the arc of Steve Kistler’s own taste, and as he told me, he found himself in the last decade preferring wines that were more lively and structured, with finesse, to wines that were powerful above all.
I had another opportunity last week to put my unfaithfully wavering style allegiance to test, organizing and hosting a tasting for a group of twelve tasters with keen palates but less radical style allegiances. I poured the following wines in a first flight, moving up the scale of alcohol content and down in acidity, in this order and side by side in three glasses:
- 2008 Domain du Moulin Cour-Cheverny Les Petits Acacias ($16 **1/2)
- 2008 Clos Roche Blanche Touraine Sauvignon No. 2 ($18 ****)
- 2005 Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Russian River ($50 ***)
The wines were all fine, good to excellent in their own right. We were comparing the wines primarily for style preference. They have very little to do with each other, with a whole lot more to separate them.
The Domain du Moulin features the obscure Romorantin grape only grown in this region. It was a test in acidic tolerance, with crisp lime, wheat, and a raw almond character that was lean and bracing. The aromatics and flavors were a bit flat, you really needed to search. Nevertheless, it is a bit of a fascination to drink wines from Cour-Cheverny just because there really is nothing made like it anywhere else in the world. I can see it cutting through even the richest white seafood sauce, or maybe served just as a palate stirring aperitif. It was the least favorite of the group, but not to be dismissed outright.
The Clos Roche Blanche style was favored by more than half of us. It is a really special wine, and a bargain at the price. Here is a wine that actually combines a saline, tangerine, citrus peel, herb (fresh parsley in particular), mineral profile with a smooth and rich mouthfeel that carries the sharply defined and somewhat edgy flavor components across the palate in a really elegant style. The wine appeals to clean and lean flavor fans, but also has a richness and semi-unctuous mouthfeel that fans of round and richer wines might prefer. It is a special wine, a ridiculous value, and easily my favorite from a stylistic perspective and as an individual wine. I will keep the cellar stocked.
After these two wines, the Paul Hobbs tasted like a fitting dessert. Granted, it has been laying around the cellar for a few years, always a chancy proposition with domestic Chardonnay. One person thought it ought to be served with creme brulee. It tasted just that way. Fat with notes of caramel and hazelnut, the fruit was unfocused and starting to fall away. There was limited acidity to hold the wine together much longer, and its flabbiness was noticeable. Yet, the fat style and loud rich candied flavors were recognizeable old friends, something I yearned for no less than 5 years ago. I marveled, one more time, at my palate’s “about face”. At that very moment, I recalled recently opening a bottle of another high profile Chardonnay with Eric Broege after tasting through a group of Lopez de Heredia wines, only for him to recork the wine remarking it needed apple pie or some kind of sweet desert to do it any justice. It was like drinking liquid cotton candy.
Could twenty years of Chardonnay and “big” wine fascination been a palate stage that had me drinking fat, unfocused, super rich wine that were really desserts in disguise? What I want to believe is that palate preferences mature. Don’t get me wrong, I still thoroughly enjoy well balanced and structured mouthfuls of bold Cabernets, Rhones, Bordeaux, Zin and the like that tell a story about the land they come from with distinctive character. But there is no mistaking my craving for pretty wines with restraint and grace that invigorate my palate with salivating acidity. Validated once again in this evening’s little experiment is that I, and actually the majority of the group, prefer the style of wines from Touraine like Clos Roche Blanche because of their grace, minerality, and balance. The group tasting result added further punch to Steve Kistler’s soothing effect on my self doubting paranoia. My fellow tasters on this evening applied open minds and untethered palates to give the nod to the wine with the most restrained grace, solid acidity, fresh citrus flavors, and appropriately rich mouthfeel.
The evidence is mounting in favor of my palate’s redemption. Maybe I can stop beating myself up now. I think I like this kind of wine at this late stage of my life of wine appreciation just because…well just because….I do.