Old World vs New World: The Vinous Deductive Challenge, Revisited

Last week, I provided a rudimentary Guide to Blind Wine Tasting. Taste, hypothesize, repeat. This newfound knowledge was immediately put to the test in a blind wine tasting event for the Friends of Italy Society of Hawaii. Italians unrelentingly boast of their wines as unsurpassed anywhere in the world. They are confident, but are they correct? Time to determine whether they can blindly discern the difference in a crowded and diverse lineup. Challenge presented ...

The event commenced with a few elementary tasting tips, followed by a blind tasting of six wines - three Old World Italian and three New World. Those New World newbies couldn’t possibly keep pace with the refined, elegant wines of Italy. Could they?

Each wine was selected to demonstrate particular characteristics and styles, and to afford a takeaway point useful for general wine appreciation and procurement. The patrons, as laudable arbitrators, held the final verdict. Would their vinous paesani blindly prevail?

The Deductive Approximation

The evening's chief task: deductive tasting. Deductive tasting, at its core, is deriving conclusions from sensory analysis. A systematic approach helps to translate observations to accurate wine conclusions. The only tools are sight, smell and taste.

Deductive tasting is hard. Tremendously hard. Wine is extraordinary complex and its raw material, vitis vinifera, has thousands of varietals. It is cultivated in over 70 countries, with thousands of designated appellations and subregions. Each possesses subtle, unique characteristics necessary to discern in a successful deductive conclusion. In essence, there is a LOT to remember.

Sommeliers meticulously study grape varietals, wine regions, terroir, viticulture, winemaking processes, and precise wine characteristics for months (if not years) in preparation for certification examinations. It requires patience, persistence and time to develop a broad knowledge database that can be skillfully applied to deductive analysis. Any tasting event must be placed in this context.

If you are not pursuing a sommelier certification, the objectives should be simple: (1) experience the characteristics of wine devoid of any preconceptions (including price, which the brain can translate into positive sensory pleasantness); (2) obtain a few takeaways that deepen your appreciation of wine, and (3) of course, have fun! After all, why drink if it isn’t fun?!

The Final Adjudicators

The judges for the evening were, of course, the loyal patrons of the Friends of Italy Society of Hawaii. In a process that can be difficult and frustrating, the group was engaged and enthusiastic. They followed my primitive instruction and still managed to cobble together a systematic approach for each wine to surmise its characteristics. Questions were plenty and relevant; answers were carefully scrutinized and applied. They persevered, to the end. For deductive tastings, especially with an inexperienced crowd, the evening wholly depends on the attitude of the attendees.  Attitude is contagious, and they brought positivity in abundance. I could not have devised a better panel. Bravo!

The judges are in place; the vinous assignment accepted. Setup is complete; onto the competition...

Contestant #1: Soave, Veneto, Italy

We befittingly begin in Italy, and the gentle rolling hills of Soave, located in the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita of Veneto in Northern Italy. Here, volcanic soils and a mild, amiable climate combines to produce one of the most vigorous regions in Italy. Soave covers a large geographic area, primarily comprised of flatlands and interweaving rivers and tributaries. The highest quality, however, is found on the hillsides.  These slopes, bearing the “Classico” and “Superiore” designations, are the true point of experimentation for the consumer.

While the plains contain chalk, clay and alluvial soils, the prestigious volcanic hillsides contain more complex and dynamic terroir of basalt and tufa. These soils store heat, allowing the grapes to more fully ripen, and imparts saliferous, smoky, and occasionally bitter qualities that complement the nutty, citrus characteristics that are distinctive in the primary grape varietal, Garganega. This varietal must account for at least 70 percent of the final product, with Verdicchio (also called Trebbiano di Soave) responsible for much of the balance.

2015 Pieropan Soave Classico

The wine was light straw yellow in color with greenish hints. It possessed a bright bouquet of almond, lemon, and white peach with subtle pear and fresh herbs. On the palate, a medium body was met with vibrant acidity balancing honeyed sweetness, and flavors of almond, lemon, stone fruit and orange (clementine). Great complexity of flavors and a pleasant, long finish. This wine is affordable, intricate and has aging potential. What's not to like?

Takeaway #1: Although Pinot Grigio is the most imported white wine in the United States, it is often derided as boring and flat. In the world of Italian white wine, there is much more to explore. Be bold; you will discover extraordinary, complex, undervalued wines produced from Garganega, Verdicchio, Vermentino and many others.

Contestant #2: Chardonnay, Los Carneros, California

Napa Valley has risen to become the crown jewel of U.S. winemaking. The Valley, once the ocean floor of the Pacific, was formed millions of years ago by the violent convergence of the North American and Pacific tectonic plates, causing violent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Out of the chaos was eventually born well-drained soils rich in a panoply of limestone, minerals and volcanic sediment. Temperature variation between north and south is significant. As a result, wine becomes progressively richer with ripe tannins as one travels north along Highway 29.

All the way south, straddling Napa and Sonoma counties, lies the rolling clay-rich hills of the Los Carneros American Viticultural Area (AVA).  Once dairy country, Los Carneros found its vinous calling in the 1980s, when vineyards displaced the unfortunate bovine. What’s a cow to do?

With an east-west orientation and close proximity to San Pablo Bay, the region benefits from a cooler maritime climate, continual fog and strong winds blowing in from the Pacific. Soils consisting of clay and loam are less fertile than other areas of California, which aid in regulating vine vigor. The region is ideally suited for cool-climate, slow-ripening varietals, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

2015 Poseidon Estate-Grown Chardonnay

In the typical Californian style, this Chardonnay has plenty of oak and butter aromas and flavors that dominate the glass. Push beyond the oak, however, and you are rewarded with apple, pear, lemon, vanilla bean, and honeysuckle. Overall, the wine is medium to full-bodied with good acidity.

This wine was selected to contrast the Soave, which was fresh, vibrant and (most importantly) unoaked. When aged in oak barrels, white wine in particular presents very different and distinct characteristics. Flavors of cedar, vanilla, and butter now dominate the palate with and a more full, round body. Do you like oaked white wines? The topic is quite divisive. Although Chardonnay is the most popular white varietal in the United States, there is a resolute constituency that firmly holds to ABC - Anything But Chardonnay - relating principally to the oaked style. While it is advisable to have an open mind, in this debate you will likely find yourself rigidly in one of the two camps.

Takeaway #2: Oak is influential and distinctive. Get acquainted with its characteristics, particularly in white wines.

Contestant #3: Barbera, Barbera d’Asti, Italy

Native to the Piedmont region in Northern Italy, Barbera is one of the most planted varietals in the country. Surprisingly, however, it plays second fiddle in its own home town to Nebbiolo, the shining star of Barolo and Barbaresco. With Nebbiolo demanding the preeminent vineyard locations, Barbara must settle for the remainder. Despite this fact, Barbera is versatile, structured for food, abundant and cheap, earning it the nickname “the people’s wine” as the preferred proletarian vinous beverage. Within Piedmont, Barbera d’Asti is the most quintessential embodiment, with Barbera d’Alba also a dependable substitute.

2014 Michael Chiarlo Le Orme Barbera d’Asti Superiore

This wine was medium-bodied with medium to high acidity and low tannins. On the nose, bright aromas of sour cherry, underripe red berries and herbs, with cedar and vanilla that evidenced the wine’s oak aging. This bottle was rather sour and tart (hallmark characteristics of high acidity) for my taste. Pairing with food would help to balance the acidity and, at such an affordable price, it is still a bargain wine ready for the dinner table. Costco can put you on the vinous path to Piedmont with this Barbera priced at under $12.

Takeaway No. 3: High in acidity and low in tannins, Barbera is an excellent and affordable table wine that is ready for any meal.

Contestant #4: Sangiovese, Chianti, Italy

In the Tuscan hills between Florence and Siena lies one of the most recognizable wine regions in the world: Chianti. They have been growing grapes here for a long time. A really long time. In 1716 - sixty years before the American Revolution - Chianti became the first region in the world to be delineated as a wine appellation. The area was first limited to the land around the villages of Radda, Gaiole, and Castellina, with Greve added later. This is now considered the Chianti Classico Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG), easily recognizable by the gallo negro, or Black Rooster, that dons its labels.

Over time the Chianti region has expanded to include other subregions. The DOCG of Chianti Rúfina, east of Florence and northeast of Chianti Classico, is the most distinctive Chianti subregion outside of Chianti Classico. An appellation dotted with aristocratic estates, vineyards, and olive groves, Rúfina’s wine history can be traced back to at least the Sixteenth Century. The finesse and longevity of Rúfina’s wines are largely the result of a pass through the Apennines mountains to the north that permits maritime breezes to cool the vineyards. This, combined with higher elevation (up to 500 meters) and cool autumn nights, result in excellent acidity. Here, as in the entire Chianti DOCG, Sangiovese is the dominant grape varietal.

2013 Frescobaldi Nipozzano Chianti Riserva, Chianti Rúfina, Italy

This wine possessed a beautiful ruby-red color, with a nose opening to dark fruit and cherry, floral notes of lilac, and subtle chocolate. The spice elements make their presence on the palate, with nutmeg, clove and hints of black pepper. Tannins are dry and soft, but not overbearing. The finish is fruity with some minerality. The wine is full bodied, with bright acidity and a silky, fruity finish that holds just the right amount of minerality.

Takeaway #4: Venture beyond the Classico region for affordable and delicious Chianti. And, in true Italian form, Chianti is always ready for the dinner table. Costco can lend a helping hand, with this wine available for under $20.

Contestant #5: Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina

Native to Bordeaux, the Malbec varietal has found its vinous second home in the high elevation vineyards of the Andes Mountain Range in Argentina. The weather in these high altitudes can be unpredictable, but one can always rely upon a constant, cool, dry wind, plenty of sunshine and minimal risk of disease that contributes to a long growing season and significant crop yields.

The warm, sunny days quickly give way to cool, brisk evenings. This diurnal temperature variation is a key to this region’s productivity. Temperatures drop sufficiently at night to permit grapes to ripen slowly and develop deep, rich, concentrated flavors.

2014 Norton Malbec Reserva

The wine’s beautiful dark purple color is the first inviting characteristic, soon followed by expressive aromas of black fruit, tobacco, chocolate, spice, and violets. On the palate, a velvety body showcases a black fruit profile with accents of plum, blueberry, vanilla, chocolate and tobacco. Fruit-forward, concentrated with medium tannins and a long, smooth finish. A wonderfully-produced wine at an exceptional price. Costco stocks this particular wine, a Wine Spectator top 100 wine of 2016, for less than $15. At this bargain price, enjoy with regularity.

Takeaway No. 5: South America provides New World characteristics at a competitive price. Don’t be discouraged by lesser-known regions or varietals. Malbec possesses similar characteristics to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and can produce a finely-structured, smooth, fruit-forward wine.

Contestant #6: Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Lake County, California

Lake County is a little-known American Viticultural Area (AVA) located amongst the dormant volcanic hills of Northern California. The region’s climate and terroir demonstrated to its early residents an efficacious agricultural haven. By the 1850s, immigrants whose hope had faded in the gold rush disavowed a laborious life in the coal mines to focus on agriculture in the fertile, volcanic soils of Mendocino and Lake County. Soon thereafter, vineyards were established. Where there is a way, there is wine.

Traversing Mount Konocti, a dormant volcano overlooking the famous Clear Lake, one will find Red Hill Lake County, one of the newest appellations in California, recognized in 2004. Vineyards here are the highest in California, and scattered with remnants of black volcanic glass, called obsidian, and red, iron-rich volcanic soils. Elevation permits breezy air currents from the Pacific Ocean to reach the inland appellation. This moderating influence, combined with diurnal temperature variation, low humidity and the varied topography, yield small, concentrated berries with thick skins. The result is an intense wine with tremendous tannic structure and complex phenolic composition. These wines are robust, fruit-driven, and built to age.

2014 Obsidian Ridge Estate-Grown Cabernet Sauvignon

For this wine, better go big or go home. This fruit-forward, New World Cabernet presents aromas of blackberry jam, black cherry, plum, and chocolate. The oak aging shines through on the palate with cedar, vanilla and cinnamon. The wine is full-bodied and densely concentrated with plenty of youthful tannins that could benefit from decanting (or, ideally, time in the cellar). Obsidian Ridge is perennially one of my favorite full-bodied Cabernets under $40.

While Napa Valley is the jewel of American winemaking, it comes at a steep price to the consumer. There are many Napa Cabernets that are worth the price, but a torrent of wines are not. To discover value without sacrificing quality, explore other regions that are developing a reputation for consistent, authentic, age-worthy wines. Lake County is a good place to start.

Takeaway #6: Paying top dollar for a Napa label isn't the only way to procure a high-quality New World Cabernet. Explore lesser-known appellations with reputations of consistency and high quality. There is value to be found.

The Final Verdict

The evening's most recognizable wines hailed from California, although that doesn't necessarily mean they were the most popular. The judges were overwhelmingly entrenched in the ABC camp, and consequently the Poseidon Chardonnay was expeditiously cast aside. Devoid of alternatives, the Soave took the prize as top white wine. (Perhaps that isn't entirely fair; many found the Soave to be a fantastic white wine with good structure and flavor components).

In the red category, it was a New World sweep. The Obsidian Ridge Cabernet and Norton Malbec were far and away the preferred selections, and the most frequently requested when a glass fell empty. It is hard to argue these results. Both are fine expressions of their respective region and varietal. Accolades are numerous and impressive. A salute to the New World!

Although it affords a tantalizing tasting theme, it is never as simple as Old versus New. Both regions have unique and charming characteristics; both produce delicious wine. In the end, it depends principally on personal preference. Drink what brings you joy.

Sincerest appreciation to the Friends of Italy Society of Hawaii for allowing me to host such a tremendous event. I am truly privileged and thankful for your energy, enthusiasm and deductive endeavors.

Cin Cin!