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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!


On the art of blending

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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.

 

BOOTY

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.

 

Marcia

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.

* * *

Off to Southern California and Arizona for the week. I’ll be blogging from the road, so you never know what will turn up!


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.


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