Two Verdelhos

Last Friday, I invited some friends over to the house so that we could open two wines, drink them together, and talk for a while about the differences between the two.

I’ll start with some background: both of these wines were Verdelho. Being a Californian (and not an Australian), Verdelho basically means absolutely nothing to me. If I hadn’t had spent so much time in Australia, I likely wouldn’t have been familiar with the grape at all: it has no role in my nation’s cultural history (whereas it absolutely does in Australia’s). The first Verdelho I ever drank was most likely something I encountered whilst on vacation in Western Australia in early 2002; they seemed to be legion, with most wineries having at least one on offer. (Capel Vale, perhaps? Dang it, I should have taken better notes.)

After nine months’ travels throughout Australia, I eventually came to know Verdelho as a generically rockin’ good time: you could count on it to taste good in a simple, pleasing manner without giving you all too much to think about, and that was just fine by me. After returning home to California, I’d occasionally see Australian Verdelho gathering dust in the “miscellaneous white wine” bin in a shop; I usually picked up a bottle, took it home, and drank it mindlessly. Thanks to a strong US dollar and the utter unfashionability of the wines, prices never hit double digits and I never grew tired of them.

As always, however, I digress. I’m here to talk about these two wines in particular: the 2009 Mollydooker The Violinist Verdelho and the 2009 Scholium Project Lost Slough Vineyards Naucratis. These are both straight varietal Verdelho from the same vintage year, albeit from opposite ends of the globe. Climactically, both wines are produced from similar geographic origins; McLaren Vale, in South Australia, is relatively warm with daily summer temperatures around 90 degrees, Clarksburg, in California, is warmer still with daily summer temperatures in the high 90s. (For you Australians, that would be 32 and 36 degrees C, respectively.) In short, nothing too dramatically different.

Soils, too, are probably not wildly different; the California wine is presumably grown on poor soil, and I imagine the Aussie wine isn’t that different either. In short, probably not hugely different either.

The major difference, then, at least superficially, would be between the two wineries. One is a spinoff (or, rather, the logical next step arising from) a once phenomenally successful Australian-American wine import business that made its name during the Bush administration importing, well, hedonistic fruit bombs; Dan Philips (and Marquis-Philips, his joint venture with the Marquis family, who became Mollydooker) had the brilliant idea of critter wines on steroids: double or triple the price of cheap and cheerful Aussie imports, but with vastly superior label design, bi-national critters (google Roogle if you’d like), and delicious, high octane, pleasurable wines that seemed just the perfect thing to serve at a megachurch BBQ celebrating to invasion of Iraq.

I will pause here for a moment and apologize for the intrusion of the political in to a nominally aesthetically oriented wine blog: one of these wines was a press sample, and God knows the generosity of the winemakers should not be abused. However, if one of the objectives of shipping samples is to potentially result in interesting ways of thinking about the wine, then I suppose they’re getting their money’s worth, even if obliquely. These sorts of wines – high alcohol, usually Shiraz, occasionally lavishly yet softly oaked – seemed to have sprung up shortly after that Mission Accomplished banner did, and it seems no mere coincidence that The Grateful Palate, Dan Philips’ importing business, ceased to exist shortly after President Obama took office and not too much longer before the cessation of combat operations in Iraq. In short, I am unfairly and hopefully amusingly positing that there is an odd synchronicity at work here between the go-go Bush years, filled with foreign policy adventuring beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, and the heyday of massive, plush, jammy, hedonistic wines (at this point, I am imagining someone with a distinctly non-West Coast accent spitting them into a football helmet on YouTube, for some reason), an odd crosstalk where one informs the other, a mad rush of consumption and decadence leading… well, I’m still not sure, exactly, except for the wines, which always, always led to massive ibuprofen consumption the morning after.

Of course, again, I digress.

The other wine, the Californian one, was produced by a small winery founded by a one-time professor from a notoriously obscurantist liberal arts college where they (shudder) still teach Aristotle… in the original Greek, no less. Again curiously coincident with the disastrous economic meltdown of 2008, his wines slowly but surely came to prominence not through glowing Wine Advocate reviews, but rather through one-off New York Times articles and general Terroir (the wine bar) fandom; most reviews I’d read were faintly reminiscent of early Dooniana , filled with remarks along the lines of “I can’t drink this, but I’m excited that it exists.” Much in the mode of recent newcomers such as Field Recordings, Abe the winemaker traveled California, hunting down vineyards that might produce interesting wines; in this case, a wine from a grape no one’s ever heard of (here, at least) from an area that’s generally as well regarded as Redfern (amusingly, the small hamlet of Woodbridge, which gave its name to an ocean of crappy wine that helped bring the Mondavi family to its doom, isn’t too far away to the south).

But again: I digress. On to the tasting notes; these are courtesy of a group of six friends. Both wines were placed in the refrigerator Thursday night and removed about forty-five minutes before tasting; we were hoping for a happy medium between “cold and doesn’t taste like anything” and “warm and tastes gross.” Wines were served in two identical glasses (Spiegelau Authentis red wine); we drank slowly, talking about these for a good half hour, before finishing up for the evening.

  • Both wines smell towards the sweet/syrupy end of the spectrum
  • This wine… well, it doesn’t quite smell like canned peaches because it doesn’t have that tinned smell to it that California viognier does. It’s kind of like viognier, but smoother, I guess.
  • This almost has kind of a sugar cane factory, cut cane, simple syrup, pineapple effect here with not much spice, just a happy go lucky sugar factory really.
  • It’s a little bit floral to me, but hard to say exactly what I’m smelling here. There might be a slight amount of spiciness to it, almost a hint of black pepper… celery salt or perhaps something slightly green there? Really hard to say.
  • Candied/salted spinach perhaps?
  • Seems hot to me.
  • Seems a much richer wine, more concentrated, perhaps even a bit of residual sugar here? Definitely very mouth filling, unctuous rich.. almost flabby. I think this might be going too far.
  • This wine seems… whiter? More like white peach than yellow peach. Some minerality here, really a striking difference. Generally more “serious” and more northern Rhône than the other one; better acidity, tighter, just a tiny bit of astringency to it.
  • Almost bitter, definite complexity on the finish, which lasts for quite a bit of time.
  • This almost has a sort of quinine note, reminiscent of bitters, which it desperately needs to give it complexity and style.
  • Strange to think these are the same grape from roughly similar climates; the simpler one has a deeper, richer yellow color, but the more complex one seems lighter, less imposing in the glass

There was, alas, one thing we all agreed on by the end of the evening: the one wine would have been just fine on its own, but it suffered by comparison with the other wine. It’s funny how things go sometimes: often, in the midst of unbridled enjoyment, it’s hard to imagine how an experience could possibly be better. I’ve personally bought both of these wines in the past – it was happy coincidence that I was given a bottle as a press sample – but having now had them simultaneously, I’m not sure I’d buy any more, especially considering that the pricing is roughly the same for the both of them.What it boiled down for me was this: I know it’s cliché to point this out, but every profoundly beautiful thing has to have a flaw – or at least something there that serves as a counterpoint, a foil, a dissonance to draw the beauty of the object in sharper, finer focus. The real reason I came away from this evening finding one wine profoundly beautiful and deeply satisfying was this: it showed restraint. Similarly high in alcohol, it seemed to have better acidity, more minerality, less residual sugar, but most of all that subtle, quinonic, bitter, savory edge that suddenly shifted it all into vibrant, ecstatic focus. You’d be hard pressed to expect more from a wine like this, especially at $20.My advice to the other winemaker? Simple: The boom years are behind us. It’s time to go beyond simple fruit ripeness, high alcohols, and straight-up appeal; it’s time to find the subtle beauty that’s probably always been there, time to experiment with phenolic aspects, time to consider the joys of Italianate bitter notes. I now know that there is Verdelho beyond the simple, fruity joys I’ve known from Australia from years; it’s there if you want it. Go for it: if you do, I’ll be there to buy it. And I’ll even go out on a limb here and groundlessly speculate: the Americans that were buying your wines in the past were probably buying them using home equity loans on houses that have already been foreclosed. The days of reckless consumption of shiny pretty wines with high point scores seem to have gone missing over the last two years; instead, we’re looking for subtlety, complexity, something with pain, something to match the anxiety and frustration we’re all feeling in these, the empty, anguished dog years after the binge of the Oughts. Give us something we can relate to; your wines remind me too much of those years where we weren’t thinking.

Mollydooker + Scholium Project
Price: $20-$26; average retail price $20
Closure: Other
Source: Sample

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