Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Chateau Leoville Barton from France and Opus One from California are representative of the Old World/New World wines that will be part of "Hawai'i Uncorked." Opus One will be featured in a rare vertical tasting at the event.

when worlds collide

Old World meets New
over a few glasses of wine

By Betty Shimabukuro

In this corner, representing the New World: a glass of California chardonnay. Looking bright and appealing, with intense golden tones and great clarity -- "California sunshine in a glass."

Hawai'i Uncorked 2003

When: Sunday, with grand tasting and silent auction, noon to 3 p.m.; live auction, 3 to 5 p.m.
Place: Sheraton Waikiki Grand Ballroom
Featuring: More than 200 wines and food by chefs Pierre Padovani (Padovani's Restaurant), Donato Loperfido (Donato's), Mariano Lalica (Meritage), Doug Lum (Mariposa) and Dwight Yoshioka and Brooke Tadena (Sheraton)
Tickets: $75
Call: 955-8821

In the other corner, representing the Old World: a glass of French chardonnay. Pale with a greenish tint, less clarity -- "It looks like it was made inside a fog."

Oooh, gimme a glass of that.

Hang around wine people long enough and you learn that a wine doesn't have to sound pretty to be spectacular. Skanky words are part of the descriptive repertoire, designed not to embellish or insult, but merely to state what is.

The quotes above, for example, come from Richard Field, owner of R. Field Wine Co. and one of Hawaii's top wine minds. He certainly has no prejudice against so-called Old World wines -- he pretty much loves a lot of them -- but what is, is.

Now, to the point: Sunday is the date of Hawaii Public Radio's "Hawai'i Uncorked," a massive wine-tasting/wine auction fund-raiser of which Field is the mastermind. This year's theme is "The Best of Both Worlds," those being the Old and New Worlds, winewise. And this means ... what?

Consider wine appreciation as a learning curve best mounted in baby steps. Step 1 would be understanding there are white wines and red ones (that's a small step). Step 2 would be grasping that different grapes produce different flavors and perhaps picking a favorite. Step 3, then, would be an appreciation of style, and this Old World/New World concept is a place to start.

Geographically, the Old World encompasses the wine capitals of Europe (France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal). The new covers the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada ... "pretty much anywhere Europeans settled," Field says.

Stylistically, the differences are determined by climate, growing seasons and basic approach -- that wine is made in the vineyard (old) or through the skill of the winemaker (new).

"In France, if the wine is brilliant this year, it's because Mother Nature made it that way," Field says. "In California, you become a superstar if you have a couple great vintages. And you get your own winery."

Caveat: These are all generalities. A wine made in the New World can be crafted in an Old-World style, especially as winemakers in, for example, California tune in more to the French concept of terroir (more on this later).

Clear as mud?

That's part of it, actually, or at least dirt is.

In the Old World, the same vines have been growing in the same soil under the same cultivating philosophy for centuries. Field calls this "somewhere-ness," which covers drainage, sunshine and weather, as well as soil composition. "The soil tends to be more important because of that somewhere-ness."

The French call it terroir, or the way that the earth itself forges the essence of the grape, and therefore the wine.

In much of the Old World, the most important information on a wine label is location -- a region, even a specific village, from which the grapes hail. The name of the grape and the winemaker come later, in smaller type.

In the new world, labels tend to lead with the winery name and the grape. With a shorter history to draw on, there's less of a sense of place for consumers to identify with.

But enough of all this, we're going to drink this stuff, not micro-analyze the labels. What about taste?

In general, Field says, a California wine is fruitier. Because the grapes get more sun, they develop more sugars, which convert into more alcohol. Reds are more tannic.

French wines exhibit more mineral flavors and more bright acidity, which means a cleaner feel on the palate.

Some like one style more than the other; some can appreciate both. There's no wrong answer here. And remember, lots of wines merge the qualities of both worlds.

At "Hawai'i Uncorked," wines will be arranged in an arch, with the very Old-Worldish on one side; very New-Worldish on the other. Moving toward the center, the wines will be less and less extreme in style, until at the center they'll reflect an "international" character, where worlds collide.

You can choose to educate yourself with a deliberate tour of the arch, or you can repeatedly hold out your glass for more of anything, until you can't feel your knees. This is the democratic, nonjudgmental beauty of the event.

Those who prefer not to have to think too hard or drink too much can hang out at the food stations, where six chefs will serve dishes designed in either Old- or New-World style. Field and his assistants will be selecting wines to match these dishes. Eat and drink your way through the six stations and you should have a pretty good grasp of the concept.

Until then, let us turn to Roger Asleson, spokesman for Opus One, a California red that will be the subject of an exclusive vertical tasting on Sunday. Twenty-one vintages of Opus One, from 1979 to 1999, will be poured in a single sitting.

All 36 seats at the tasting are sold out, at $150 per seat, participants presumably understanding that this might be the last event of its kind. "We just don't have the wines in our cellar to put on this kind of tasting," Asleson says. "The earlier vintages, we're just working on fumes right now."

Opus One is among those wines that would be at the center of the "Hawai'i Uncorked" arch. The winery was born out of a collaboration between Robert Mondavi and Baron Phillipe de Rothschild, icons of New and Old Worlds, respectively (they first met, by the way, in Hawaii in 1970).

Because the Opus wines belong to neither world, they help define both. "I guess you might call them an international style, as opposed to a big, broody, massively structured California style or a light, delicate, not-as-fruity European style," Asleson says.

The wines are balanced, but intense at the core, he says. "That typical iron fist within a velvet glove."

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