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California wines: In pursuit of balance

Two rising stars of California wine set out to show the sunshine state's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines in a new light and have never looked back, reports Amy Wislocki from a packed tasting in London.

Just occasionally, an event takes place on the busy London wine tasting circuit that creates a lasting buzz, firing up the often jaded wine critics whose inboxes groan with invites. In Pursuit of Balance is a non-profit organisation seeking to promote dialogue around the meaning and relevance of balance in California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Its tasting in London last week, which saw nearly all of the 33 member wineries show their wines, so perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the current London wine scene that an enthusiastic reception was guaranteed before even a single drop was poured.

IPOB was created by talented winemakers Rajat Parr of Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi, and Jasmine Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards, to celebrate wineries striving to produce balanced Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California – wines with ‘freshness, vibrancy, crunchy fruit’ in the words of Parr. Its first event was held in San Francisco in 2011.

‘No rules, but a desire to let the site sing’

There are no formal membership criteria – a tasting panel decides whether wines fit with the group’s philosophy – but as you chat to the winemakers and owners around the room, it’s almost a mantra: a restrained and minimal-intervention approach to winemaking and viticulture, a respect for old vines, and a desire to let the site sing.

As Failla’s Ehren Jordan explains: ‘We don’t do much, but we’re very conscious of what’s happening.’

Many work organically or sustainably, use a percentage of whole-cluster fermentation and open-top fermenters (even, in the case of POE Wines, foot treading).

New oak is well-integrated, but not vilified – after all, as Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clenenden points out, a grand cru Chardonnay from Burgundy will typically use a good percentage of new oak, and California’s winemakers often have as much investment in oak as they do in vines.

Founders Parr and Hirsch are keen to stress that IPOB is not seeking to change a region’s style, but to carve out a niche – to show that these are alternative, legitimate expressions of Californian terroirs. Not just legitimate but delicious, on the evidence of this tasting, which showcased mainly the drought year 2013.

I’m not 100% convinced by the name – after all, ‘balance’ should be a prerequisite in any fine wine and doesn’t necessarily equal restraint – but the wines succeed in showing an exciting facet of California winemaking.

The main UK importers of In Pursuit of Balance member wineries are Roberson Wines and Flint Wines.

List of In Pursuit of Balance member wineries in 2016:

  • Au Bon Climat Winery
  • Big Basin Vineyards
  • Calera Wine Company
  • Ceritas
  • Chanin Wine Company
  • Cobb Wines
  • Copain Wines
  • Domaine de la Côte
  • Drew Family Cellars
  • Failla
  • Hanzell Vineyards
  • Hirsch Vineyards
  • Knez Winery
  • Kutch Wines
  • LaRue Wines
  • Liquid Farm
  • Littorai Wines
  • LUTUM Wines
  • Matthiasson Family Vineyards
  • Mignanelli Winery
  • Mindego Ridge
  • Mount Eden Vineyards
  • Native9 Wines
  • Ojai Vineyard
  • Poe Wines
  • Presqu’ile Winery
  • Red Car
  • Sandhi Wines
  • Small Vines Wines
  • Thomas Fogarty Winery
  • Twomey Cellars
  • Tyler Winery
  • Varner
  • Wenzlau Vineyard
  • Wind Gap Wines


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