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Savoring Sauvignon Blanc

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It’s been so warm lately that I’ve found myself in a Sauvignon Blanc kind of mood, instead of the full-bodied red wines that I normally crave during our normally cold, wet winters.

Fortunately, there’s a lot of great California Sauv Blanc around. I’ve given higher scores to SBs over the past year than in any previous year. Some of my standouts have been Grgich Hills 2012 Essence, Robert Mondavi 2011 Fumé Blanc and also their 2011 Reserve To Kalon and To Kalon I Block, Ehlers Estate 2012, Babcock 2012, Ziata 2011, Brander 2011 Au Natural, Atalon 2012, B Cellars 2012, Rochioli 2012, Mananzas Creek 2012, Galerie 2012 Naissance, Capture 2012 Les Pionniers, Cosa Obra 2012 Hummingbird Hill, and 2012 Sauvignon Blancs from Girard and Long Meadow Ranch. All these scored quite well.

I’ll tell you what I love in a good Sauv Blanc, but first, two things I hate: residual sugar, and too much of that awful, cat pee pyrazine stuff. Marlborough New Zealand Sauv Blancs sometimes have too much of the latter for me, although they’re almost always (and thankfully) bone dry.

I thought for the longest time that California wineries didn’t take Sauvignon Blanc seriously. Too many of them made it, but it seemed like a labor for the market, not one of love. Some wineries–Brander in particular comes to mind, and certainly also Mondavi and Rochioli–always excelled at it. But for the most part, ehh. If I wanted a white wine that was dry, crisp and elegant–and wasn’t Chardonnay–I generally had to look beyond California.

But something has changed. I’m not sure what. Today’s best California Sauvignon Blancs (all are from cooler coastal appellations) seem cleaner, livelier, drier and more attractive. Maybe the market  has improved, so vintners feel they can raise their prices a little, and put correspondingly more effort into the winemaking. Maybe winemakers are telling their vineyard managers to cut back on yields so the wines aren’t watery. I have a hunch more and more sommeliers are looking to drier California Sauvignon Blancs for foods that are increasingly spicy and complex, especially here in California with all our ethnic influences. A good, dry Sauv Blanc is really good with chicken- or pork-based Mexican food, and I’ve enjoyed the wines with everything from sushi to ceviche.

Sauvignon Blanc acreage in California has been holding pretty steady over the past ten years, especially compared to explosive varieties like Pinot Gris–but then, the latter started from a much lower base. Sauvignon Blanc plantings outnumber those of Pinot Gris, but not by much (14,911 vs. 12,473). Napa Valley is not generally thought of as a good home for Sauvignon Blanc, but it actually is. The variety likes neither overly cool nor overly hot conditions. Napa lies in that sweet spot where ripeness is even and balanced most of the time.

The main challenge for Sauvignon Blanc is to hold its own against the onrush of suddenly fashionable varieties–Vermentino, Albarino, Gruner Veltliner, Malvasia Bianca, Verdelho and others–that also are light-bodied, delicate, dry and crisp. Where Sauvignon Blanc can gain adherents is by stressing its associations with Cabernet Sauvignon, in a sort of halo effect. It’s true that California ripens Sauvignon Blanc sufficiently that it normally loses that pungent “sauvage” note found in, say, a good Sancerre. But, at its best, California Sauvignon Blanc is the nearest any white variety grown in the state gets to true nobility, except, of course, for Chardonnay.


Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc: An appreciation

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I reviewed a very nice Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc yesterday, the Robert John 2012 ($30), and while I won’t reveal my score until it’s published in some future edition of Wine Enthusiast, I will say that it caused me to write, “One of Napa’s secrets is how good its Sauvignon Blancs can be.”

A secret, of course, based on the subtext of this comment, which is Chardonnay. Napa has been horribly bashed over the years for it, which is all right with me: while I think the bashing can be a little mean, for there are some consistently good Napa Chards (Jarvis, Vine Cliff and Krupp come to mind), I will be first to admit this warmish, inland valley doesn’t have what it takes to produce world-class Chardonnay on a consistent basis, especially considering what even the merest Napa Chardonnay costs these days.

Sauvignon Blanc is, however, a different story. It’s America’s number two white wine (or is Pinot Grigio? Whatever; Sauvignon Blanc qualitatively is a better wine). SB wants a little heat for ripening. Grow it in a coolish area (the western Sta. Rita Hills, for example, where Chardonnay can thrive) and it’s too strong in those stringbeany, ammoniated cat pee aromas that, quite frankly, make me gag, especially in the cool vintages we’ve had the last three years.

Grow it too far inland, and it’s an insipid fruit cocktail, sugary, soft and spittable, often overcropped and clumsily acidified.

The Santa Ynez Valley has laid some claims among coastal appellations (among which I do not include Lake County) as a Sauvignon Blanc specialist; but other than that, no region wants to “own up” to this great Loire and, blended, Bordeaux white variety. Why this should be has been hard for me to understand for years, except to come up with the theory that a producer willing to invest in great Sauvignon Blanc can make more money, at perhaps not even the same costs, if he produces an average Chardonnay. There is probably a view among producers that consumers are only willing to pay so much for Sauvignon Blanc (perhaps less than $20), so why should they fuss about it.

Well, they should fuss about it because Sauvignon Blanc can make one of California’s great white wines. I attribute Napa Valley’s affinity for it to two factors: The climate, which is just warm enough but not too hot, midway between coast and the Delta; and Napa’s money. Proprietors there can afford to invest in Sauvignon Blanc if they wish to. Most of them presumably are making their real profits off Cabernet Sauvignon anyway.

Among the consistently fine Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs I have reviewed over the years are Mondavi’s (especially the Fumé Blancs from Tokalon), Ehlers Estate (St. Helena), Atalon, Stag’s Leap, Cade, Hand Made by Marketta (from the former co-owner of Chateau Potelle), Long Meadow Ranch (bearing a Rutherford appellation), Snowden, V. Sattui’s Carsi Vineyard, Round Pond, Bougetz, Kelleher, Laird and Raymond. All are distinguished wines, dry and fruity and crisp, with floral and mineral notes, and their prices are relative bargains compared to Chardonnays of equal quality. In fact, a good California Sauvignon Blanc is far more versatile with a wide range of food than an equivalent Chardonnay.


What is “nobility” in wine?

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Why are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay “noble” varieties? Why isn’t Zinfandel? Can Syrah be “noble”? Is sparkling wine “noble”?

First, we have to define “noble.” It’s an oldish word when applied to wine. From Wikipedia: “Noble grapes are any grapes traditionally associated with the highest quality wines. This concept is not as common today, partly because of the proliferation of hybrid grape varieties, and partly because some critics feel that it unfairly prioritizes varieties grown within France. Historically speaking, the noble grapes comprised only six varieties: Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

It’s tempting for me to side with the democrats [small “d”] in this argument–the ones who feel that de-nobleizing certain varieties because they’re not French is unfair and patronizing. But there are sound reasons for preserving our current understanding of varietal nobility.

The most important of these reasons is that, in California as in France, a handful of varieties clearly makes the best wines, and has for pretty much as long as the state’s wine industry has existed. All I need do is go to Wine Enthusiast’s database to confirm this. Since the first of this year, all 30 of my highest-scoring wines have been either Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, with the single exception of a Nickel & Nickel 2010 Merlot, from the Harris Vineyard, in Oakville. (And I, personally, would not include Merlot among the nobles, at least in California.)

Why do these wines score higher than other varieties? Ahh, here we get into the fuzzy details, which are impossible of proof. But let me try. First and foremost, there is structure, a word that seems comprehensible at first. Structure is architecture: just as you can have the most beautiful stuff (paintings, carpets, furniture, vases) in the world, but it’s only a mere pile if it doesn’t have a room or home in which to reside, so too wine needs walls, a floor, a ceiling, a sense of stolidity and solidity, else it become simple flavor. And flavor, in and of itself, has never been the primary attribute of great wine.

California, of course, has no problem developing flavor, in any variety. That’s due to our climate: grapes ripen dependably. To the extent California wines are the target of criticism, it is because Europhiles find a dreary sameness to too many of them. Even I, as staunch a defender of California wine as there is, find this to be true. Too often, the flavors of red wines suggest blackberries and cherries and chocolate, whether it’s Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet, Merlot, Tempranillo. It’s easy for such wines to score 87 points, or 89 points, or even 91 points: these are good scores, but not great ones, limited by the wines’ lack of structure.

Structure, of course, is composed primarily of acidity and tannins, the latter of which may come from both the grapes and the oak treatment. (I won’t get into the mysteries of minerality.) Yet there are elements of structure that are more difficult to define. Texture is an element of structure, just as the way a room feels is an element of its architecture. Imagine a room with soaring roof and large windows that let in the sunlight, as opposed to a cramped, pinched room, a closet or storage area. The former feels more satisfactory to our senses and esthetics. So too does a wine with great texture feel superior. It can be the hardest thing in the world to put into words, but even amateurs will appreciate the difference between a beautifully-structured wine and its opposite. (I have proven this many times, with my wine-drinking friends who have but limited understanding of it.)

So why don’t we allow Zinfandel into the ranks of noble wines? I suppose an argument could be made that we should, for at its highest expressions–Williams Selyem, De Loach, Elyse, Ravenswood, Bella, Turley–Zinfandel does fulfill the structural and textural prerequisites of a noble wine. But too often, it does not: a Zinfandel can be classic Zin for its style (Dry Creek Valley, Amador County) and yet be a little rustic, in a shabby-chic way. Sometimes this is due to excessive alcohol, sometimes to overripened fruit, but no matter the cause, and no matter how much fun that Zin is to drink with barbecue, the last thing I’d call most Zins is noble. Zinfandel is Conan the Barbarian, ready to chop your head off and stick it on the tip of a spear.

Can sparkling wine be said to be noble? It is most often, of course, a blend of two noble varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so why not? The answer is as simple as this: We call varieties “noble,” not wine types. Perhaps we should expand the definition of “noble” to include types, not just sparkling blends but Sherry and Port. Certainly these are great wines, if underappreciated nowadays. I keep my eye, also, on some of the surprisingly eccentric red blends being produced lately, mainly by younger winemakers (often in Paso Robles), who are mixing varieties in unprecedented and triumphant ways, proving that a wine doesn’t have to be varietal (as defined by the TTB) in order to be great.

But I’m comfortable for the time being restricting nobility to just a handful of varieties in California: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not Riesling, not yet, in our state. Not Sauvignon Blanc, not yet, in our state. Not Syrah, not yet, in our state. And not, as I have said, Merlot. Any one of these latter varieties can produce great wine, but it will be the exception.


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.


Giving Sauvignon Blanc its due

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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.


Who let the cat out?

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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!


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