2.22.2015

Wine column no. 66: When individuality strengthens the field

Feb. 22, 2015: I either haven’t been paying attention, or I’ve been so singularly focused on Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand that I’ve neglected to notice there’s another white grape that that beautiful, alluring country produces just as well. It’s called Chardonnay.

I know, I know. I’m not breaking any news here. You’ve all heard of Chardonnay. But finally registering that New Zealand makes good Chardonnay is like finally comprehending that real talent is an inclusive commodity; that, when done well, when done truly, it really does aim for the sum to be greater than the whole of its parts.

That said, first you have to get past the elephant in the room. First, you have to pay respects to the prima donna. First, you have to acknowledge Sauvignon Blanc.

Here’s the deal: There are plenty of wines that emphasize flavors before aroma. But New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is not in this category. If perfume could be a wine, it would be Sauvignon Blanc. Swirl any glass of Kim Crawford or Spy Valley — vintage irrelevant — and you’ll see what I mean: there’s passion (fruit), whole bouquets of flowers, and scents that wrap around your nose like dresses do voluptuous curves.

In other words, it’s almost impossible to ignore Sauvignon Blanc. To not notice a Kim Crawford or Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc, you’d have to have no taste buds, or you’d have to be in the midst of an incredibly arresting cold. To me, there’s simply no other excuse for not understanding the power that’s just been poured into your glass.

Admittedly, there are people out there who can do this. They may acknowledge Sauvignon Blanc’s aroma, but it doesn’t knock them over. It doesn’t make them pause. To them, this may be a wine, and it may be a good wine, but it isn’t anything to write home about. The nose, these people say? “Oh, yeah, it’s there. Now what’s for dinner?”

I don’t understand these people. But then again, that’s what makes wine interesting: It encourages debate, discussion, and a variety of views. If you can withstand the allure of a Kim Crawford or Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc and still tell me that you appreciate wine, that you know wine, I admire you. I am, in fact, envious — because I can’t do that at all.

So this is my excuse for not noticing New Zealand Chardonnay: I’ve been blinded by the light, you could say, and that has prevented me from seeing the artful shadows. And this is too bad, because there are some New Zealand Chardonnays that are really worth a try.

The 2014 Kim Crawford Unoaked Chardonnay from East Coast, New Zealand, is a good example of a wine that may not need the spotlight but that certainly does well once placed in it. I paired this with baked pecan-crusted chicken breast from The Fresh Market and steamed turnip greens that added a bit of bitterness to the mix. At 13 percent alcohol, it offered a muted lemon nose. But once in the mouth, there was a smooth buttery texture and a mellow crispness. The Fresh Market. $14.99.

Another worthwhile, if less effusive, New Zealand Chardonnay is the 2013 Oyster Bay. This one gives you a slight lemon nose and the flavor of apples. Silky, especially when it warms up in the glass, this Chardonnay provides hints of butter without being overwhelming. Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago. $9.99.

Comparing New Zealand Chardonnay to New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc feels like comparing two very different dresses within the same Parisian fashion house. The Sauvignon Blanc may be ornate and tailored, more highly stylized to senses other wines can’t attend to. But the Chardonnay is solidly classic and more smoothly subdued. While the Sauvignon Blanc's effusive zest enhances its marketability, the Chardonnay is strengthened by its ability to stand strong for what it is. It’s not blinded by its own blind spot. It knows the competition but doesn’t fear it. Instead, it appreciates its differences and works hard to enhance them — because, after all, it’s that uniqueness that makes it alluring in the first place.

So which is better? That’s up to you to decide. But I will say that, to me, quality always wins out. Whether it’s an aromatic Sauvignon Blanc whose passion fruit and grapefruit scents stun the table, or it’s a silky, sexy Chardonnay that steadily, and intelligently, enhances a meal, both win this war — because if you’re looking for talent in a wine store, well, either way wins. Who wants mediocrity, in the end? Who wants a wine that makes no substantial dent at all? And who wants a wine that’s like every other wine out there?

Not me.


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