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.
Lord knows I haven’t been a big fan of California Sauvignon Blanc over the years. I thought that, compared to white Bordeaux, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and even Marlborough, my state has been a distant second, or third. The wines have tended to be either overly sweet, or green, or just plain thin and acidic.
But in the past year, I noticed I’m giving some pretty good scores to Sauv Blanc. I gave a little thought to blogging about it, but the moment never seemed right, until yesterday, when, by coincidence, two things happened. First, I got an email telling me I was mentioned in a Facebook post, so I clicked on the link, which took me to the feed page of a winery, Vellum, where the poster had written: “The 2010 VELLUM White was awarded 92 points from our friends at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. A wildly high score for a white Bordeaux blend!!” (The wine actually is 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon, and was raised in neutral oak.)
At the same time, I was about to review a bunch of Sauvignon Blancs that had come in from Flora Springs, Dutton Estate and J Ludlow. I enjoyed that flight very much, for the most part, and once again found myself giving out some pretty good scores.
I checked out Wine Enthusiast’s database for my highest scoring Sauv Blancs over the past 365 days and found about 40 that got between 90 and 93 points. The four 93 pointers were Trione 2010 River Road Ranch (Russian River Valley), Duckhorn 2010 (Napa Valley), Robert Mondavi 2008 I Block Fume Blanc (Oakville) and Hall 2010 T Bar T Ranch (Alexander Valley). Except for the Trione, the others are wines I’ve known and praised for years; Hall bought T Bar T from Iron Horse some years back. Iron Horse, I believe, used to jazz their Sauv Blanc up with a little Viognier, to brighten it and give it some uplifted floral notes. I don’t know if Hall still does. And then, of course, Mondavi’s I Block always is triumphant. And by the way, that wine ages.
Anyway, people sometimes ask me why I don’t give Sauvignon Blanc scores as high as Chardonnay. For example, in the past year I’ve given two 96s, to Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch (Carneros) and Foxen 2010 Block UU Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley). The answer probably won’t satisfy everyone. It’s simply that I don’t think Sauvignon Blanc–at least in its California incarnation–has the depth and richness of Chardonnay.
I admire Sauvignon Blanc more than I love it. I respect its dryness (when it is dry, which too often it isn’t), its acidity, its streamlined minerality, its spiciness, its exotic range of flavors, its palate-cleansing properties. Those are all good things, especially at the table. Sauvignon Blanc is probably the most food-friendly white table wine in California. But when I’m in the mood for a cold white wine, it’s almost never a Sauvignon Blanc that I grab, but Chardonnay. That’s why they call Chardonnay a “noble” variety, but not Sauvignon Blanc. Even in France, Sauvignon Blanc never elicited the profound excitement that white Burgundy, including Chablis, did and still does.
Pyrazine is an aromatic organic compound that can be synthesized by infusing phenacyl chloride — otherwise known as riot gas, which was used by American forces during the Vietnam War — with ammonia, another nasty smell. The molecule is widely found in vegetables; in various forms, it exists in bell peppers, asparagus and green peas. The smell of pyrazine is strong, and while humans have different thresholds, the amount required for sensory detection is relatively low. According to this analysis, “Imagine one single grape in 500,000 metric tonnes of grapes changing the smell of the entire batch. This is the strength of pyrazine.”
Few would tolerate the presence of pyrazine in red wines. Indeed, the main reason why Monterey County red wines were almost destroyed on the market a generation ago was because they reeked of pyrazine; the notorious “Monterey veggies” was a category killer for Monterey Cabernet Sauvignon, a problem that still plagues it. Question: if pyrazine is such an aggressively annoying smell in reds — and it is — why do we tolerate it in Sauvignon Blanc?
I ask the question because I have once again shocked some vintners who asked me to taste their pyrazine-heavy Sauv Blancs. They themselves love their wines, and can’t understand why I would give scores in the low 80s, sometimes even worse. Well, here’s the reason: I detest the smell of pyrazine in Sauvignon Blanc. To me the wines reek of unripeness. “Sauvignon Blanc grown under cool conditions tends to have higher levels of methoxypyrazines in their grapes than Sauvignon Blanc grown under hot conditions” (methoxypyrazines are one form of the compound), says this scholarly paper, published last year in Wine Business Monthly. And who likes unripe wine, red or white?
I don’t remember pyrazines being an issue for California Sauvignon Blanc before the advent of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc in the 1990s. Those wines took the country by storm; people, including me, loved the racy acidity, and also the telltale taste of gooseberry. Maybe some Californians started picking earlier in hommage, I don’t know. Gooseberries are similar to currants, but they can be unripe also. A ripe gooseberry has a pleasant, Muscat-like penetrative scent (similar to the Musqué clone of Sauvignon Blanc), while an unripe gooseberry is like any other unripe fruit, i.e. disagreeable and sour, like a juniper berry. You can make good pies, puddings and cobblers with unripe gooseberries, but that’s because they’re sweetened with sugar.
We’re talking about an aroma/flavor spectrum here. Gooseberries are fine, if they’re ripe and fragrant. So is hay, new-mown grass and other “lifted” scents that characterize Sauvignon Blanc. And then, of course, there are good, old, familiar citrus fruits that also are pleasant and proper in the variety.
But the extreme end of that spectrum is pyrazine. Call it cat pee, tom cat, feline spray, litter box, what you will, it’s a most unattractive smell. Nor do I believe that pyrazine is a typical smell in Sauvignon Blanc, one that a critic should respect even though he might not personally like it. That’s not true — unless you insist that unripeness is typical of the variety.
A few days ago, I tasted a high-end Sauvignon Blanc from a well-known producer and I could not give it a good score because of the pyrazine. When I later saw the producer, he asked me what I thought, and I had to be honest, in a polite way. He seemed puzzled that I didn’t “get” his wine. I was puzzled also. Did he not smell and taste the same pyrazine as I did? And then, just this morning, I got a request from a Napa winery to retaste their Sauvignon Blanc, which I’d given an “81” because it was so pyrazine-y.
Maybe sensitivity to pyrazine runs in my family’s DNA. When I once gave my sister a pyrazine-heavy Sauvignon Blanc, she said the smell made her gag. Or maybe pyrazine is an acquired taste. If so, I have a long way to go before I can accept it.
This just in: My blog has been named one of the top 10 Beverage Blogs in the country!
Yesterday’s Reuters announcement that Amazon.com, the world’s biggest online retailer, will be selling wine starting next month hit the industry by storm. I got through to Terry Hall, the communications director for Napa Valley Vintners, late in the day.
SH: What role is NVV playing?
TH: We held a workshop for 29 wineries on Sept. 4 for them to meet the Amazon folks, and we’ll have another one on Sept. 12, with 50 wineries signed up.
Has Amazon been meeting with wineries in other parts of the state?
Well, 26 states are part of the program, based on reciprocity or on in-market pass-through distribution. Amazon’s been talking to wineries up and down the West Coast. They were in San Luis Obispo and were able to go door-to-door, but because of the number of wineries in Napa Valley, we did the workshops as a member service.
Can you tell me which wineries signed up for the workshops?
That’s not for the public record, but it ranges from small family wineries to large wineries.
Have people been expressing skepticism, or excitement, or what?
It’s information-gathering now.
How will the logistics work?
It’s a traditional Amazon direct-to-consumer model. They’ll use New Vine Logistics, the former wineshopper.com, in American Canyon, which has an incredible fulfillment facility. Amazon will store the wine in a temperature-secured location, and then sell it, through orders from the Amazon hub. Amazon makes money because they buy the wine FOB and sell at retail.
Why would a winery sell to Amazon instead of through their own direct-to-consumer program?
They don’t have to worry about staff or packaging. And Amazon’s staff will be able to make recommendations.
Amazon has a wine staff?
They have a group of wine buyers. The head is a guy named Nate Glissmeyer, based in Seattle. He contacted us for the program.
How much quantity is Amazon expected to handle?
It’s sort of infinite. They’re trying to get as many American wines online as possible.