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.

Looking towards Sauvignon Blanc’s future

 

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.