Thursday, June 2, 2011
Balance is More Than a Word
Anyone that knows us, really knows us, will also know our palate, what we dream about, and what we chase in a wine. We are after balance , the “B” word as some people in the wine world refer to it. Everyone claims they have it, and for marketing purposes no winery will live without it. A proclamation of balance to the right ears can turn even a ordinary wine into liquid gold - it's that easy!
Marketers and critics aside. To really understand the true meaning of the word as it relates to wine, one must look to the past to find those benchmark bottles that originated balance long before the world was given a new buzz word.
Ironically, and contrary to what most people think of winemakers; we drink very little of our own wine. VELLUM is for all of YOU! The past does not mean our past vintages. We look to to others' pasts in Bordeaux for inspiration and capture it in our own way.
Not too recently, a couple of those dream wines fell into my lap. I had the privilege to drink a 1975 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou out of the grand cellar of Dr. Robert Shannon of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not to be outdone, the encore was a 1998 Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou from an anonymous and generous collector of San Francisco, California. It is hard to know what to say after these wines. Empty buzz words need not apply here. Balance, simply is the essence of their existence.
They are what Jeff and I have been going on about for years, and before this time, I have only had the second labels from this producer. Even then, I was duly satisfied, but nothing could prepare me for the harmony and elation that these two vintages truly yielded.
The ‘98 Ducru was a modern effort in wine and a little nervous even at thirteen years. It had a touch of Brettanomyces (an infection) but the “horse sweat” component that Brett produces was in all the right places on the nose and palate. Dark fruit, bramble and fresh tarragon cropped up everywhere. The wine fell as a solid gentle sheet then flapped successively on the finish, as if a quick strong breeze picked up its flank. The sensation had power and purpose, but the uniform wine displayed no aggression. It was designed for a sort of heraldry and precision cadence. This balance of repetition clearly proved that this wine knows its purpose and is not afraid to show it.
Going back 23 years, it was evident that Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou has passed down their on the tradition of harmonious winemaking to the next generation. The ‘75 Ducru took patience as any old wine should, but it had the same heightened awareness and balance as its offspring. The nose was smartly complex. In a half an hour span, it went from oxidation to mushroom, to tarragon and Herbes De Provence then cured meats and finally brandied cherries.
It was not until I was finished experiencing these notes that I took my first sip. There again was oxidation, but front to mid-back palate the wine was complete. It had some slippage of the tannin like loose powdery talc on a smooth floor. So I waited. Almost an hour later the wine exploded after aeration, and it went high mid-palate to the roof of the mouth then dove seamlessly straight back to the finish with succulence of brandied cherries dusted with Herbes De Provence. It was so focused and quick that I lost track of time caught up in the fleeting moments with each sip. I could not say when it finished, but I understood then - the true dynamics of wine. Not only did I see why the French love tarragon so much, but I saw what this fine producer from Saint Julien sees.
Wine is a living breathing thing with many moving parts, cautiously and sometimes begrudgingly working together - a lot like us. Balance is the efficiency and harmony of a system where briefly everything works. Even to aspire to this state, parts must be there from the beginning and over time have a willingness to come together for a larger purpose. I suspect at bottling, balance was perhaps guessed at; where all of these structures in the wine fought for position in their youth and found their rightful place in life to glide as a well timed unit across the palate years later.
These two simple bottles, tomes even, taught me that balance is not a word. It is a point where time and space agree. VELLUM hones this event with each vintage in a mindful approach. Looking back, this is why I make wine, to capture a moment in a bottle - and wait.
- Karl Lehmann