Is it Better for Wines to Focus on Strength or Complexity?

Many Central California regions known for big wines are making a shift toward finesse. When complexity rises above strength, does it make for a better wine?
Photo by Jonathan Kitchen / Getty

Along California’s Central Coast, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Paso Robles have built critical acclaim and success on the backs of their massively powerful wines.

In the warm environs of Paso Robles, big and beautiful face-punchers are made from traditional Bordeaux and Rhône grape varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah typically at the core. About 75 miles to the northwest, close to the cool air of the Monterey Bay, the style of the Santa Lucia Highlands tends toward rich, ripe Pinot Noir and lush Chardonnay.

Power, it seems, makes great headlines.

Many of these wines are undeniably delicious. They’re attention grabbers on critics’ panels and dinner tables. Most are expertly balanced, with enough acidity and structure to hold up the juicy fruit, so there’s no wonder about why they’ve done so well and continue to impress.

Yet, all that richness can be a bit much, and I frequently opt for something with more finesse. I’m not alone. I’ve heard the same from other critics, chefs, sommeliers and an increasing number of everyday consumers in California and beyond. They often choose lightweight over heavy duty.

Power, it seems, makes great headlines, but serious readers may stick with the story longer when complexity rises above strength.

Thankfully, a growing number of producers from both regions are exploring the slightly less-ripe side of their grapes. This may actually be a function of vine age, says Siduri Wines founder Adam Lee, who has sourced widely from the Santa Lucia Highlands since the 1990s.

“As a young winemaker, I was told that when the vines are young, pick the wine riper, because what you can’t get in complexity, you can make up for in sheer size and concentration,” says Lee. “As the vines get older, the need to pick more ripe lessens, and the complexity of age is able to show through.”

There’s a risk, of course: If it ain’t broke, and fans still flock to your tasting room or scour lists to order your wine, what’s to fix?

But I’m hopeful that more wineries will venture into this territory, even if only in small, experimental batches. It’s a chance worth taking, and one that will serve both regions well as their vines mature and consumer tastes drift toward those of somms and chefs.

My sense is that there are hidden diamonds that lurk just beneath that ripeness, and they could lift these regions’ wines from being merely great to truly world-class.

Wine Enthusiast Podcast: A Wine Tour of California’s Central Coast

Five Restrained Wines to Try Now

Siduri 2015 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $60, 94 points. Sultry purple flowers on the nose; earthy mulberry, stiff tannins and persistent acidity on sip.

Kaleidos 2015 Praying Mantis Red (Paso Robles); $65, 93 points. Grenache-led blend with tight, bright and flashy boysenberry and sagebrush flavors.

Lucienne 2015 Hook Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $50, 93 points. Expert balance between ripe black cherry, creamy mouthfeel and zippy acid.

Ecluse 2014 Lock Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Paso Robles); $42, 92 points. The rich concentration of blueberry and vanilla is offset by pinches of herb and pepper.

Tablas Creek 2015 Patelin de Tablas Red (Paso Robles); $25, 91 points. Syrah-based blend from the regional master of finesse; it’s boisterous but balanced.

Published on November 3, 2017
Topics: Wine and Ratings
About the Author
Matt Kettmann
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from California.

A fifth generation Californian originally from San Jose, Matt Kettmann covers California’s Central Coast and South Coast for the magazine. He is also the senior editor of The Santa Barbara Independent, where he’s worked since 1999, has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, Wine Spectator, and Smithsonian, and co-founded New Noise Santa Barbara, a music festival.

Email: mkettmann@wineenthusiast.net.



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