Sam Stephens, wine ambassador for Treasury Wine Estates, uncorked 4 bottles with T.Dining MY to exhibit the strengths of side by side tastings.

"To give you and your readers an idea of how the same wine can differ in opposite regions, we’re comparing two 2016 Chardonnays from Penfolds (Australia) and Beringer Vineyards (US) and two 2015 Cabernet Sauvignons, also from Penfolds and Beringer," said Stephens exuberantly.

Chardonnay Vs Chardonnay

Sam Stephens: I can’t stress enough what a difference the climate makes in winemaking. It comes into play when winemakers are deciding how ripe they want their grapes and what style of wine they want to achieve. Because it is just a little bit warmer in California than in Australia’s Chardonnay-growing region, what we tend to find with Californian wines, particularly with white wines, is that they’re slightly richer and more powerful. Whereas in Australia, particularly in the last 10 or 15 years, there has been a real move towards trying to get more of cool climate expression that’s pristine and elegant.

Samantha Lim: You can even see it in the colours.

Sam Stephens: Very much so. You’ve got that golden hue coming through in the Beringer, not to mention that viscosity.

Swirl both glasses and observe the legs or tears that flow down by the side; they drip a little slower in the Beringer, whereas in the Bin 311 from Penfolds, the legs form faster and dissipate in less time. This effect is an indicator of a wine’s body or viscosity.

What affects viscosity? Many things, from sweetness to ABV (alcohol by volume), and whether or not a bottle of wine is new or was opened prior. As both these wines are dry, you can rule out sweetness levels. The alcohol content is slightly higher in the Beringer by only half a degree. But more new oak is being used on the Beringer Napa Valley, which is what makes the wine more leggy.

Samantha Lim: So oak accounts for viscosity?

Sam Stephens: Yes, particularly with new oak, which generally results in a richer, oilier and a more viscous mouthfeel. With Chardonnay, you can get more of that vanillin content or a coconut characteristic.

Take a whiff of the Beringer first. Aside from apple and stone-fruit characteristics, you’ll catch a bit of that vanilla or coconut from the oak, hopefully.

Then move to Bin 311 from Penfolds: it’s got much more lime and citrus, not to mention smoke. We can glean that the wine was also aged in oak barrels, but it wasn't new oak; used toasted barrels impart that kind of smokiness.

What also affects aroma is soil. Bin 311’s grapes were grown in a rockier or flintier environment, which is why we get more mineral characteristics, whereas the Beringer Chardonnay is rounder with accents of fruit and vanilla.

Samantha Lim: Flinty is a good word for Australian wines.

Sam Stephens: Yes, and that’s very much what the winemakers wanted — to make sure that their white grapes really had that finesse, elegance and zest.


Samantha Lim: The Beringer packs quite a punch!

Sam Stephens: When we try the second, you'll find more crispness in the Penfolds, thanks to the cooler climate of Tumbarumba in New South Wales.

Chardonnay really is a chameleon of a grape variety.

With it, you can produce some of the biggest, richest and most powerful styles, but you can also get some incredibly elegant styles. I'm not saying one is better than the other; it’s purely comes down to personal taste. A lot of decision-making comes down to food pairings. Penfolds is going to need something a bit leaner, say some lovely steamed fish with a bit of lime and chillies; that way, the wine's purity will come through. If you’ve got laksa or something with a coconut cream base, you can bring a bottle of Beringer, because it’s going to complement the richness of the dish.

Cabernet Vs Cabernet

Sam Stephens: Moving on to the reds now!

Start with the Beringer and smell just that — dry black fruits and a warmth of ripeness associated with the Napa Valley. The oak also gives you the same toast and vanilla that you picked up in the Beringer Chardonnay earlier.

Before we taste either, nose the Penfolds. While both Cabernets contain 14.5% of alcohol and have spent some time in new oak, you should be able to pick up mint or eucalyptus in the Australian wine.

This is why I love sharing wine side-by-side — if I pick up both glasses and keep going back and forth, I detect different things each time.

Samantha Lim: Now that I’ve gotten acquainted with both Beringers, I can see how they’re ‘siblings.’

Sam Stephens: Yes, they share that viscosity that coats the palette.

Samantha Lim: 'Cordial' is the descriptor that comes to mind.

Sam Stephens: It’s certainly concentrated. That’s another thing about premium quality vineyards with low yielding grapes: if you were to pick one of these Cabernet grapes off the vine in the Napa Valley and bite into it, you'd get a sense of the wine's potential, whereas in a younger, more commercial style, the grapes would be more watery — similar to table grapes.

So if you try the Penfolds 407 now, you’ll find it doesn’t coat the mouth as much as the Beringer, but there are definitely more of those chewy tannins. There was skin contact in the winemaking process, but what also increases the tannins is the use of 30% new French and American oak; for the Beringer, it was only around 20%.

This goes to show that you can be gentle and extract lots of flavour but fewer tannins, which is the Beringer style, or you can go a bit harder, which works more colour and tannins out of the skins, which is what is happened with the 407. There is more overall structure in the 407 versus the Beringer's softer style.

Again, quality wise, they pretty much sit side by side, but Mark Beringer has actively chosen to make a more fruit-driven style.

Samantha Lim: The Chardonnays were more dissimilar, but the Cabernets are incredibly distinct. I really should execute more vertical and horizontal tastings at home. That was fun. I’m grateful you didn’t use too much jargon.

Sam Stephens: In my role, which revolves around educating people and getting the public excited about wine, I have to speak a language that everyone can understand. It really is all about sharing your experience with the widest audience possible.

Samantha Lim: Well done you. You’re quite good at it.

Sam Stephens: Oh, thank you! 21 years in and I’m just starting to get the hang of it. But I get paid to drink so it’s not too bad.

Samantha Lim: I know, I mean, me too. Yeah, cheers to that!