A fun way to better understand wine is through side-by-side tastings. The approach is particularly insightful when comparing Old World and New World wines.
New World wines hail from areas such as California, Washington, Oregon, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and Argentina. These locales usually label their wines by grape variety. Think chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec.
Old World wine countries include France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Greece and Portugal, where top-tier wines are usually named after the place where the grapes are grown — Pouilly Fuisse, Chianti Classico and Piesporter Goldtropfchen are a few. Why the location-based names? Because the finest of those areas produce notable and unique grapes. A good parallel is the Kula onion: While onions grow all over Hawaii, the exceptional quality of onions grown in Kula warrants labeling it by area.
Now, there can be numerous levels to side-by-side tastings. Most people do the comparison simply to figure out which wines they prefer. There is one winner, one loser.
But I like to do the tastings to seek out “good” wines — wines that have something to say, in their own way. In addition, there are often wines that greatly overdeliver quality for the dollar.
Let’s look at two comparisons:
First, we’ll consider a New Zealand-grown sauvignon blanc, the 2013 Mohua (about $18 a bottle), alongside a sauvignon blanc from France’s Loire Valley, the Domaine du Salvard Cheverny “Unique” (about $15).
The Mohua possesses all sorts of nuanced exotic fruit aromas — melons, kiwi, ruby grapefruit and even guava and passion fruit. The fruit presence carries through in flavor, with a lip-smacking, uplifting lemon-lime kind of crispness that can get the digestive juices flowing.
New Zealand has quite the global reputation for sauvignon blanc. While once just a few renditions were available in Hawaii, today the choices are many. The challenge now becomes to find the good ones, at affordable prices. The Mohua is one that falls in that category.
In comparison, the light-hued Cheverny (the village where grapes are grown) is unexpectedly explosive. While it also displays an abundance of fruit nuances, it has a much stronger mineral component (think of wet rocks). This wine’s flavor possesses an understated but nonetheless remarkable intensity, without any heaviness, and it is long and light on the palate.
For all that, who’s ever heard of Cheverny? And, how many people run to the store to buy the latest vintage? Personally, Cheverny satisfies my sense of adventure in discovering something really good, and at a great price.
The soils for this bottling are meager sand and clay; coupled with a cool climate, they provide a strong sense of place in this wine. (Something to note: The Loire Valley in France is the place where Joan of Arc crusaded and Leonardo da Vinci chose to be buried.) The Cheverny estate was founded in 1898 and is maintained by five hardworking generations of the Delaille family. So, in addition to a sense of place, there is also history, culture and heritage involved here — all of this, at $15 a bottle.
Here’s one more interesting comparison: the Ernesto Catena cabernet sauvignon “Tahuan” (about $16) side by side with the Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge “Les Traverses de Fontanes” (about $17).
The Tahuan is the project of Ernesto Catena, son of Argentine mogul Nicolas Catena. His vineyards lie high in the foothills of the Andes Mountains and are organically farmed. There’s elegance, class, seamless texture and tastiness in this wine. How can anyone not love that?
Meanwhile, how many have heard of Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge “Les Traverses de Fontanes”? I hadn’t, until I was lucky enough to visit the estate, see the vineyards and taste the wines.
There is nothing fancy, or “trophy,” about this small, family-owned domain in southern France. The wines are the work of a young couple, farming and producing small amounts of wines the way their families did before them. Their mark is that they farm organically and biodynamically. What struck me was the intoxicating smell of sun-baked rocks, wild shrubs and herbs that surround the vineyard.
Then, to smell those things again in the finished wine reminded me of the strong sense of place at the wine’s core. I purposely didn’t mention that this wine is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, because it’s not at all about a grape variety. It really is about a sense of place and a family closely tied to that place.
The relative obscurity of this wine’s moniker and its simple label are probably what account for its reasonable price. What a discovery it is, and one well-suited to Mediterranean-styled foods like what we serve in Vino.
Chuck Furuya is a master sommelier and a partner in the DK Restaurants group. Follow his blog at chuckfuruya.com.