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Comparing and Contrasting Wines

I majored in English, so I spent many an hour coming up with 500 words to answer an assignment to "compare and contrast" something; two poems on the same subject, or two main characters in two different novels, or two minor characters in the same novel. It turns out you can compare and contrast with wine, too, and it's a lot more fun.

The basic idea is this: If you're going to have a dinner party big enough to open two bottles of wine, you can make it a little more interesting if you open two bottles that are similar but not identical, give everyone two glasses, and let them compare and contrast.

Note "similar". There have to be enough comparisons to make the contrasts stick out. You would not compare "War and Peace" to a haiku about butterflies. The same is true for wines; you pick two that are alike in many ways, so that the differences stick out.

"Compare and contrast" is less formal than a wine tasting, where you might have six different Sonoma County zinfandels, but a little more focused than just opening two bottles of red to go with the spaghetti. I have some parings I've enjoyed below.

All the wines are readily available in grocery stores in northern California for $10 - $20, taking into account the fact wines often go on sale, and most stores will give you a 10% discount if you buy a total of six bottles (of anything, not six of the same wine.) Raley's gives you a whopping 30% off if you buy six.

First comparison - same grape, different continents. Sea Glass Unoaked Chardonnay, Louis Jadot Macon Village. Sea Glass is from Santa Barbara County, California. M. Jadot's wine is from Macon, in France. (French wines are named after their region, but each region uses specific grapes.) Both are Chardonnay, both are unoaked. The Sea Glass is a better comparison than most California Chardonnays, which have a touch (or a ton) of oak.

Here are two that are much closer - La Crema Chardonnay, one from Sonoma County and the other from Monterey County. Same vintner, same grape, same year, different county. I found the Monterey one to be brighter, lighter, more fun and less complex. You have to be careful about your comparisons. When I likened the Monterey to a well-endowed 20-something blonde who thought "Kofi Annan" was a specialty drink at Starbucks and the Sonoma to a slender 30-something brunette who wrote free-lance articles on foreign affairs, my wife hit me with a baguette.

For our next trick, you need to have enough space on the floor of your closet for a bottle of wine and a bit of patience. Louis Martini makes a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa County grapes, and another from Sonoma County grapes. But, he releases the Napa one a year later than the Sonoma one. So, buy a Sonoma County one, lay it in the floor at the back of your closet, wait a year, buy a Napa County one of the same year and compare the two; same vintner, same grape, same year, different county.

If you have even more space and patience, buy six of the Sonoma County, lay them down, and wait a year. Open one every year from then on, and pair it with the current Sonoma County offering.

As a side note, any cool, dark place with a stable temperature will work to store wine. Wine's chief enemies are heat, vibration and light, so a wine rack on the top of the refrigerator in a sunny kitchen is a really bad idea. "Heat" per se isn't so bad as "constantly changing temperature"; a steady 70 degrees would be better than a daily change of 65 - 78 and back again. (When I was in college, working part time as a deliveryman for a Danish modern furniture store, we delivered a chest of drawers to a fellow who owned a home in the Berkeley hills. He had a 12-bottle chrome and leather wine rack on the top of his refrigerator. I didn't say anything, but I snickered when I told my wine tasting group about him.)

Wonder if "Reserve" is worth the extra money? Buy one of the Reserve and one of the regular, same grape, same vintner. (If all the vintner offers is "Reserve", write them off, remembering Garrison Keillor's line about Lake Woebegone, "Where all the children are above average". The last one I tried this one with was Clos du Bois; the Sonoma Reserve Chardonnay, from the Russian River Valley, was better than their regular one, which is from a generic "Northern California". It's also $2 - $3 more, so "better" is a judgement call, tempered with how much you want to spend.

A bit of background that most of you won't need - there are two basic styles popular in red wines, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Burgundy, in California and Oregon, is Pinot Noir, and Bordeaux is Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel. Bottles labeled "California Burgundy" aren't, but graduate students usually can't afford anything better, so they serve a purpose.

Cabernet is supposed to be richer and more complex than Merlot, and Merlot "more accessible", which means less complex and ready to drink earlier. (Chateau Lafite-Rothschild makes their wine by blending Cabernet and Merlot, plus a trace of two other grapes; so do the other chateaux in Bordeaux.) Bordeaux and Burgundy have always seemed smooth to me, but Bordeaux is velvet and Burgundy is silk.

That opens a world of comparisons, and a really good excuse to BBQ a tri-tip. Keeping the county, vintner and year the same, compare Cabernet to Merlot, Cabernet to Zinfandel, and Merlot to Zinfandel. Keeping county, year, grape and price the same (or, in the case of price, close), compare two different vintners. That particular exercise, given how many nice reds there are in California, is good for a year or two, at one "compare and contrast" dinner a week.

Does letting a red "breathe" really improve it? Open one bottle and decant it two hours before serving time. (Note "Decant" - pour it into something with an opening at least 2 - 3 inches across, so there is a LOT of surface area exposed to the air; don't just take the cork out.) Open another bottle of the same wine at serving time. The times I've tried this we've noticed a slight improvement, but nothing major. Your results may vary, as they say.

You can test whether the shape of the glass has any effect with just one bottle, if you have glasses for red and glasses for white. Pour the same wine into both and try it. When I did this one I noticed a small difference - 1/4 of a point on a 10-point scale - but I suspect I was fooling myself.

That's enough, to get you started, save for the joke. Just remember the basics; the two wines should have several things in common, but a few differences. The closer the two are - grape, year, vintner and county - the subtler the differences will be, but they will, usually, be there. Look around, and have fun!

The Joke

I tell this joke every now and again when I'm wine tasting. It requires hand motions. It's better if you're holding a glass of wine, but you can mime it.
"The world's greatest wine taster:"
(Swirl the wine, take a sip.)
"Ah yes - Louis Martini Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012."
(Swirl again, sniff deeply, take another sip, swish the wine around inside your mouth.)
"The grapes were picked on the north side of the vineyard . . ."
(Final swirl and sip.)
"By a blonde!"

[Written October 2014]

[This is one of my Miscellaneous Essays. There are more; you may enjoy another section of my web site, too:]

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This page updated: December 31, 2014