Do me a favor.
This weekend, if you’re shopping for wine or looking at a restaurant wine list or considering the wines you have at home, choose one grape and then choose two bottles of wine made from that grape in different parts of the world. Ideally they’d be from the same vintage but no stress if they aren’t.
Keep it simple. Two wines from the same grape, each in its own glass, side by side.
Set up those two bottles (or two glasses if you’re in a restaurant) for a “compare and contrast” experiment, which is one of the three engaging and entertaining pathways for enthusiastic consumers to learn about wine quickly. As I wrote in a post earlier this week, the compare-and-contrast method is part of a long lineage of effective learning tools: we compare and contrast two similar but different things in order to hone our understanding, highlight important details and reduce confusion between related ideas.
Malbec and the Rhône varietals (in particular syrah, grenache and mourvèdre) are great opportunities for this, especially if you’ve got one example from the Old World and one example from the New World. Today, however, I’d like to focus on sauvignon blanc.
My inspiration for this comes directly from a tasting a few weeks ago, conducted virtually and hosted by the Vini Alto Adige trade association, of four examples of white wines from the Alto Adige region of northern Italy, including kerner, pinot grigio, a blend (predominantly pinot bianco, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc), and a 100 percent sauvignon blanc from Colterenzio, a cooperative of about 300 families in South Tyrol.
Even though its composition is 100 percent sauvignon blanc, this last wine was described as “not exactly sauvignon blanc.” Why? Because it’s sauvignon blanc from Alto Adige. That’s opposed to, say, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
The difference of those two origins set the stage perfectly for a compare and contrast experiment. If there’s a white wine that’s widely available commercially, and also recognizable for its consistent profile of aromatics and levels of acidity and alcohol, sauvignon blanc from New Zealand easily tops the list.
To be clear: there are extraordinary, distinct examples of this wine, made from individual producers who very much convey their unique approach to grape growing and winemaking through the canvas of sauvignon blanc. But if we were to line up six white wines that are widely available on the market, and invite enthusiastic consumers to smell and taste those six wines blind, I’d bet money that most tasters would be able to identify the sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.
Which is exactly what makes the compare and contrast experiment with the sauvignon blanc from Alto Adige so interesting, and also so instructive if your aim is to learn more about wine quickly.
Here are three considerations to compare and contrast about the two glasses in front of you.
International vs Indigenous Grapes
One of the first things to notice about the contrast is that, for the easy recognition in the marketplace of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand, sauvignon blanc from Alto Adige is arguably its commercial opposite.
Part of this conversation is the predominant nature of international grape varieties — such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, riesling and chardonnay — and their en masse adoption and popularity in wine regions around the world. I think of Italy as a haven by comparison for small-scale, “un-en-masse” indigenous grapes; see, for example, my article from a few years ago about the 1,671 reasons why we’ll never be bored by Italian wine.
It isn’t that international grape varieties are scarce in Italy. (One thought of Super Tuscans presents an immediate argument against that idea.) It’s more that Italy’s embrace of its indigenous grapes, and its near-stubborn refusal to relinquish many of them to international market forces and consumer demand, adds to the cultural and historical differences “behind the glasses” of the two sauvignon blancs in front of you.
Any conversation about international vs indigenous grape varieties needs to consider the question of scale, and these two sauvignon blancs offer an excellent illustration. The entire region of Alto Adige, for example, accounts for less than one percent of Italy’s total winegrowing area, with about 5600 hectares / 13,800 acres total of cultivated area under vine. A fraction of that is dedicated to sauvignon blanc. By contrast, the region of Marlborough (in the northeast corner of New Zealand’s South Island) counts about 20,200 hectares / 50,000 acres under vine, most of which is dedicated to sauvignon blanc.
Alcohol levels by volume, or ABV, is an interesting point of contrast between these two origins and styles of wine.
New Zealand sauvignon blanc typically measures between 12.5 and 13.5 percent ABV. By contrast, of the four white wines from Alto Adige that were part of the virtual tasting a few weeks ago, two measured 13.5 percent ABV and the other two were 14 percent ABV. Those numbers may come as a surprise to consumers, when the assumption is that white wines are lower in alcohol while red wines trend higher.
It’s worth noting that the higher alcohol in the Alto Adige white wine can be attributed to its “mountain fruit” origins; though the soils of the region are a mosaic of types, Alto Adige is notably an Alpine region with snow-covered mountains serving as the backdrop to their vineyard landscapes. Between the altitude and the characteristically sunny days, the yields of the vineyards are low but the concentration of the sugars are high, which leads to higher ABV.