Been awhile since I’ve written a wine homework post, and it’s not for lack of drinking. More of a lack of focus, really; how appropriate, then, that tonight’s topic is expressiveness. Here’s what Karen MacNeil has to say about it:
Expressiveness is the quality a wine possesses when its aromas and flavors are well-defined and clearly projected. While some wines seem muddled and diffused, others beam out their character with almost unreal clarity and focus. Imagine the image projected by an out-of-focus black-and-white television without a cable hook-up compared to the same image in high-density color. An expressive wine is like the latter. (The Wine Bible, 5)
To grasp the concept, she suggests the reader try a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. In my initial forays into wine tasting and writing, I was more focused on France, Spain and Germany — figured I’d head to the southern hemisphere eventually, but intended to explore things methodically and in a certain order.
However, life happens, plans change, paths emerge, et cetera. Now it’s January and my sister came down from Connecticut to visit us in our new place in Hoboken for the very first time. Whereas my wine-o-meter is set to ‘fast, loose and easy,’ hers is set to ‘pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc, preferably, and aged ONLY in steel, NO OAK.’ She’s a bit fussier than me. But since I’m adaptable (and she’s so damned particular), I walked her to the local wine shop (Sparrow Wines) and had her pick out whatever she liked. In her defense, although she has her go-to bottles, she’s adventurous to a degree and she loves New Zealand whites — particular those from the Marlborough region. She found the NZ section of the store immediately and taught me a thing or two (for one thing, I hadn’t even found that aisle in almost two years of shopping there…).
We ended up buying two bottles, both sauvignon blanc: a 2013 Kono and a 2012 Mohua (click the links to see the beautiful vineyards that produce these wines!). I picked the Kono, actually, for a reason completely unrelated to wine: the first sentence on the back read, “We are Maori, the first people of Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Now, I’ve never been to NZ; in fact, the only Kiwis I’ve ever even gotten to talk to were three girls who were part of a Shamrocker Tour around Ireland I went on in my 20s (who taught me about drinking games that would make an American fratboy blush (The Pelican, anyone?), and who helped me to distinguish between Ozzie and Kiwi accents). BUT, when I was about 12 years old (circa 1989), still many years before the internet was accessible everywhere, I paid five dollars to one of those pen-pal agencies that advertised in kids’ magazines, got 5-10 addresses for other kids all over the globe, wrote to them all, and the only one who wrote back was a Maori girl from New Zealand. Her name escapes me now (Leslie, maybe?), but she was from Nelson on the South Island, which (I’ve learned) is pretty darn close to Marlborough.
Despite the fact that I’ve forgotten her name, I treasured her letters. As a kid in southern Ohio, it was such a thrill to receive mail from the other side of the globe from someone whose life was so different…and yet so similar to mine. The Kono bottle instantly brought her to mind, and with her the feeling of being a Midwestern kid who knew that world travel was in his future, but who didn’t know exactly how it would ever come about (poor as I was).
Anyway, the wine.
NZ sauvignon blancs are electric — if these two are to be trusted. The Kono in particular has a tartness to it which I have not enjoyed in other whites I’ve had, but in this one I feel like…. Well, this is a reference you’ll probably only get if you were a child of the 80s, but it brings to mind a Lite Brite. Remember how the plastic peg could be completely dull, but the moment you pierced it through the black construction paper it lit up in vibrant color? The Kono is like that. It neither looked nor smelled remarkable, but the first sip lit my face up with a smile. Lemon and grass and lemongrass…its flavors were pronounced and astounding. Whatever I’d tried in the past that had led me to think poorly of sauvignon blanc, well — this was completely different.
The Mohua was nothing like the Kono. Whereas the Kono seemed to concentrate all of its flavors up front, then explode like a firework, the Mohua was the opposite. It was broad at first, not bland, but it took awhile for its flavors to settle. Once they did, the flavor was…green beans. Now that might not sound at all appealing, but that’s because you’re thinking of soggy beans that have been cooked with ham for hours and hours. That’s not what I’m talking about. To understand what I mean, you need to pick them fresh from your back yard in the summer in the late afternoon, call them haricots verts, steam them very lightly and serve them with a lemon butter. The Mohua’s green bean finish was really very pleasant. When I said as much, my sister gave her affirmation and then we read MacNeil’s section on NZ where she writes that the sauvignon blanc can evoke flavors of “green olives, green figs, green tea, green melons, plus a host of green vegetables from snow peas to green beans” (Wine Bible 810). I, for one, was smugly pleased to have named the taste before reading it in the wine expert’s writing.
So what have I learned about expressiveness? Well, I learned that these NZ whites really pop in a way I haven’t yet experienced with sauvignon blancs from other regions. Their flavors, though different from one another, were mutually distinct. And they’ve inspired me to mine the cave of my memories, free associate and write more than a thousand words about them, so I guess that counts for expressive.
From a practical standpoint, I highly recommend these two wines, and I’m looking forward to tasting even more from the region.
(And I’m going to remember my penpal’s name in the middle of the night, I just know it…)