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Some Sauvignon Blancs I liked in 2012

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Robert Mondavi’s 2009 To Kalon Vineyard I Block Fumé Blanc ($75) and Mondavi’s 2010 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc ($40) were easily the most interesting Sauvignon Blancs I reviewed last year. (“Fumé” is, of course, simply another word for “Sauvignon” when it comes to Blanc.) I gave both 93 points.

That I gave both wines 93 points needs some explanation. They both exhibit that To Kalon character, which is to say, both wines are bone dry, with clean, excellent acidity, fruit that isn’t too pronounced but tends to citrus and gooseberry, and always possessed of a firm minerality. I have walked that vineyard many times and, examining the dirt, tried to figure out where that minerality comes from. There are stones in the soil, but it’s not super- rocky, and of course the dirt comes from centuries or millennia of stuff that washed down from the Mayacamas Mountains that soar above this portion of the Oakville bench. So there has got to be something in the dirt that comes from the volcanic residues and uplifted bedrock in the upper Mayacamas, but this pushes us so far back in geological history that we have to use our imaginations to determine how it impacts the wines. Still, that minerality is there, like ground-up stones or liquid steel, and you can always taste it in a To Kalon Fumé Blanc from Mondavi.

The dual 93 point scores underline another point: that at high score levels, the relationship between price and quality becomes less clear and more ambiguous. By this, I mean that it’s always far more likely that a $30 bottle of wine will be better than a $10 bottle. Yet it is not at all clear that a $75 bottle will be better than a $40 bottle of the same variety. I think, had I tasted the two Mondavi Fumés side by side, which I didn’t (they were released four months apart), the scores might have varied, either way, by a point or two. Since I didn’t, the reader ought to conclude that both wines offer a high degree of Sauvignon Blanc pleasure.

Dryness is the most important thing. Most California Sauvignon Blancs are a little sweet. Ninety percent of the time they have citrus, fig,  green apple or other fruity flavors, with a dash of honey, and while these make for pleasant cocktail sippers (and I frequently recommend them with slightly sweet ethnic foods, like Vietnamese or Burmese, although my real preference there is for a beer made in that country), these wines are not great, nor do they aspire to be great. They are at best country wines, enjoyed for what they are. Then we come to the truly dry California Sauvignon Blancs, of which there are regrettably few. Why? I think, not because there aren’t places to grow good, dry Sauvignon Blanc, but because winemakers are afraid to make them. They believe (or their sales people and distributors tell them) that Americans talk dry but drink sweet; moreover, if the winery is exporting to Asia, the conventional wisdom is that the Chinese like their white wines with a hit of sugar.

Mondavi never has been afraid of making their To Kalon Fumés bone dry—at least, not since I’ve followed the wines, and not under the watchful eye of Genevieve Janssens. The winery, whether owned by the Mondavi family or by Constellation, makes their profit elsewhere; they don’t need revenue coming from wines with low production like the To Kalon Fumés (the 2010 was 984 cases, the 2009 was 200 cases) which have high prestige value especially among foodies and somms. Incidentally, you could age either of these wines for a long time. I don’t recommend it beyond, say, six years, but the wines will hold, remaining clean and vibrant and turning “old sauvignony,” which is hard to describe–mushroomy? dried leaf? brittle?–except that if you’ve experienced it, you know what it means.

Here are some other Sauvignon Blancs I liked in 2012, with their appellations in parentheses:

Grgich Hills 2011 Essence (Napa Valley)

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)

Gainey 2010 Limited Selection Sauvignon Blanc (Santa Ynez Valley)

Rochioli 2011 Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley)

Dutton Estate 2010 Cohen Vineyard Dutton Ranch Sauvignon Blanc (Russian River Valley)

Casa Obra 2011 Hummingbird Hill Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma Coast)

Del Dotto 2011 Cinghiale Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Sonoma Coast)

Margerum 2011 “D” Sauvifgnon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara)

Stonestreet 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Alexander Valley)

Hartwell 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Carneros)

Mayacamas 2010 Sauvignon Blanc (Mount Veeder)

All are tart and succulent. The presence of the two Sonoma Coast wines (Del Dotto and Casa Obra) suggests the enormous potential for Sauvignon Blanc in this region. But because Sauvignon Blanc does not now, and probably never will, command the high prices of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Sonoma Coast likely will not see much Sauvignon Blanc coming out of it. If there was one thing I could change in consumer taste with a snap of my Royal fingers, it would be to make people appreciate a good, dry, crisp California Sauvignon Blanc. We’ll just have to work on that through education.

  1. That Mayacamas juice is really, really good…

  2. Steve, glad to see you giving some attention to varieties other than cab and cab blends, but do you really think ” bone dry, with clean, excellent acidity, … citrus and gooseberry” are unique characteristics of To-Kalon sauvignon blanc? That sounds like the most generic description of sauvignon blanc I’ve ever heard.

    It also looks like 95 is the highest rating you have ever given a sauvignon blanc. Is that because you think there is something inherent in the variety that restricts it from being a “classic” wine or is it personal preference? What would it take for a sauvignon blanc to be “perfect” or close to perfect?

  3. Hear, hear on the Rochioli Old Vines SB, (the 2010 is also great, which was released at the same time as the 2011), the Margerum of Happy Canyon (future SB-gem appellation?), and the Hartwell SB… But one that was surprisingly missing from your list above was from the great veteran, Meredith Edward’s nectar. She produces some consistently fabulous SB juice!

  4. Have you tried the Sauvignon Blancs of Dragonette Cellars in Los Olivos? Some of the best wine I’ve had of any varietal or blend… I love these guys!

  5. @Jessyca, yes, I’ve given Dragonette good scores. Reviewed their 2010 last year and gave it 92 points with an Editor’s Choice special designation.

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  1. Descriptive words vs. technical terms: not always the same | Wine 2020 - [...] of Siduri and Novy wines, emailed me to say that my description of the Mondavi To Kalon Fumé Blancs …

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