In a sense it is true that whenever you taste several wines and compare them in terms of personal preference, or the value for money, or your style or not your style, it is a comparative tasting.
For wine professionals, be they wine makers, wine educators, wine writers, sommeliers or retailers, a comparative tasting has education as its primary purpose. But for this to occur, there has to be thought (and discipline) exercised by the person staging the tasting. In its purest form, there will be only one point of difference between the wines, the object of the exercise then focussing on the impact of that point of difference.
Over the decades I have seen many comparative tastings rendered useless because the organiser gets too enthusiastic, or simply too ill-disciplined, to adhere to the golden rule. But before I go further, I must stress that this is the purest form of comparative tasting, typically only involving a limited number of wines, and most definitely for an educated audience.
The other day, I came across two wines from the one winemaker perfectly framed for the comparative tasting. The wines were the same grape variety, the vines to all intents and purposes the same age (33/34 years old); the grapes were picked at the same baumé level, resulting in the same alcohol (13%) in the finished wine; they were vinified in precisely the same way, and with the barest winemaker thumbprint.
The handpicked grapes were pressed to oak without clarification for non-temperature-controlled, natural fermentation. The cooperages, oak format (puncheons) and barrel age were exactly the same for both wines. Upon completion of fermentation, the wines were immediately sulphured to preserve freshness and acidity, and rested on lees for ten months. Neither was filtered, and only minimal fining was employed. In case you hadn’t guessed it, the variety was chardonnay.
So what was the point of difference? The region of origin, one wine coming from Willow Lake Vineyard in the Upper Yarra Valley, the other from Smiths Vineyard in Beechworth. The winemaker was Adrian Rodda, who is also the proprietor of A. Rodda wines. The Beechworth Chardonnay is a tightly structured wine, with minerally, almost savoury, undertones to the stone fruit and apple flavour wheel, the overall texture outstanding.
I happened to taste the Beechworth wine first, and was sorely tempted to draw comparisons with Chablis or Corton; if I had tasted the wines in reverse order, it turns out I might have been tempted to make the same comment about the Yarra Valley sibling, even though it was very different in its expression. It has more lissom fruit, white peach and grapefruit to the fore, and greater length, but not the structural complexity of the Beechworth wine.
Both wines sell for $38, so there can be no question of value for money and I’m not entirely convinced of the relevance of the obligatory custom of giving points to each wine, particularly given my inevitable bias having made chardonnay in the Yarra Valley for upwards of 30 years. But on the other hand, in my 2014 Wine Companion I bestowed the award for best chardonnay out of the 940 tasted for that edition to a Beechworth chardonnay (2011 Giaconda). For the record, I gave the Rodda Smiths Vineyard and Willow Lake the same 96 points. The Smiths Vineyard wine was also given 96 points in the 2013 James Halliday Chardonnay Challenge. (I am not involved in the tastings for the Challenge.)
As a final apologia it’s fair to point out that Adrian Rodda cut his teeth on chardonnay in the Yarra Valley, and did not move to Beechworth until 2010 with the express purpose of making chardonnay from the best (other than Giaconda) vineyard in the region, Smiths. But he freely admits his intention was always to make multiple single vineyard chardonnays from different geographical regions, and the Yarra Valley is only the first step along that journey. The Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and South Gippsland must all look attractive targets.