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.
Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grape varieties that seems to benefit from judicious blending from multiple sources in California. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc can be audacious and savory in gooseberries, with a touch of pyrazine that can be too green for many people. Warm-climate Sauvignon can have delicious tropical fruit flavors but be a little candied. Either, by itself, can have limitations, especially in an off-vintage; but blending them together seems to smooth out the divots. While it’s true that some of my highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs ever were Mondavi Tokalons, this is a rare exception in California; Sauvignon Blanc in our state veers towards the ordinary, and it takes some great grape sourcing and careful blending to come up with a serious wine.
Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is considerably more interesting as a single-vineyard wine. I’m not sure why, other than to trot out the usual theories of site-specificity, thinner skins and terroir transparency. Perhaps psychically we’re more forgiving to a slightly flawed Pinot Noir from a vineyard. I used to wonder why a great Pinot Noir couldn’t be a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. It can in theory, of course, but while I’ve experienced many, many very beautiful blended Pinot Noirs, the wine always seems more interesting and complex when the grapes are from a single vineyard.
Then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m tempted to say it, too, wants to be from a single vineyard, but there are so many interesting, great Cabs that break that rule. I, personally, am a huge fan of Cardinale, which is a blend of various vineyards in Napa Valley. Yes, I work for Jackson Family Wines, but I didn’t when I gave the 2006 100 points, and I’ve never had a Cardinale I didn’t find dazzling. So I can’t say that Cabernet has to be from a single vineyard to be world class.
I think Zinfandel is probably best as a vineyard-designate, although it has to be a super-great vineyard, well-tended, and, if possible, old vines. As for Chardonnay, I’m divided on that one. It’s such a winemaker’s wine (barrels, malo, lees) that the sourcing doesn’t seem like it should matter, as long as it’s from a cool climate. And yet, as I look over my Wine Enthusiast reviews, I notice that my highest Chardonnay scores were reserved for single vineyard wines: Failla 2010 estate, Williams Selyem 2010 Allen Vineyard, Rochioli 2010 South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard, Flowers 2011 Moon Select, Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch.
There’s something intellectual about a single-vineyard wine, especially if you’ve been to the vineyard, walked it, had it explained to you by the winemaker or grapegrower. The Allen Vineyard, for instance, is such a distinctive place; every time I have an Allen Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I imagine that particular place, the slight slope, the vineyard tucked up against the hills to the west, Westwide Road on the east, and the Russian River just on the other side of Rochioli. It’s a “sweet spot,” midway between the chill of the southern valley and the warmth of Dry Creek Valley, a lovely corner of the Russian River Valley that I hope will someday be appellated as The Middle Reach.
The market, of course, rewards single-vineyard wines. I can’t prove it with data, but I bet if someone crunched the numbers, they’d find that single-vineyard wines are more expensive, on average, than blended wines. I think that a winery that produces a single-vineyard wine as a very special bottling, superior in their view to their blended wines, is in the catbird’s seat, but you can’t simply assume that a vineyard-designated wine has special properties. I’ve had plenty of sad vineyard-designated wines; some have been horrible. So you never know; you have to taste the wine. Consumers want assurances, but there are none in wine. Every rule has an exception.
I was surprised to read that Sauvignon Blanc “is Britain’s favorite wine,” white or red, in the Daily Mail.
It has “pipped Chardonnay to number one,” the story says. (That “pipped” was a new one on me. I assumed it meant “surpassed,” so I looked it up on Google, with an additional search qualifier of “British slang.” One hit says it means “to be beaten at the last minute,” while another—close enough—is “to defeat an opponent.”)
So good for Sauvignon Blanc! You might recall that, just three weeks ago, I wrote a post called “Could Sauvignon Blanc be entering a golden era?” in which I cited a report that sales of it are “on the rise” in the U.S., and concluded that “I’m bullish on coastal Sauvignon Blanc!”
Well, apparently the Brits are too (“coastal” meaning cool climate)! So let us put on our magical thinking caps and figure out what’s going on with Sauvignon Blanc in Britain and America?
Clearly, in both countries, tastes in wine are shifting. The Daily Mail article doesn’t offer many reasons why, so I’m forced to come up with my own guesses. If consumers in both countries are moving towards Sauv Blanc, does that mean they’re moving away from Chardonnay? I don’t think there’s any plausible answer except, Yes.
Why would that be? On one level, Chardonnay is a better wine than Sauvignon Blanc, objectively speaking. Wine drinkers have preferred Chardonnay to Sauv Blanc for hundreds of years, which is why prices for good Chardonnay, from California, France and other leading wine countries are higher than for Sauvignon Blanc.
So price is one thing Sauvignon Blanc has going for it. What else? Well, for one thing, it’s different—and to the extent people are just looking to be rebels, they might be turning to Sauv Blanc (and other white varieties) simply because they think that Chardonnay is what “everyone else” is drinking.
But Sauvignon Blanc is also a completely different wine from Chardonnay. It’s usually drier, tarter and less oaky, with greener, more linear flavors than Chardonnay, which is one of the world’s richest dry white wines (if not the richest). Sauv Blanc, therefore, is more food-friendly—almost by definition. And both America and Britain are nations of immigrants in which our choices of ethnic fare are limited only by the number of countries on earth. I’m a huge fan of Chardonnay, but I must admit it would not be my white wine of choice if I were eating Afghan, Mexican, Thai, Indian, Japanese, and so on.
Actually, for a number of those cuisines, my choice would be beer; but I think it’s fair to say that Sauvignon Blanc is more “beer-like” than Chardonnay, so if a diner wanted a light alcoholic beverage with her meal and preferred it to be wine, not beer, she might well select Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Gris/Grigio is also popular, but when it comes to quality, Sauvignon Blanc beats it every time.
I asked my Facebook friends why Sauvignon Blanc is so popular and here are a few of their comments:
People who don’t like oaky Chard, tend to be the ones who are favoring sb, especially when made in the AUS/NZ style.
It is clean and refreshing…
May be an image problem on the rise for Chardonnay that is benefiting Sauvignon Blanc?
Sauvignon Blanc: 1) is well promoted in wine shops (esp. during warmer months) and available in many restaurants, 2) offers relatively good quality-price ratio, 3) availability – number of solid selections coming from old and new world regions, 4) at some point, everything old is new again.
A trend towards lighter, fresher cooking with vibrant international flavors
Millennials love fun and lively wines like SB
And, finally (although I don’t agree), Cat pee is in.
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!
The new book The Winemaker’s Hand, which contains interviews of winemakers, is a testament to the art of blending. “Blending is very intuitive…it’s neither linear nor logical,” Cathy Corison tells author Natalie Berkowitz, adding, “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B.” Her fellow Napan, Bill Dyer, refers to the “hunches and perceptions” involved in winemaking: “Dawnine [his wife] and I are quite competent at blending,” which he calls “an essential part” of making wine.
Just how essential and intuitive blending is, is rarely appreciated by the public, but winemakers know it’s at least as important as anything else they do, and in the long run, maybe more so. The entire yield of a vineyard never ends up in the final bottling, at least at a top winery. The winemaker must blend for consistency with house style and also to produce the best wine she can from the vintage, while remaining true to the terroir. That can entail tasting through an enormous range of individual lots, some as small as a single barrel. It’s tedious work, but necessary, and, if you’re of the right mindset, terrific fun.
So when Marcia Monahan, the winemaker at Matanzas Creek, invited me to blend Sauvignon Blanc with her, I jumped at the chance. She was looking to assemble the final blends on three of her wines: the Bennett Valley bottling, the Helena Bench wine from Knights Valley, and the top-tier Journey. So Gus and I drove up early last week from Oakland and spent the most delightful day playing with dozens of samples.
When I say “playing” I use the word intentionally. There is something of the kid playing with toys; although it’s serious business, personally it has its roots in the little girl trying different outfits on her doll or the little boy who’s plugging Legos together. (Blending also brings to mind the playful tinkering of a chef developing a new dish.) Try this, try that, what do you think, how does it taste, how about this and that, with a little more of that, a little less of this, let’s put in a drop of C and see what happens… There’s no way not to think of this behavior as play for adults. But there’s always intentionality behind it.
The idea, as Cathy Corison suggested with “A plus B doesn’t equal A plus B,” is that the sum of A plus B can be more than either A alone or B alone; the mixture is greater than the sum of its parts. On the other hand, sometimes A plus B is less than A plus B. It’s difficult if not impossible to know, in advance, how the alchemy will work out, so almost every possibility has to be tried before you can know what works and what doesn’t. This means the process is arduous. But it’s the tedium of pleasure, of discovery, of the gold miner willing to plod through tons of ore because any moment now the big nugget might appear.
We—Marcia and I—put together what I think is a marvelous Helena Bench and Bennett Valley. We preserved the terroir of both—the latter being cooler than the former, it has a different fruit-acid profile. (Journey will have to wait for a later date.) Of course, our blends may not be the final ones, but I do think they will in large part constitute them. When we finally hit the nail on the head, after all that trial and error, it was like, “Yes!” Fist bumps, high fives all around—both Marcia and I glowed with pleasure. We had taken raw materials, some better than others, but no one of them anywhere near perfect—and through admixture, come up with something that never existed before, something Mother Nature by herself could not have accomplished, because it required hands, brains, experience, esthetic vision and hard work to achieve. But after all that work, you’re hungry! So we went down to the Jimtown Store.
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Off to Southern California and Arizona for the week. I’ll be blogging from the road, so you never know what will turn up!
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.