I was talking with one of California’s top winemakers the other day. I’m not going to tell you who it was because he would not want to offend any of his fellow vintners with his observation that I’m about to share with you.
What I WILL tell you, because there are quite of a few of them around, is that he is a disciple of Andre Tchelistcheff, a legendary vintner who, during the harvest season, depended more on his gut and experience than on sunny day counts and fractometer readings. To Tchelistcheff, making wine was as much about art as it was about science.
At one point of our wide-ranging conversation, the topic turned to big wines — Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab-based blends, Zinfandel, rich and creamy Chardonnay, et al. That’s when he made the observation that has stayed with me ever since because I was able to relate to it immediately.
“A lot of big wines today are clunky,” he said. “Too much frosting on the cake.”
As soon as he’d said it, I was transported to the 1970s and the bakery that my parents owned and operated on the Balboa peninsula in Newport Beach, Calif. It was not a franchise or part of a large conglomerate; it was a family business, and as such, every member of the family pitched in.
The year I was in the sixth grade, my before-school duties included frying and glazing or frosting donuts, making turnovers (apple and cherry), and icing the cupcakes that had been baked earlier in the morning.
We had four types of cupcakes in all: 1) chocolate cake with chocolate icing; 2) chocolate cake with white icing; 3) white cake with chocolate icing (my favorite); and 4) white cake with white icing.
To the top of each cupcake, with a spatula, I spread a layer of either chocolate or white (buttercream) icing — a very thin layer. The icing, as my Dad explained it, was intended to complement the cake, not be the main ingredient.
Today, however, cupcakes with thick gobs of icing are all the rage. And to my palate, the flavors are totally out of balance.
Just like those “clunky” wines my vintner friend was describing. In his opinion… and I agree… too many winemakers now choose bombast over balance, and in-your-face over finesse.
In winemaking, as with cupcake frosting, too much of a good thing can be… too much.
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You won’t find any “clunky” wines in this week’s featured collection of Chardonnays. Each is distinct; each is food friendly; and each is beautifully balanced.