Balance in wine is always a bit of a tricky thing to discuss. Does it mean that no one structural element or flavor dominates? If that’s the case, then are we saying that wines with rather extreme characteristics can NEVER be balanced? Obviously, acid pits like Txakoli or Vinho Verde rely on the food you’re having them with for balance, and the same might be true for tannin bombs like some Napa Cabs or Barolos, but even with the latter examples you’d hope that the winemaker was striving for some semblance of balance. It’s a challenge that can be equally difficult in very warm and very cold climates: you either get too much fruit and alcohol and too little acidity, or...the opposite. Here in Washington, the prevailing style was to rely on the fruitiness and the alcohol to rack up 90+ point scores and the sales that followed, but as the public has little by little stepped back from that extreme style, the winemakers that are trendsetters here seem to be finding ways to marry the lush exuberance of Washington fruit with a certain restraint that seems borrowed from the Old World.
The 2012 Kerloo Cellars Les Collines Syrah I tasted recently is a great example of this: aromatically, it’s loaded with ripe-smelling black fruits, especially blackberry and black plum, but it also has a peppery, savory allure that I’d more commonly associate with Northern Rhone Syrahs. On the palate it’s surprisingly nimble, more medium-bodied than the nose would give you cause to believe, another way in which it feels more French than Washingtonian. As winemakers like Ryan Crane and Rotie Cellars’ Sean Boyd show that you can achieve phenolic ripeness and relatively high levels of alcohol without your wine straying towards “fruit bomb” territory, it’s cool to see a distinctive style of balanced, elegant Washington wines from Rhone varietals emerge.