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.


Wine column no. 65: Don't like the truth? Then spin, baby, spin.

Feb. 1, 2015: I haven’t written about Italian wines in more than a year. I’ve kind of avoided them; I have no idea why.
So the buck stops here. Ciao discrimination. Let’s talk about vino Italiano.
Let’s first admit that, for a time, Italian wines were unreliable. If you wanted quantity, you turned to Italy. Quality? Well, you had to go somewhere else.
That’s not the case now. Italy, it could be said, has been through a revolution of sorts. This isn’t the same as the French Revolution; no one lost their head. And, it’s not like the Russian Revolution; no one obtained absolute power or imposed a cult of personality.
But there has been a viticultural evolution in Italy. Once known for watery wine, unscrupulous practices and unpredictable vintages, the country that’s best known for pasta and pizza is now undergoing a wine resurgence. Regulations now matter more than ever before. Regions do, too. What was past is now being forgotten, and what’s new is now becoming well known as always having been so — according to a USA Today story published earlier this year.
“Tuscany is known for the quality of its wine more than the quantity it produces, and the U.S. is the largest export market for Tuscan wines, according to the Ministry of Agriculture,” according to the article.
Yet that same article revealed that one winemaker planted a prohibited grape along the Tuscan coast. He was kicked out of the local Val di Cornia designation in November 2014.
The article also mentioned that one major Tuscan wine collector attempted to pass bogus wines as legitimate, high-prestige wines.
Even more substantial a contradiction were the two separate busts in September and October 2014 totaling more than a million bottles of low-quality wine.
“Most of it was destined to be sold under some of Tuscany’s best-known labels, including Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, according to Italian media,” according to the article.
So how does something bad become something good before becoming something bad all over again? I blame it on human nature. In other words, we all have a tendency to spin, manipulate and revise what we once thought or said and place it on second, third or maybe fourth thought in the context of what we currently want to believe to be true.
This begs the question: Just how long has Italian wine been free of controversy? Well, it wouldn’t be back in late May or early June 2014, when “Italian police confiscated 30,000 bottles of Brunello, Chianti Classico and Sagrantino di Montefalco from warehouses, wine merchants, grocery stores and merchants after discovering that the bottles with the more expensive labels contained common table wine that is only worth about a dollar a liter.” That’s according to an article in The Daily Beast titled “Italy’s Weird World of Wine Fraud.”
It wasn’t free of controversy back in 2008, when Linda Murphy wrote on Jancis Robinson’s website that Brunello di Montalcino producers were being investigated for adding merlot, cabernet sauvignon and other grape varieties to what are, by law, supposed to be 100 percent Sangiovese wines. “As a result, all shipments of 2003 Brunello di Montalcino have been halted while the probe continues. Among the names surfacing in print and online reports: Frescobaldi, Antinori, Argiano and Castello Banfi.”
And it wouldn’t be back in the late 1960s when “the wines of Italy were a truly homespun lot, made in massive quantity — and at low quality — for the country’s domestic market,” according to a 2012 story in The Chicago Tribune.
Yet in the name of revisionism, let’s forget all that — because it’s not just Italian wines that have a history of revising history. Forget the bad press, the poor reviews, the public tantrums and the breaking of the law. Let’s just focus on what we know now, on what’s conveniently true, on what, most importantly, we want to believe.
And, for the moment, I like the 2011 Villa Antinori from Tuscany. At 13.5 percent alcohol, this wine is light but flavorful with a blackberry nose and some bitterness. Purchased at Bonefish Grill for $44, it was a good foil to spicy blackened Baja fish tacos in crispy wonton shells with mangos and tomatoes.
The 2010 Villa Antinori, however, couldn’t compare to the 2011. It was more acidic than the 2011, though it rounded itself out when paired with salty duck meat, $23.19. Schnucks in Newburgh.
On the easy-to-drink, but more forgettable, side, consider the 2010 Monte Antico, also from Tuscany. It’s a blend of 85 percent Sangiovese, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 5 percent merlot. It contains 13 percent alcohol and has a black pepper nose. Balanced with acidity and tannins, it was medium-bodied and paired well with a thin-crust mozzarella, tomato sauce, sausage and basil pizza, $9.99 at Binny’s Beverage Depot in Chicago.
Victoria Grabner has blogged about wine for several years.