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A Sauvignon Blanc tasting that raises questions about point scores



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.

  1. Joe Jensen says:

    Sorry Steve,
    Most California Sauvignon Blanc tastes like they are trying to be Califronia Chardonnay with too much oak and malo going on.
    SB tastes better at all levels from the Loire and is an amazing value when compared to a To Kalon fruit sourced SB.
    If you want to drink Chardonnay drink Chardonnay and I like well done California Chardonnay, it gives a distinct pleasure that is equal to many old world Chardonnays but SB needs it’s own identity in California.
    I will give a caveat that I have not tasted these in particular but am going on the many Cali SB’s we have passed on because they are too expensive and have no real distinction!

  2. Steve, our tasting group in Monterey has done several blind tastings of SBs. Some tastings were all NZ all price points, and some worldwide all price points. What we found was that almost all the NZ SB was of the same quality and 15 dollar bottles were just as delicious as 50 dollar bottles. CA SB is generally not as tasty as NZ with the exception of just a couple producers. Bottomline, don’t spend more than $20 on any SB and go for the NZ. The Kiwis can have the SB market with their $8/btl wholesale prices to the trade.

  3. Have just tasted a large batch of NZ Sauvignon Blancs and they are good to great with only a few klinkers, but the wines that are the most distinctive are narrow, pert, zesty, pungent and uniquely their own in a style that does not exist elsewhere. I quite like the best of that style, but to suggest, as the two gentlemen have, that Sauvignon Blanc must adhere to one style or another is to believe that all wine must be red or all cars must have automatic transmissions.

    In fact, there is a growing movement in New Zealand to extend the range of Sauvignon Blanc, and we did enjoy a $50 NZ Sauvignon Blanc (from Geisen–a name that will become more prominent as their wines grow in distribution, I would think), and it was not in the “nominal” NZ style.

    The so-called “Chardonnization” (my word) of Sauv Blanc here is much overstated above. CA SV Blc runs the gamut from the bristling, pungent style, to melony, to ripe/oaky. But even the Merry Edwards, that is intentionally richer, is still Sauvignon Blanc and not Chardonnay.

    I rather like diversity in my Sauv Blanc.

  4. gillywine says:

    Curious: how did you calibrate your group? Always looking to learn more about this complex process.

    I’m sure you’re aware of this, but wines like Cotat never do well in blind tastings. And it would never occur to the people from the estate to taste wine in this way.

    Cotat’s job is to be distinctive, not to win beauty contests, which are preference-based and only provide a half hour snapshot into the wine’s arc.

    Otherwise, I agree about the Matanzas; a beautiful wine for the money. As for the scores on the other wines…why do you need them? Preference is as preference does.

  5. Charlie – totally with you on the diversity point and I think the US wine retail scene is delivering that. My point today in writing, however, is simply to decry the Sancerre producers who have tried their hand at reproducing NZ SB from Sancerre. I have never seen it work. Sancerre, please be Sancerre. Just one mans opinion…

  6. Bob Henry says:

    Steve previously wrote here . . .

    . . . that many of the 2011 vintage North Coast Pinot Noirs suffered from unappealing “‘musty’ and ‘moldy’ aromas and accompanying bad flavors.”

    Based on that tasting experience, is it “fair” to compare side-by-side two different vintages of the same grape variety (e.g., Sauvignon Blanc above) wine — and implicitly form qualitative judgments about the talents of a winemaking regime?

    I see no level playing field here . . .

    (When I have judged wine competitions, the submissions were segmented and reviewed by common vintage.)

  7. Man, you have nailed it! I love the conundrums and paradoxes in life, especially my professional side. The idea that lean/austere AND versatile are descriptors of a low-scoring wine should make any person judging wine question what wine judging and scores are all about.

    Thanks for your brutal honesty and self-examination. Can’t wait to see how you figure this one out! –Carl

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