Why I score Chardonnay higher than Sauvignon Blanc–and why I wonder about it
If I’ve achieved any reputation at all with regard to California Sauvignon Blanc, it’s been as a debunker. It’s not my favorite variety. Too often, I’ve found the wines lacking in any of several dimensions. On the expensive side, they’re overworked, with too much oak and lees, the result of a winemaker infatuation with white Bordeaux. On the inexpensive side, they’re insipid and sweet.
But about a year ago I began to notice a change, toward greater subtlely and complexity. My assumption was that this was due to two factors: a greater sensitivity on the part of winemakers that Sauvignon Blanc need not be merely a throwaway second wine, but one that shows real ambition; and cooler vintages. Of course, the precarious danger of the latter is unripeness, especially in the cat pee aromas and flavors I’m not supposed to use in my official Wine Enthusiast reviews, because they think that term is vulgar. But it sure does tell the truth, doesn’t it?
However, like I said, this past year has shown me some magnificent Sauvignon Blancs. Among them I would mention Mondavi’s 2009 To Kalon I Block (no surprise there), Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2010, Dutton Estate’s 2010 Cohen Ranch, Rochioli’s 2011, Mayacamas’s 2010 from Mount Veeder, Cade’s 2010 Estate, Long Meadow Ranch’s 2011, Hand Made by Marketta’s 2009, Stonestreet’s 2010 from Alexander Valley, Hartwell’s 2010, and Twomey’s 20112, which bears a Napa-Sonoma appellation.
What I love about all these Sauvignon Blancs are three things: dryness, acidity and streamlined flavor. Dryness is so essential to Sauvignon Blanc, I don’t even know how to begin to describe it. The slightest hint of residual sugar is, to me, a cardinal sin in a wine like Sauv Blanc. Acidity also is vital. Of course, you want good acidity in any wine, but in Sauvignon Blanc, which is supposed to be racy, it’s especially important. And then there’s flavor. I don’t ask for much, but I do want my Sauvignon Blancs to be ripe enough to avoid excessive cat pee, not to mention the veggies.
All the wines I mentioned above succeed admirably in all these parameters. Still, the highest score I’ve given a Sauvignon Blanc this year is the Mondavi ‘09 To Kalon I-Block, which, at 93 points, is respectable, but way short of the massive scores I gave to Chardonnays such as Failla’s 2010 Estate, Dutton-Goldfield’s 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Rochioli’s 2010 South River Vineyard, Lynmar’s 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard or Roar’s 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard. Why?
In three words, I love richness. Yes, that makes me something of a slut. But mere richness, even with tons of new, flashy oak, doesn’t work for me. I’ve given horrible scores to wines of that ilk. The strange thing, which I confess I don’t entirely understand, is that there are certain foods, which I eat on a regular basis, that I would far prefer to pair with a 90 point Sauvignon Blanc than with a 96 point Chardonnay. Sushi comes to mind. So does bruschetta with goat cheese, which I prepare often, or a salad of bitter greens. Almost anything Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, Ethiopian or Indian–all foods I eat a lot of in ethnically-diverse Oakland–goes better with a dry Sauvignon Blanc than a rich Chardonnay. Still, I give Chardonnay the nod.
Feel free to weigh in, because my mind is far from made up. I suppose a good part of the equation is because Chardonnay is more seductively appealing than Sauvignon Blanc. Like you, I have an eye for an attractive human being: Chardonnay is sexy. Sauvignon Blanc is the person at the party who’s intellectual, not hot. You want to go home with the Chardonnay and have pleasure. With the Sauvignon Blanc, you want to go out for drinks, or coffee, have a conversation, and see where it does.
Before I get too carried away, let me just say that I’m open on this topic of whether Chardonnay automatically is better than Sauvignon Blanc. I think it is–my scores reflect it–but I have enough self-examinative doubt to wonder.