Any given month of the year, there are a number of wine dinners on offer at various acclaimed restaurants throughout Louisville. Some profile a specific vineyard, highlighting wines from a well-known or up-and-coming collection. Other dinners focus on one grape or style of wine in particular, celebrating the glory that is rosé wine in the summer or the comfort provided by a rich and rustic Bordeaux in the winter. While there is much to learn at these dinners, Varanese restaurant, located on Frankfort Avenue in the Clifton neighborhood, recently took things a step further, staging their second annual Old World vs. New World: A Comparative Wine Dinner.
As I am studying to become a certified sommelier, any wine dinner catches my eye. This one drew particular interest in that it promised to showcase the difference between wines made in the “old world” against those made in the “new world,” terms you’ve likely heard in reference to wine but may not fully understand the meaning of. To sum it up, old world wines come from those classic European wine meccas — France, Italy, Spain, Germany … you know the sort. Other wine-producing areas of the world — the United States, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, etc., are considered to be part of the new world. The price tag for this six-course dinner, including a sampling of 12 wines, sealed the deal at a mere $65 per person, and I happily took my seat at the table, wine glasses and Champagne flutes lined up before me, on a recent rainy Wednesday evening.
First Course: Champagne & Oysters
In my mind, any good evening begins with sparkling wine, and Varanese did not disappoint. The evening kicked off with our first comparative tasting, a true Champagne by Taittinger and a sparkling wine by California-based Domaine Carneros. Two oysters were placed before us once the bubbles were poured, each served on the half shell, one raw and topped with green apple purée and cherry caviar, the other baked in a creamy mornay sauce and garnished with tobiko caviar. Now for a wine to be called Champagne, it must come from the Champagne region of France. Sparklings made outside of this region and throughout the world may be made in the same manner, using the same age-old methods, but are not to be called Champagne. This is often noted on a bottle as Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionnelle. This particular pairing is made all the more interesting as Taittinger owns Domaine Carneros, so here we had two wines, both made in the same method by the same producer, but from very different regions of the world. Tasting the crisp, more fruit-forward flavors of the Domaine Carneros bubbly alongside the Taittinger, which offered up all of the notes of a freshly toasted loaf of brioche, allowed each wine to stand out and speak for itself. Both were refreshing and made fast friends with the perfectly adorned oysters. This was indeed a perfect start to the evening!
Second Course: Sauvignon Blanc & Miso Broth with Udon Noodles
Next up was a duo of sauvignon blanc, one from Sancerre, part of the Loire Valley wine region in France where sauvignon blanc thrives in the most classic sense, and the other from forward-thinking, new wave Marlborough, New Zealand. These wines came along with what would end up being my favorite course of the evening, a spicy miso broth filled with udon noodles, a five-minute egg, baby bok choy, mushrooms and a black garlic sauce. The fruit notes were subtle and full of citrus zest in the Michel Redde-produced French offering, while the Whitehaven from New Zealand was full of ripe tropical fruits and carried a larger punch. It was so fun to taste them both along with the warm, slightly salty miso broth and just barely runny egg, both wines highlighting different flavors in the dish.
Third Course: Chardonnay & Smoked Chicken Risotto
I was excited to see that a chardonnay pairing was included in this wine dinner, as I often find the differences between old world and new world chardonnays to be most striking. Chardonnays from California are oftentimes — certainly not always — described as buttery and highly viscous, a result of the new world vinification process (this is not a bad thing, just a very specific style of chardonnay). The vast majority of French chardonnay comes from the Burgundy region of France, a northern area boasting the cold climate that chardonnay grapes love. These cold temps often — again, not always — result in a crisper wine, in stark contrast to those crafted in the new world. The dish for this course was a smoked chicken risotto that had been showered with shavings of aromatic Gouda cheese and topped with snow pea tendrils. The French chardonnay offered was a 2012 Joseph Drouhin from Burgundy’s Macon region and was a beautiful example of a classic, everyday, white Burgundy. The new world wine came courtesy of Bonterra’s The Roost chardonnay, a rich expression but not the “butter-bombs” that some California chardonnays possess. Both stood up to the smokiness of the risotto and were the perfect bridge to the second half of the evening — it was time for the red wine!
Fourth Course: Pinot Noir & Pork Osso Buco
All of the dishes served throughout this meal were a feast for both the eyes and the senses, and the slow braised pork osso buco was no exception. Served with rosemary roasted potatoes, the sauce was made with wild mushrooms and pinot noir wine, a nod to the beverage pairing we would be enjoying with this fourth course. We stayed in France once again for our old world experience, tasting a pinot noir by The Furst, from the Alsace region, and then traveled to the Santa Maria Valley of California to sample Cambria’s Clone 4 pinot noir. Red cherry, the classic and often dominant flavor note in the pinot noir grape, was ever present in both wines and brought out the very best of the perfectly cooked pork osso buco.
Fifth Course: Sangiovese & Lamb
If you’re a fan of Chianti or Brunello wines from Italy, then you are a fan of the sangiovese grape, the bread and butter of Italy’s Tuscan region. We saw two such expressions of this grape during the fifth course of the meal, when we dined on a grilled lamb chop served with lima beans, Tuscan kale, stewed tomatoes and a balsamic reduction. First up from the old world was a sangiovese by Donna Laura coined Ali and from Tuscany. This wine was fruit forward and full of ripe red berries, the tannins matching up nicely with the char on the lamb from the grill. The new world iteration came from Silverado in Napa Valley, a 2010 sangiovese with equally ripe fruit character and a touch of spice, thanks to the light oak barrel aging it saw. While each course in this feast was smartly small scale, we were sufficiently full by this time and ready for nothing more than a bite of something sweet.
Sixth Course: Malbec & Espresso Flourless Torte
And something sweet it was! The sixth and final chapter of the Varanese Old World vs. New World: Comparative Wine Dinner consisted of an indulgent, espresso, flourless torte served with raspberry, cracked pepper and marshmallow ice cream and finished with a warm raspberry chocolate sauce. Two glasses of malbec would warm us before heading back out into the rain, one from the Bodega Colome Estate in Salta, Argentina, the other from Chateau Du Caillau in Cahors, France. Undoubtedly malbec is associated with Argentina, however its roots are in French soil. It is in fact one of the five primary blending grapes used in Bordeaux. Malbec rootstock was brought to Argentina in the mid-1800s, and it seemed that the Argentinian soil and this French varietal were a match made in heaven, with malbec thriving in a whole new way. We savored the black fruit and light smokiness of the old world malbec and appreciated the way the notes of bitter chocolate from the Argentinian version matched up beautifully with the espresso torte.
As we closed out the night, everyone rehashed the meal, ranking the wines and the various courses based on their preference. While certain wines (Taittinger Champagne) and dishes (spicy miso broth with udon noodles) were universally adored, each diner at our communal table had a different take on the evening, a personal opinion on which wines they couldn’t wait to sip again. I believe firmly that any given wine isn’t necessarily better than another — it’s all about personal palates and tasting; wines side by side offering the most ideal way to fully experience an individual wine’s expression. This lesson was on full display during our evening of comparative wine tasting at Varanese, and I left ever grateful for this educational, delicious and overall worthwhile dining event!
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