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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.

  1. Steve, excellent essay, and I agree with you. I’ll just say if there’s a Sauv-Blanc that approaches being “sexy” it is the 2010 Duckhorn Napa Valley Sauv-Blanc!

  2. Steve, I agree. Without my own deeper understanding, Chardonnays resulting in impeccable balance just have something more interesting and multidimensional to offer than Sauvignon Blanc, and for me it is not always the richness and full texture, its the pinpoint balance between clean fruit and acidity. But allow me to introduce Chenin Blanc into this discussion. The variety, from my view, has as much to offer as the finest Chardonnay produced. Of course, you need to look to the Loire, and pockets of South Africa like Swartland’s old vines, to understand the potential for richness, abiding acidity, fruit and balance…and while you don’t prefer it, the ability to tuck RS in a non intrusive way behind the acidity. Check out some of Chidaine’s Vouvray and Mont Louis Chenin Blancs to see what I mean. Great, utterly fantastic, food wines.

  3. Brian M says:

    A couple of thoughts.

    (1) You answered your own question. You love richness. That fact is reflected not only in you giving higher scores to Chardonnay, but also in your preference for richer CA wines. You also love fruit rather than earthy or mineral wines.

    Given all that, it doesn’t stop you from recognizing or appreciating “non-rich” wines. You just (unintentionally) skew your scores towards the richer wines. It’s evident in (what appears to me) your preference for fruitier, richer CA pinots.

    (2) Another food for thought. You don’t conduct your tastings with food. If you tasted all white wines while eating sushi it’s possible your scores for Sav Blanc would be higher and Chardonnay lower.

    (3) Most, not all but most, CA wine tends to be richer. Varietals such as Sav Blanc don’t show as well in environments and weather like CA. These varietals just excel in areas outside your coverage area.

    Those are my thought on this rainy morining in NYC.

  4. Brian M, thanks!

  5. If wine were music, then SB is chamber music and Chard is a symphony …

  6. Steve

    I have no problem with a critic having a preference for chardonnay over sauvignon blanch. What I’ve always thought is that if “perfection” can exist for one variety, it ought to potentially exist for all.

  7. Steven Mirassou, you point out a conundrum. I don’t currently have an answer for it. Maybe one of these days, I will. A 100 point California Tempranillo? Hmm….

  8. You’re an idiot as usual Steve. Chardonnay, at best, is fit only for cocktail time. Chard is a “made” wine with no character of its own.

  9. I would suggest that it is completely the tasting environment. If you taste wines for reviews as stand alone items, the preference will always be for the wines that show well alone. A wine that needs food to excel with be docked for that characteristic.

  10. Steve,

    Interesting list of wines . . . . but why none from Santa Barbara County?!?!? Just wondering why there were none on the list from anyone south of Sonoma/Napa?

    As far as scores go, as others have pointed out, you somewhat answered your own question by stating that you like ‘richness’ and for most, this is not what Sauvignon Blanc is all about. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to that – take some of the Fiddlehead or Brander SBs that see extended oak aging.


  11. Larry, I could have made my list longer but that wasn’t the point. Certainly there are super great Chards and SBs from SBC. I didn’t mean to leave anyone out!

  12. Most of California’s growing regions are too warm for Sauvignon Blanc if the goal is to have racy, balanced wines. Steve is right when he points out that many domestic vintners have modeled their Sauvignons in a Bordeaux template rather than pointing toward a racier and purer Loire model. The resulting Sauvignons become clumsy and uninspiring.

    Chardonnay can be a made wine or it can be Chablis. When made over 14% alcohol, it is a made wine, with added acidity, elevated sugar, oak flavoring, de-alcoholizing protocols and other tricks to fool people into thinking they are drinking fine wine instead of an expensive wine-like beverage. Terroir has given way to manufacturing. It has been a popular style of winemaking for a cocktail-drinking nation, but as you (and Parker) infer, these rich styles are very limiting with food. You should ask why so many of these wines are on restaurant wine lists instead of their cocktail pages.

    The elephant in the room is that for the past thirty years, American wine criticism has concerned itself entirely with what a wine is, with lip service paid to what a wine does. And here is where I think the source of Steve’s conundrum lies.

    Most American wine critics praise the former over the latter, preferring wines that are the equivalent of appetizer, main course and dessert all in a single glass. This is an outgrowth of the Consumer Reports approach to wine evaluation.

    But fine wine is consumed mostly at the table, and the demands on wine are very different in that context. It is nearly impossible to guide consumers here when there are so many variables at play that have little to do with the wine itself. Here, wine must be viewed as serving a greater good, being a team player with its surrounding foods and environment, being shared with others at the communal table while providing its unique brand of conviviality. This style of wine serves the meal and must be fairly evaluated not just as an entity onto itself, but how well it integrates with the function it is being asked to perform.

    If a wine is to accompany dinner or to serve as a refreshment, acidity must be much more forward than wine made to be consumed as a cocktail. Evaluating wine in a lineup of wines will nearly always favor wines with more weight, not necessarily what you need for dinner or refreshment.

    Finally, as an industry and its critical adjuncts, we are at a crossroads as wines have become more like Amarone than classical Burgundy. The culprits are those who model their wines to conform to the tastes of their targeted wine critics and those who use critical scores to sell their wine. One vision is to keep manufacturing wines to be bigger, sweeter and more potent, while another is to recapture and celebrate the notions of subtley, terroir, foodworthiness and in special cases, ageworthiness. (Getting chefs to make wine-compatible food won’t hurt, either.)

    This would represent a colossal shift away from the way business is being done today. It also might open people up to appreciating some of the great work done with white wine in places other than California, particularly some potentially exciting white wines like some I’ve sampled from Michigan, Ohio, the Finger Lakes, Long Island and Virginia. The climate has warmed up just enough to provide enough fruit to make clean, fresh, pristine wines. And not necessarily limited to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

  13. raley roger says:

    Randy, that was a thoughtful and intelligent comment.

    Incidentally, I’m on a Michigan wines kick right now.

    So many fun wines to try if one is also willing to go outside of Cali.

  14. While I’m usually the “elephant in the room” I think the HUGE one here is Steve saying that he drinks Sauvignon Blanc more often, because of its versatility with food but then tells consumers to drink Chardonnay by giving them bigger scores. Not picking on the way things are done….per se, but unless that consumer, the one reading those scores and buying from them, is going to sip and spit I’m just not sure how those scores are relevant.

  15. Samantha, actually I drink a lot more Chardonnay than Sauv Blanc because I do like it better. I’m just saying that Sauv blanc goes better with a lot of food. I’m not a nazi though when it comes to wine and food pairing.

  16. If I were told I had to spend the rest of my life only drinking local white wine, I would buy a house in Beaune. Bordeaux would be down on the list, certainly below the Loire.

  17. I second Larry’s post! What about Happy Canyon? Margerum is making some amazing SB! Balance, acidity and complexity abound.

  18. 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?

    Are there any publications in which you can be vulgar? I like the truth it is said to set you free.

  19. David: I’ve seen cat pee used here and there, but to tell you the truth, I don’t remember where.

  20. Chris: My post was not a roundup of California’s Sauvignon Blancs. It was to make a point.

  21. Charlie Tolbert says:

    Read more Ernest Hemingway and your Sauvignon Blanc scores will trend upwardly. He was all over this variety.

  22. Steve M says:


    If you haven’t, try Chalk Hill Estate SB. Mouth watering, like an orange lollipop, layered and complex. It’s true, I’m somewhat intimate with the brand, but being as objective as possible, it should be on anyone’s “must try” list. For all the wonderful work the previous owners did with the estate, this one wine is truly an undiscovered gem. A little expensive for regular consumption, but a treat nonetheless.

  23. Steve M, I’m a big fan of Chalk Hill SB, although I found the 2010 unripe. But then, that was a really cold vintage.

  24. Why, because sauv blanc simply pairs better with food. Usually wine bares the brunt in pairings and gets over powered with most meals. Two characteristics that pair best and allow a wine to add to a meal are minerality and acidity.

    Chard is naturally a richer wine which doesn’t pair as well. Even when you think it’s acidic and crisp, it doesn’t hold a match to sauv blanc in these categories. Rich and oaked sauv blancs tend to pair poorly much like a chard. Sauv blanc’s racy, mineral, (and maybe a touch of residual sugar if you’re having a spicy meal), make it much more versatile.

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