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A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores

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We had a perfectly lovely blind tasting yesterday, 12 Sauvignon Blancs, six of them from Jackson Family Wines wineries, and the others from around the world. It was a bit of a hodgepodge but I just wanted to assemble a range that showed the extremes of style, from an Old World, low- or no-oak, high acidity, pyrazine-driven tartness to a bigger, richer, riper New World style of [partial] barrel fermentation. Here, briefly, are the results. The entire group of tasters was very close in its conclusions—a highly-calibrated group where we achieved near consensus.

My scores:

94 Matanzas Creek 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

93 Robert Mondavi 2013 To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Fumé Blanc, Napa Valley

93 Matanzas Creek 2013 Journey Sauvignon Blanc, Sonoma County

92 Stonestreet 2013 Alexander Mountain Estate Aurora Point Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

90 Merry Edwards 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley

89 Peter Michael 2014 L’Apres-Midi Sauvignon Blanc, Knights Valley

88 Jackson Estate 2014 Stitch Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough) NOTE: This is not a Jackson Family Wine.

87 Francois Cotat 2014 La Grande Cote, Sancerre

87 Arrowood 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley

87 Cardinale 2014 Intrada Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley)

86 Goisot 2014 Exogyra Virgula Sauvignon Blanc (Saint-Bris)

85 Sattlerhof 2014 Gamlitzer Sauvignon Blanc, Austria

The JFW wines certainly did very well, taking 3 of the top 4 places. The surprise was the Matanzas Creek Sonoma County—it’s not one of the winery’s top tier Sauvignon Blancs (which are Bennett Valley, Helena Bench and Journey) but the basic regional blend. But then, I’ve worked with small lots of all Matanzas’s vineyards, and know how good the source fruit is. This is really a delightful wine, and a testament to the fact that great wine doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s also testament to the art of blending.

But I want to talk about the Francois Cotat, as it raises important and interesting intellectual considerations.

The Cotat immediately followed the Mondavi To Kalon, always one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs, and the first thing I wrote, on sniffing it, was “Much leaner.” Of course the alcohol on the Cotat is quite a bit lower, and the acidity much higher: it was certainly an Old World wine. But here was my quandary. In terms of the reviewing system I practiced for a long time, this is not a high-scoring wine; my 87 points, I think, is right on the money. It’s a good wine, in fact a very good wine, but rather austere, delicate and sour (from a California point of view). I could and did appreciate its style, but more than 87 points? I don’t think so.

And yet, I immediately understood what a versatile wine this is. You could drink and enjoy it with almost anything; and I was sure that food would soften and mellow it, making it an ideal companion. Then I thought of a hypothetical 100 point Cabernet Sauvignon that is—let’s face it—a very un-versatile kind of wine. It blows you away with opulence, and deserves its score, by my lights. But the range of foods you can pair it with is comparatively narrow.

So here’s the paradox: The higher-scoring wine is less versatile with food, while the lower-scoring wine provides pleasure with so much. It is a puzzle, a conundrum. I don’t think I’m quite ready to drop the 100-point system as my tasting vernacular, but things are becoming a little topsy-turvy in my head.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


When does “different” become “flawed”?

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Went to a nice little Sauvignon Blanc tasting yesterday at Josiah and Stevie’s Bay Grape wine store.

It was only four wines, but they pretty much spanned the gamut of world Sauvignon Blanc styles: cool-climate, warmer climate, unoaked, lightly oaked. For me, the top wine, an absolute charmer and classic, was the Francois Cotat “Les Caillottes “ 2013 Sancerre. Just what I want: bone dry, fierce acidity and super-racy, brimming with minerals and grapefruits. There was that slight herbaceousness, like a whiff of green bell pepper, that added to the complexity. For food pairings, I thought of a salad of frisée, goat cheese and grapefruit sections, in a vinaigrette; but something also made me think of tempura, in a light, tamari-based dipping sauce.

Next in my faves was Domaine d’Alliance “Definition” 2013, with an IGP Atlantique appellation. It was quite similar to the Sancerre in the racy acidity and lemongrass, but the addition of 50% Semillon fattened up the middle. A very classy wine.

Compared to those two the Sarapo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, with a Sonoma County appellation, seemed somewhat flaccid and heavy-handed. A good wine, but this just shows the importance of context when tasting. We were told it’s a blend from Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast and Dry Creek Valley. I fancy Dry Creek brought a riper note of figs, but the wine just didn’t have the lift and savoriness that I want in Sauvignon Blanc. Others liked it more than I did.

If I were formally reviewing the fourth wine, I’d give it a failing grade: Momo 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, from Marlborough. One sniff was enough to make me wince: I picked up a strong, offensive smell of dirty, sweaty sox. To me that signals brett; another taster insisted there was no brett, that this was just a signature of Marlborough. The wine was fermented naturally—no store-brought yeast, which is a risk. It always troubles me when another respected taster has an opinion so different from mine. I looked up other professional critical scores: 86 from Wine Spectator with no mention of dirty funk; 87 in the Advocate; nothing in Enthusiast; and nothing for the ’14 in Vinous, but Tanzer did review the ’12 and called it “musky…with a complicating note of game.”

Fair enough: but speaking for myself I don’t want musk or game in my Sauvignon Blancs! I made this point rather forcefully at the tasting, and a few of my compatriots replied that, while the wine is not “classic” nor for everyone, it does represent a certain eccentricity that some people, somms in particular, are looking for these days.

Here’s what I think: There’s a reason why “the classics” are the classics. Being different just for the sake of being different does not mean the wine isn’t bad! Some people are looking to break the rules, but at what point does breaking the rules result in dirty wines that would get you thrown out of U.C. Davis? I realize that progress has to be made in wine—styles don’t always remain the same, otherwise we’d all be drinking the resinous wines of ancient Greeks. But I do think that there’s a tendency on the part of some somms and other younger tastemakers to go for the bizarre. If you have a wine like that, you may like it—or think you like it, because you think you’re supposed to like it, because somebody better known or more experienced than you liked it and therefore you fear that if you don’t like it, you’re not cool.

But these are wines I call Andy Warhol wines: they will be famous for fifteen minutes, and then fade back into the obscurity from whence they came. There are standards; there are rules, established not by authoritarian fogies but by a thousand years of human experience. Outliers do not last.


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.


Blend or single vineyard? It depends on the variety

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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.


Could Chardonnay’s long stranglehold as our top wine be ending?

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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…

QPR.

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.


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!


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