Is this food-friendly, moderately priced white "steeling" the spotlight from overoaked, overpriced, overhyped Chards?
Is this food-friendly, moderately priced white "steeling" the spotlight from overoaked, overpriced, overhyped Chards?
Ten years ago, we could probably have sampled all of the Sauvignon Blancs we could grab off retailers' shelves, from $7 on up to $50, and still had time left over before lunch. This year, it took Wine Enthusiast's tasting panel two or three weeks to evaluate Sauvignon Blancs for this tasting.
We knew early on that we would have to limit our 2002 look at this booming varietal. Motto, Kryla & Fisher, the Napa-based wine industry research firm, reports that there were 270 different bottlings of California Sauvignon Blanc alone last year. Add the bottlings from Sauvignon Blanc-heavy France and New Zealand, plus up-and-comers from Australia, Italy, South Africa and Spain, and we would have driven ourselves into a 700-bottle train wreck of a tasting feature.
We limited this survey to Sauvignon Blancs with a $15-30 retail price, which is just above the upper end of the varietal's $11-15 median retail price. Left out of the tasting were wines that are hard to find or allocation-only bottlings, and those that contained less than 75 percent Sauvignon Blanc. As a result of the latter restriction, many Sauvignon-Sémillon blends, particularly those from the Graves region of Bordeaux, were ineligible for review.
These wines were evaluated under controlled conditions: They were tasted blind, in flights of five, by three of Wine Enthusiast's tasting panelists. Our goal? To determine the overall quality of the wine that MKF says is poised to overtake in popularity Chardonnay, whose by-the-ton prices are declining at twice the rate that those of Sauvignon Blanc are rising. Our findings? That Chardonnay had best watch its back—this "alternative" white wine has price, food-friendliness and a racy, lighter style in its favor.
There's Something About
Of the 114 Sauvignon Blancs that Wine Enthusiast's tasting panel reviewed for this feature, 48 were from California, 20 were from France and 31 were from New Zealand. The other 15 came from Spain, Italy, Australia and South Africa, collectively.
The results of our evaluations confirm what you probably already knew: New Zealand makes consistently fine Sauvignon Blanc at this price point. More than half of the Kiwi entries (a full 16 of the 31 New Zealand offerings) scored 89 points or better—and all but three are from Marlborough, on the northeastern tip of the country's South Island. (The high proportion of good regional wines makes sense, given that two-thirds of the country's Sauvignon Blanc vines are in Marlborough.) Most, if not all, of these wines are cold-fermented in stainless steel.
By comparison, only 17 percent of Californian and 20 percent of French Sauvignon Blancs scored at least 89 points. While it may seem as though New Zealand runs circles around its two closest competitors, a more likely conclusion is that some of France's best Sauvignon Blancs retail for more than $30, and some of California's best cost less than $15.
What makes Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs so appealing are their pungent flavors and racy, sometimes bracing, acidity, which have everything to do with the region's climate—a long growing season and cool, breezy nights—and its free-draining, loamy terroir. George Geris, the winemaker at Villa Maria's Marlborough facility, also attributes the region's fresh flavors to "the stony ex-riverbed soils that devigorate the vines and concentrate the flavors in the grapes." Tropical fruit, gooseberry and zesty lime flavors are prevalent in wines from the region.
Entries from New Zealand's Hawkes Bay and Waipara appellations also fared well. Esk Valley and Mill's Reef from Hawkes Bay on the North Island, and Pegasus Bay from Waipara, on the east coast of the South Island, are a few of the non-Marlborough entries. Steve Smith, MW, winemaker for Craggy Range, has just harvested his first crop of Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc, and will be releasing this single-vineyard Martinborough Terrace Vineyard offering in the States in February 2003, along with two single-vineyard offerings from Marlborough.
However much we generalize about a crisp, vibrant "New Zealand style," wines from that country sometimes resemble their Old World counterparts. The Crossings' winemaker, George Elworthy, says that wines made from the eastern end of the Marlborough's Awatere Valley, which is about 15 miles from the more well-known Wairau River area, "develop very strong flinty and steely characters, typically giving wines that are more akin to some of the classic Loire Valley Sauvignons."
The Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs that we most admired did indeed adhere to the flinty profile that Elworthy describes. Didier Dagueneau's entry-level Sauvignon Blanc, the 2000 En Chailloux Pouilly-Fumé, has floral, quartzlike mineral flavors, with dust, smoke and lime aromas. The Sancerres that impressed us most, such as Lucien Crochet's 2000 La Croix du Roy and Pascal Jolivet's 2000 Les Caillottes, were zesty yet elegant packages of citrus and chalk, with some apple or melon fruit nuances.
"Chalky soil can demonstrate the very typical taste of Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre," says Pascal Jolivet. His Caillotes (named appropriately, as "caillotes" is French for "chalk") is selected from 45- to 50-year-old vines, with yields of about 2.8 tons per acre.
Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy's 2000 Vieilles Vignes was another top Sancerre performer, with a fuller mouthfeel and more tropical fruit on the palate than its neighbors showed. Wines from the Loire Valley, says Susan Wilber, beverage director for the Ark Restaurant Group, are becoming more popular choices as apéritifs and "first-course" wines—they're "dry, clean, crisp and great values."
California-style Sauvignon Blanc errs on the side of richness, not dryness. The state's typical Blancs offer stone fruit (particularly peach), tropical fruit, citrus and melon flavors; add smoke, spice and peppery flavors to that profile if the wine has spent substantial time in oak. These wines tend to be weightier and rounder than those from New Zealand and France. Our top Golden State picks include selections from Guenoc, rich with melon, pear and citrus flavors but nicely balanced, and Rochioli, which had nice talc-mineral flavors bookending tropical fruit flavors on the palate. Benziger's 2000 Estate Sauvignon Blanc had smoke and spice accents to its citrus fruit, thanks to judicious barrel fermentation.
Sauvignon Blanc "was slow to take off here," observes Todd Hess, wine director at Sam's Wines and Spirits in Chicago. "In the early '90s, Sauvignon Blanc was really popular in the Midwest. Then it took a backward step. I think what was happening was that a lot of the producers, particularly Californian producers, were starting to oak the wines. People were saying, 'These taste like Chardonnay—so I'm just going to buy the Chardonnay.' "
Indeed, the wines that made the best impressions on the tasting panel were the ones that had little or no exposure to oak. We tasters were, on some deeper level, drawn to Sauvignon Blancs that didn't try to masquerade as The Other White Wine, Chardonnay.
"I don't believe in oak for Sauvignon Blanc," says Jolivet. "The taste of Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre with natural fermentation and vinified in a stainless steel tank is better for [our] style."
California's Duckhorn and Cakebread bottlings (a moderate 32 percent and 15 percent of which, respectively, see French oak), says Hess, are among Sam's top-selling Sauvignon Blancs. Other California bottlings, such as Frog's Leap, are entirely tank fermented. Some California winemakers, at least, are making varietally true Sauvignons, and leaving the malolactic fermentation to Reserve Chardonnays.
"People are getting tired of Chardonnay," declares Raimundo Gaby, sommelier at New York's Lutèce restaurant. "And Chenin Blanc produces wines that are not easy to understand. Riesling has gotten a bad rap, and is struggling to get rid of its 'sweet' image. Viognier is difficult for winemakers to get right, and the good ones are somewhat expensive. This is the moment for Sauvignon Blanc."
The moment, perhaps, because restaurants and home chefs alike have discovered a white wine that complements a wide range of often-hard-to-pair foods—"like tomatoes," says Gaby. "Sauvignon Blanc does the job very well, because it brings a great aromatic range packed with greater acidity."
Lutèce's Loire-raised chef, David Fèau, has such enthusiasm for the variety that he created a six-course organic vegetarian dinner, (available now until September) that's paired with Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés. Even New Zealanders Elworthy and Geris extol the wine as food-friendly: Elworthy loves the wine with green-lipped mussels, baked in their half shells and covered with a spicy, tomato-based salsa; Geris declares rich, freshly caught salmon the best match with his wines.
"I've definitely seen a growing demand for Sauvignon Blanc this year," says Danielle Nally, wine director at New York's Lespinasse. "People who don't normally like white wines seem to be enjoying them, so they are great for large parties. And the price point makes them accessible to everyone." MKF's studies on current Sauvignon Blanc prices reflect their relative bargain status, particularly when compared to Chardonnay: The median price range for California Sauvignon Blancs is $11-15; that of California Chardonnay is $20-31.
Should we brace ourselves for the day that ultrapremium, limited-production $100 Sauvignon Blancs start hitting the shelves? Isn't that the natural progression for a variety that is all the rage when it's popularly priced? Next-big-thing watchers aren't holding their breath.
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Sauvignon Blanc Confab Debuts
Lake County, California, became the Sauvignon Blanc capital of the world for two days in May during the first International Sauvignon Blanc Symposium. Scores of California winemakers attended, as did a contingent from New Zealand and France.
Why Lake County? Because it grows a lot of Sauvignon Blanc and the county is looking for a boost in the public and industrial eye.
The symposium concentrated on the technical: It was the kind of place where people used the terms "enzyme," "volatile potential" and "respiration of malic acid" in a single sentence. Laymen might have nodded off, but it was interesting to see famous winemakers scribbling notes like students cramming for an exam.
After one particularly dense workshop called "Viticultural Influences on Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux" (can you spell mercaptohexylacetate?), Amador County winemaker Leon Sobon shook his head and said, "Whew. That was really tough. But it was so good."
The Californians ate up the words of Kiwi vintner Tony Bish of Sacred Hill Winery. But the star of the show was Didier Dagueneau the iconoclastic, controversial Pouilly-Fumé winemaker whose Sauvignon Blancs, some say, are the greatest in the world.
"I'm just a vigneron," Dagueneau declared, but the audience treated him more like a rock star, or maybe the Delphic oracle. Overalled and bearded, with a lion's mane of hair that glowed like a halo in the spotlight, Dagueneau spoke about leaf pulling and cold soaking to a rapt audience desperate to learn the secrets of great and expensive Sauvignon Blanc. He also declared, a little mystically, that the "culture of the winemaker" is as important as technique.
"Everybody was hanging onto every word," said the winegrape commission's director, Shannon Gunier.
But Dagueneau also spread some tough love. "In California, you should be less conscious of the marketplace, yes?—and more conscious of what makes your spot [vineyard] different from another." In other words: Don't copy me, find your own style.
That didn't stop some of the winemakers from, well, copying him. "He inspired me to go and try full-barrel fermentation and long aging on the lees, which I've never done with Sauvignon Blanc," said one.
After Dagueneau said he found most California Sauvignon Blancs too hot in the finish, another vintner vowed to find a yeast that produces less alcohol.
The event raised a number of questions: Is Sauvignon Blanc a noble variety? What should California's approach to Sauvignon Blanc be? While answers were not immediately clear, it is clear that Sauvignon Blanc is the quintessential style of white wine that's indispensable: Dry, tart and a little sour, with a palate-cleansing freshness.
When someone asked Dagueneau to describe his own wines, he paused, reflected, and then mused, "I cannot explain ... You find in my wine what you feel.…" It was typically, lyrically, infuriatingly French.
"We do not see a lot of Sauvignon Blanc," says Cameron Hobel, director of business development at Winebid.com. "Usually the Sauvignon Blancs that we do see reach our site because the producers make another varietal that has achieved cultlike status…. Araujo is one such wine," Hobel says, though the highest price that it has fetched on Winebid.com was a mere $70—a little more than double its $30 mailing-list price.
For the forseeable future, at least, Sauvignon Blanc prices will be manageable, and quality will be at least as good as this year's vintage. Marlborough's 2002 vintage, says Elworthy, has "more fatness in the midpalate, and better natural acid balance," but warns that the region's "good flowering" may have caused some overcropping. He says that Sauvignon Blanc buyers should probably avoid lower-end bottlings that are likely made from low-quality, sourced fruit. Craggy Range's Smith agrees, but is still optimistic about what's to come next year. Now, it seems, is the best time to enjoy this varietal: while the weather, and the wine's popularity and quality, is hot.