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Could Sauvignon Blanc be entering a golden era?

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I’m not surprised that Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are “on the rise” in U.S. sales, as reported in Lewis Perdue’s Wine Industry Insight.

We all know Pinot Noir is hot, hot, hot. People also talk about the popularity of red wine blends but I have my doubts about their staying power. There have always been good red blends from California; the field blends of old, from gnarled century vines, caught my attention years ago, and I would welcome a good one onto my table anytime, especially with lamb or something with sausages. I’ve written about the quality of certain Paso Robles red blends, which can be very good indeed. But I just don’t see the red blend, per se, lasting as a category on its own. It’s too hard for consumers to wrap their heads around something so amorphous. Wineries usually give red blends a proprietary name, which makes it nearly impossible for people to form a unifying concept about them in their minds, the way they do with, say, Pinot Noir. So an individual, branded red blend might enjoy popularity, but I don’t think the category itself is a keeper. Am I wrong?

Back to Pinot Noir. Of course it’s hot, because it’s great wine. Being so light and delicate, and generally lowish in alcohol, it fits in perfectly with today’s health, legal and food-related concerns. But it’s the emerging popularity of Sauvignon Blanc that interests me.

To judge from acreage, you wouldn’t know that Sauvignon Blanc was hot. There’s not a whole lot planted and the amount isn’t really going up. Statewide, there were 16,700 acres planted in 2011, and only 16,900 in 2013. (Perhaps when the 2014 Acreage Report comes out, we’ll see an increase.) There’s still more Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel planted than Sauvignon Blanc.

If a consumable is popular but isn’t increasing in production, then what happens? The price goes up. In theory, anyway. I looked at the 2013 Crush Report: The average weighted amount per ton of Sauvignon Blanc in California was a miserable $863.11. But—and it’s a big but—the equivalent price of Chardonnay was even less: $848.88. What this tells me is that most Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay produced in California is from the Central Valley and goes into cheaper wines.

So we look at the coast. What are the best Sauvignon Blanc districts? IMHO, Sonoma County, Napa County and Santa Barbara County. So how’s Sauvignon Blanc doing there?

Well, in District 4—Napa—the weighted average base price per ton for Sauvignon Blanc in 2013 was$1,899.95. In 2011, it was $1,829.80. So not a big increase, only 0.3 percent.

In District 3—Sonoma County and Marin, but you can dismiss Marin—the weighted average base price per ton for Sauvignon Blanc in 2013 was $1,469.52. The equivalent number in 2011 was $1,368.26. That’s a fairly sizable increase: 7.4 percent.

How about Santa Barbara? Well, they lump it in with San Luis Obispo and Ventura to make District 8, but I think most of the Sauvignon Blanc is in Santa Barbara. In 2013, the weighted average base price per ton was $1,141.13. In 2011, it was $987.32. That’s a huge jump, nearly 15.6 percent.

I think it’s fair to say, then, that the increasing popularity of Sauvignon Blancs at the higher end of the quality scale is coming from Sonoma and Santa Barbara counties, especially the latter. Like Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc is a lighter-style wine, which makes it a good match for a wide range of foods, especially our multi-country-inspired, spicy fare. It’s crisp, and getting drier, after years of too many of them being semi-sweet. It’s also the best-known of the non-Chardonnay white wines in America, where name recognition is very important in the market.

So, all in all, I’m bullish on coastal Sauvignon Blanc!

 

Dwight Clark at Pebble Beach: It’s incredible. I’ve been riding this one catch for 33 years!

  1. Steve, interesting, but there is also still a lot of S.Blanc planted in Paso Robles, probably more than SB County, and still contained in district 8. And extrapolating a trend in price from just 2 years is dodgy, particularly as there were other big factors (drought, relative crop levels, fruit coming out of contract, residual contracts from the difficult 2008-9 years, etc…) Do you think that there is a per bottle price ceiling on Sauvignon Blanc? At some price is the consumer just not that interested, or moves to excellent sources from Loire, NZ, South Africa at more friendly prices?

  2. Judi Levens says:

    I love a good Sauvignon Blanc, but not the grapefruity ones that are proliferating all over…so acidic. Merry Edwards makes an almost perfect Sauv Blanc in my opinion…well balanced with good but not bitter fruit. It’s a great alternative to a Chardonnay when you don’t feel like the complexity and weight of a Chardonnay. Wish more people would get it right…

  3. I think red blends do have lasting power as a category. I suppose how broadly you define red blend is important. Bordeaux, CdP, and many Napa red wines are red blends. Those all seem pretty successful. Oh, and the sweet red category has been doing pretty well for itself. Will “red blend” every have the same cachet as varietal wine? Probably not. Lasting as a category actually more important than any single cultivar? Most definitely.

  4. “. . . I just don’t see the red blend, per se, lasting as a category on its own. It’s too hard for consumers to wrap their heads around something so amorphous. Wineries usually give red blends a proprietary name, which makes it nearly impossible for people to form a unifying concept about them in their minds . . .”

    As I commented on Charlie’s wine blog about domestic Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blends, stores such as BevMo position domestic white blends (e.g., white Meritage) on the “Other Whites” shelves — many aisles removed from Sauvignon Blancs.

    Position red blends (e.g, red Meritage) on the “Other Reds” shelves — many aisles removed from Cabernets and Merlots.

    (I have found the same Plan-O-Gram practice adopted by grocery stores.)

    That thwarts cross-merchandising and cross-shopping opportunities.

    Wineries hurt themselves by not using their front and back label “real estate” to let consumers know what these “white wine blends” represent — starting with conspicuously naming the grape varieties in the mix.

    I have perceived three “styles” of California Sauvignon Blanc: (1) slightly herbal with tangy green apple and citrus aromas and flavors; (2) non-herbal with a less acidic fig-like aroma and flavor; and (3) heavily-oaked (and possibly ML-ed) whose aromas/bouquet and flavors are first and foremost toast and vanilla bean (and possibly butterscotch).

    The consumer doesn’t know which style s/he is getting. And largely the wine store salesperson doesn’t know either (unless drawing upon personal drinking experience).

    Wineries should do more to use their labels to describe their house style.

    (Recall that consumers not knowing the sweetness level of Rieslings has historically held back the adoption of that grape variety. The recent implementation of a “sweetness bar graph” on the back label addresses that concern.)

  5. Dear nrcvino, you ask an excellent question concerning a price ceiling on SB. I do think obviously there is one, in general…you clearly can’t charge as high for SB as for Chardonnay. Individual producers can charge fairly high prices but the quality has to be extraordinary.

  6. Steve,

    Here’s my nominee for the upper ceiling on California Sauvignon Blanc pricing: $80.

    http://www.kenzoestate.com/product/2013-Asatsuyu-750ml

    (The “tulip mania” surreal resale pricing of the limited production Screaming Eagle Sauvignon Blanc doesn’t count. Google this Wine Searcher headline: Screaming Eagle Thwarts “Selfish Greed”)

    I wrote in an earlier comment that you can price your wine based on variable and fixed input costs, or price it based on your assessment of your “peer group.”

    This is an example of the first approach, as the owner earned his fortune in the video game industry — and used it to launch this “cost no object” venture.

    Google this Wine Spectator (May 10, 2010) profile:

    Japanese Videogame CEO Opens $100 Million Napa Winery

    Google this San Francisco Chronicle “Wine” section profile headline:

    Big Names Nay Help Kenzo Estate Winery Thrive

    And Google this W. Blake Gray wine blog profile headline:

    Kenzo Estate: Money Well Squandered

    ~~ Bob

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Excerpt from the San Francisco Chronicle “Food & Wine” Section
    (May 31, 2009, Page E5):

    “A Second Chance for Semillon”

    Link: http://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Time-to-pay-more-attention-to-Semillon-3297190.php

    By Jon Bonné
    “Thirst” Column

    It occurs to me that we have betrayed Semillon, allowing it to slip through the cracks of our collective wine thoughts. This is hardly some obscure thing hailing from Mr. Mxyzptlk’s fifth dimension. This is half the equation of the glorious sweet wines of Sauternes, the texturally rich backbone of many Bordeaux whites, including ageless Graves like Haut-Brion Blanc.

    But here it’s met with a collective shrug. The amount of Semillon planted in California is actually shrinking, with just over 900 acres left. Perhaps that’s because it defies the laws of scarcity; according to USDA data, it earned on average just $503 per ton of fruit last year, even less than workaday Pinot Gris. There’s a bit up in Washington state, but just a bit – 200 acres last year. It’s not like there were glory days for Semillon.

    . . .

    But there’s no real reason for our Semillon betrayal aside from the whims of fashion. When grown carefully and picked with some green flavors amid the typical fig and honey, it shines. The gastronomic potential is profound. It’s less obvious than Chardonnay, less strident than Sauvignon Blanc, able to lift the greenest of flavors . . . while bolstering oysters’ mineral tang.

    . . .

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