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Looking towards Sauvignon Blanc’s future

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I’ve long thought that the most puzzling, frustrating and potentially exciting grape variety in California is Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s such a tease. Somehow, we tend to think of Sauv Blanc, if we think of it at all, as an important variety, one of the most important white wine grapes in the world. And yet, Sauvingon Blanc never seems to achieve nobility, to rise to the critical heights of Chardonnay or Riesling. True, we praise it in places like Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé; we celebrate it from Marlborough, and even here in California (where few winemakers take Sauvignon Blanc seriously), we rightfully get excited by the odd bottle here and there: A rich Mondavi To Kalon I Block, a dry, citrusy Duckhorn, a spicy Matanzas Creek Bennett Valley, a art, grassy Brander.

But still… When I was a wine critic, I used to wonder (and I’d ask winemakers all the time) why somebody in California didn’t make a Graves-style Sauvignon Blanc, that is, using techniques including barrel fermentation and new oak aging and sur lies, and blending in a little Semillon for fat, gras. I didn’t mean for them to do so in a heavy way: there were plenty of over-oaked, buttery, over-worked Sauvignon Blancs (and plenty with too much residual sugar), and we didn’t need more of those. I meant for someone to do the job right.

But few were. And so heavy and clumsy were the few attempts to make a white Graves-style wine that most vintners largely gave up on new oak, going to neutral wood, or no wood at all, a style that coincided with the unoaked movement in Chardonnay and aromatic whites. They also did something very good: planted Sauvignon Blanc in the right places (not too warm, not too cold) and, in the best cases, began to express real terroir from their vineyards, treating Sauvignon Blanc royally instead of planting it, as so many do, in the most fertile soils, where the vines overcrop and yield dull wines–and the worst thing you can do with a dull wine is to oak it.

So, with these thoughts in mind, I read this article in thedrinksbusiness.com, where an M.W. says that Sauvignon Blanc, in order to reach “its full potential” and “go to the next level,” requires “ageing in oak.”

Granted, the M.W., Richard Bampfield, is referring to French Sauvignons, but his analysis is well suited to California. He is very careful to point out that, when he calls for oak, it has to be “well done,” a “little bit of oak” applied by “someone who really knows what they’re doing.”

Those are very important qualifiers: as we all experience, oak can be heavy-handed, over-potent and artificial, or it can be discrete. Bampfield criticized certain white Bordeaux for being too oaky, which reminded me of my problems with too many California Sauvignon Blancs, in which winemakers seemingly thought they could improve any Sauv Blanc by plastering it with new oak.

Everybody always says, in California, they’re looking for a viable alternative to Chardonnay, and you can count me in. I love Chardonnay for its richness, creaminess and opulence, but we do need a sleeker, racier wine as a fancy-food white alternative. I have no problem with the abundance of everyday Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigios and so on out there, but I do think that there’s room in the American marketplace for a very good Sauvignon Blanc, with some oak, in the $30-$40 retail bottle range. But for some reason, few consumers seem willing to go there—perhaps because few gatekeepers tell them it’s all right to spend some money on California Sauvignon Blanc. It’s time for these sommeliers, educators and communicators to get that message across—and it’s time for more wineries to step up to the plate and improve their Sauvignon Blanc game.

  1. Kohill Winery in the Ramona Valley AVA (East of San Diego) makes a 75% Sauvignon Blanc/25% Semillon that seems to be exactly what you are suggesting.
    I found the 2013 to be bright but not too light. A little bit of syrupy RS to complement the tart apple/pear flavors. Definitely a welcome change from the NZ style of Sauv Blanc.

    I’ve looked high and low to find another like it since I live in NorCal, but no luck. Three Clicks in Napa has a great SB but more on the dry side. What I like about the Graves style is that it holds its own with food, whereas the typical Cali-style SB is more of a summer cocktail wine.

  2. Surely Meredith deserved mention in this post, no? Also, Rochioli’s Single Vineyard Selection “Old Vines” is a pretty stellar Sauv Blanc as well.

  3. I’ve always liked the Cakebread Sauv Blanc. Crisp and clean with tons of tropical fruit. Not necessarily a barrel-aged Graves style, but it’s a really nice little wine.

  4. “But still… When I was a wine critic, I used to wonder (and I’d ask winemakers all the time) why somebody in California didn’t make a Graves-style Sauvignon Blanc, that is, using techniques including barrel fermentation and new oak aging and sur lies, and blending in a little Semillon for fat, gras.”

    When I attend trade tastings (e.g, Family Winemakers of California), I ask winemakers who release a Sauvignon Blanc if they consider blending in some Semillon to broaden the aromatic/flavor spectrum and enrich the mouthfeel.

    And nearly all reply: “Yes, I have. But I don’t have available blocks in my vineyard to grow Semillon. And there is no Semillon to purchase on the open market.”

    Vintners could graft over to other clones* (e.g., Musqué) to broaden their wine’s aromatics.

    Lees stirring is welcomed for what it adds to the bouquet and mouthfeel — but is laborious.

    But if Sauvignon Blanc sees too much new toasty oak barrel, its varietal character is masked by an almost butterscotch bouquet and flavor.

    *From Wines & Vines
    (December 10, 2009):

    “How Do Sauvignon Blanc Clones Differ?”

    Link: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=69775

    By Jon Tourney

  5. We do exactly all of this. We make a blend called “Devin”, which is barrel fermented Sauvignon and Semillon (separately, and then aged an additional 6 months or so as a blend in barrel). Just received 92 and Editors Choice in WE. We also make a 100% Sauvignon Blanc called “Zingy”, all stainless steel, no ML – bottled early (actually bottling the 2015 next month). We make a Musque variation of that (Zingy tends to be Clone 1) as a separate bottling. And our Signature Blend has stainless steel Sauvignon married with a kiss (usually 8-10%) of barrel fermented Semillon. We grow the wines – old vines (for California) planted in 1983, all estate bottled. And our neighbor and colleague Fred Brander has at least 10 bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc. We take Sauvignon Blanc pretty seriously here in our end of the Santa Ynez Valley! (soon to be aka the Los Olivos District)

  6. I first discovered Buttonwood wines during a Society of Wine Educators-guided tour of Santa Barbara vintners in the early 1990s.

    Discovered Fred Brander’s wines when he was a guest speaker at the Balzer wine appreciation course in the early 1990s.

    And discovered Terry Leighton’s Kalin Cellars (another champion of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) through classmates in the Balzer course in the early 1990s.

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2005/jan/05/food/fo-wine5

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