Secret Wine Club: New California vs. Europe

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There’s been a lot of press lately about “New California” winemakers and the fantastic wines being produced by them. Small-scale winemakers from all over California are producing soulful wines from forgotten grape varieties, and are trailblazing a new frontier in American wine.

I wanted to demonstrate the similarities and differences between modern California wines and similar wines from Europe by hosting a side-by side tasting. Why? Well, most “modern” American wines seem to be modeled after famous wines or styles from Europe, and I think it’s important for students of wine to understand the nuances of both. Many people claim to prefer wine from one country of origin over another, but I don’t think as many people truly understand how American wines are different from their European counterparts.

I set forth to curate eight wines for the tasting, two from each wine color group. I chose two whites, two rosés, two orange wines, and two reds. For the whites, I chose a Santa Barbara County Chenin Blanc made by Ryan Roark and a French Chenin Blanc from the France’s most famous Chenin-producing region, the Loire Valley. For the rosé, I chose an old-vine Mourvedre rosé from California to taste next to a Mourvedre-dominant rosé from Provence. The orange wines were both skin-fermented Pinot Gris, one made by Wind Gap in Sonoma from the famous Windsor Oaks vineyard, the other from benchmark orange wine producer Radikon in Friuli, Italy. The reds were both made from the native Sicilian grape Nero d’Avola – the Californian version being made by Broc Cellars in Berkeley, and the European one from legendary Sicilian producer Arianna Occhipinti.

The wine list was as follows:

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Roark 2012 Chenin Blanc, Santa Barbara County
vs.
Domaine Patrick Baudouin 2012 “Effusion” Anjou Blanc
Pairing: Little gems chopped salad with peas, fresh corn, shaved radishes, and avocado green goddess dressing

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Bedrock Wine Co. 2013 Old Vine Rosé
vs.
Chateau Pradeaux 2013 Cotes du Provence Rosé
Pairing: Herbed crostini with fresh chevre, roasted red peppers, watercress, and fresh black pepper

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Wind Gap 2013 Skin-Fermented Pinot Gris, Chalk Hill 
vs.
Radikon 2010 S Pinot Grigio, Friuli
Pairing: Baby zucchini with toasted parmesan and sea salt

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Broc Cellars 2013 Nero d’Avola, Mendocino County
vs.
Arianna Occhipinti 2011 Nero d’Avola, Sicilia
Pairing: Braised meatballs in red wine tomato sauce with fresh basil and shaved parmesean

Overall, I think Europe had a slight edge over California, in terms of what people liked. I asked for a show of hands after pouring each set of wines, and everyone agreed that the California wines were easier to drink and more approachable, while the European wines seemed to have a little more going on. One thing that took me by surprise is how most people initially preferred the Wind Gap Pinot Gris over the Radikon Pinot Gris, until the food came out – there was a definite shift from Wind Gap to Radikon once the food pairing arrived. The Radikon may have been the crowd favorite of the evening.

Going forward, I think I will stick with this side-by-side format to help Secret Wine Club’s members better wrap their heads around the differences between domestic and imported wines, and how terroir and winemaking style influence the finished product. Everyone loved the new format, and I got some really good feedback on how to make it better the next time around.